The Food Mood Link

Does what you eat affect depression and anxiety? New research and a new area of study-food psychiatry- explore the connection between food and mental health.

Great article by Kelli Miller on WebMD.

What’s for dinner? The question now pops up in an unexpected place – the psychiatrist’s office.

More research finds that a nutritious diet isn’t just good for the body, it’s great for the brain, too—which leads to a new concept called nutritional (or food) psychiatry. “Traditionally, we haven’t been trained to ask about food and nutrition,” says psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, MD, an assistant clinical professor at Columbia University. “But diet is potentially the most powerful intervention we have. By helping people shape their diets, we can improve their mental health and decrease their risk of psychiatric disorders.”

Nearly 1 in 4 Americans has some type of mental illness each year. The CDC says that by 2020, depression will rank as the second-leading cause of disability, after heart disease. And it’s not just a problem for adults. Half of all long-term mental disorders start by age 14. Today, childhood mental illness affects more than 17 million kids in the United States.

Recent studies show “the risk of depression increases about 80% when you compare teens with the lowest-quality diet, or what we call the Western diet, to those who eat a higher-quality, whole foods diet. The risk of attention deficit disorder (ADD) doubles,” Ramsey says.

Just five years ago, the idea of nutritional psychiatry barely registered a blip on the health care radar. A few studies examined howm certain supplements (such as omega-3 fatty acids) might balance mood. But solid, consistent data appeared to be lacking.

Now, health experts sayn many well-conducted studies have since been published worldwide pointing to a link between diet quality and common mental disorders—depression and anxiety—in both kids and adults. In the next few months, researchers plan to publish the results from the world’s first randomized controlled trial showing how diet changes can help treat major depression.

“A very large body of evidence now exists that suggests diet is as important to mental health as it is to physical health,” says Felice Jacka, PhD, president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research.

“A healthy diet is protective, and an unhealthy diet is a risk factor for depression and anxiety.” Researchers are also interested in a possible role food allergies may play in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, she says. Animal studies suggest a ketogenic diet—one high in fat and low in carbs— might help those with schizophrenia as well, but clinical trials in humans are still a long way off. So far, nearly all research involving eating habits and mental health has focused more on depression and anxiety. And no direct evidence yet shows that diet can improve depression or any other mental disorder, although the new trial results could be the first to change that. For now, experts caution that while diet can be part of a treatment plan, it shouldn’t be considered a substitute for medication and other treatments.

Here’s what researchers do know about how diet may play a role in mental health: What you eat affects how your immune system works, how your genes stress. Some of the specific findings include:

Diet is crucial for brain development. “We are, quite literally, what we eat,” says Roxanne B. Sukol, MD, preventive medicine specialist at ClevelandClinic’s Wellness Institute. “When we eat real food that nourishes us, it becomes the protein-building blocks, enzymes, brain tissue, and neurotransmitters that transfer information and signals between various parts of the brain and body.”

Nutritious food puts the brain into growth mode. Certain nutrients and dietary patterns are linked to changes in a brain protein that helps increase connections between brain cells. A diet rich in nutrients like omega-3s and zinc boosts levels of this substance.On the other hand, “a diet high in saturated fats and refined sugars has a very potent negative impact on brain proteins,” Jacka says.

Some foods fill the gut with healthy bacteria. And that’s good for the brain. Trillions of good bacteria live in the gut. They fend off bad germs and keep your immune system in check, which means they help tame inflammation in the body. Some gut germs can even help make brain powering B vitamins.

“A healthier microbiome is going to decrease inflammation, which affects mood and cognition,” Ramsey says. Foods with beneficial bacteria (also known as probiotics) help maintain a healthy gut environment.

A high-fat or high-sugar diet is bad for gut health and, therefore, your brain. Some research hints that a high-sugar diet worsens schizophrenia symptoms, too. Certain foods may play a role in the cause of mental disorders, or they may make symptoms worse. A nutritious brain diet follows the same logic as a heart-healthy regimen or weight-control plan. You want to limit sugary and high-fat processed foods, and opt for plant foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Swap butter for healthy fats like olive oil, too. In other words, try a Mediterranean diet. It’s “an ideal diet for physical and mental health,” Jacka says.

Recent results from a large trial in Europe show that such an eating plan may even help prevent, and not just treat, depression. Also, fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt with live active cultures, which provide good gut bacteria, may help reduce anxiety, stress, and depression. Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel provide omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, zinc, selenium, and other brain boosters. And dark chocolate has antioxidants, which increase blood flow to the brain, aiding mood and memory. Unfortunately, the Western diet is “extremely low” in these nutrients, Ramsey says. He’s working on a new tool called the Brain Food Scale to provide a quick look at the nutrient-to-calorie relationship.

Meanwhile, for those living with a mental health condition, diet can play a role. “No matter where you are on the spectrum of mental health, food is an essential part of your treatment plan,” Ramsey says. “If you are on medications, they are going to work better if you are eating a brain-healthy diet of nutrient-dense foods.”

Ramsey recommends asking your doctor about what you should eat—not just what you shouldn’t. He hopes that one day a simple five-minute food assessment will become part of every psychiatric evaluation.

Nutritionists like the idea. “More psychiatrists need to recognize the nutrition mental health connection,” says Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD, a member of the Organization of Nutritional Consultants. “We can have so much power over our mental health using food and nutrients.”

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