There has been a lot of discussion about the effects diet can have on our physical well-being and certainly on our shape and fitness, but what about how food affects mental health?
Most of us know that a good, strong coffee or a chocolate bar can immediately alter our alertness and our mood – although only temporarily. This is because the brain, like any other organ in our body, is sensitive to the chemicals or substances in our food. It is therefore not surprising that what we eat can play a major part in how we feel and how we behave. The brain also needs a healthy balance of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and other substances in order to remain healthy and to function properly.
Neurotransmitters in the brain control feelings of contentment, anxiety and other emotions, and a good balance of these is key to ensuring that the brain works effectively. Some foods can depress these neurotransmitters and therefore cause changes in our brain function, behaviour and feelings. If we are deficient in certain neurotransmitters, then this will directly affect our mood and brain function. Similarly, if there is an excess of certain neurotransmitters, then our mood and behaviour will be affected. If one kind of food is consumed which encourages certain neurotransmitters, it can trick the brain into feeling better for a short time, for example serotonin contained in chocolate gives a heightened feeling of pleasure. Tricking the brain in this way can cause the brain to reduce or cease its own natural production of the neurotransmitter concerned and rely on the artificial stimulant – causing a craving for that particular food.
Certain foods have even been shown to play a role in specific mental health conditions. Folic acid, selenium and omega 3 are all thought to help reduce the symptoms of depression. People with low levels of vitamins B1, B2 and C or with low levels of zinc are also thought to be more likely to be diagnosed with depression than those with higher levels. Vitamin supplements used together with anti-depressant medications can therefore be a useful way of helping reduce the effects of depression.
Patients with schizophrenia tend to have lower levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids in their bodies than those without the condition. Using diet as a means of controlling the condition alongside the use of medication however is only in its infancy and requires further research.
Some studies have shown that there is a connection between fat intake, consumption of vegetables, high intakes of vitamins C and E and the instances of Alzheimer’s Disease. Higher intakes of saturated fats and vegetables are both thought to reduce the instances of Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia, whereas the association between polyunsaturated fats and instances of Alzheimer’s Disease is thought to be a negative one. There is however still much more work to be done in proving this conclusively.
ADHD can be adversely affected by high intakes of sugar. It has also been demonstrated that children with ADHD also often have low levels of iron and of essential fatty acids.
As the saying goes, we are what we eat – and that is valid for our physical state, as well as our mental well-being.
If you or someone close to you has a mental health problem, please get in touch with Private Psychiatry – our consultant psychiatrists have many years’ experience in diagnosing and treating a variety of mental health conditions.