When talking about health, mental health is often brushed aside. About one in five individuals will experience some form of mental health illness during their lifetime. It’s impossible to disregard the effect of mental health decline on the overall health of society.
Diet plays a huge role in maintaining mental health, as well as physical. While food isn’t used to treat mental illness yet, it may be getting there. Nutritional science is starting to reveal exactly how big the role of food is in mental health. Here are a few ways that this manifests.
Brain food isn’t a fad
It’s hard to overstate how important nutrition is for our bodies. Our cells are constantly regenerating and making way for new cells every single day, and this requires an influx of diverse nutrients. People often talk about how food influences our physical health, but mental health is just as intertwined with our nutrition.
The term “brain food” has been used and overused in the past few years, but its actual meaning shouldn’t be disregarded. Our brains are organs, much like our livers, kidneys, and hearts. They need certain nutrients to stay healthy and functioning. Without proper nutrition, consequences start to manifest and this can affect our mental health in a variety of different ways.
Consistency is key in diets
Eating a consistent number of meals throughout the day helps provide nutrients and energy to our brains. When you skip out on a meal or two, this can lead to irritability and loss of concentration. Not to mention, being hungry for long enough can even make you moody. A lack of consistency can lead to further irregular eating patterns, which only make it harder to get back to a regular schedule.
It’s possible to lose touch with one’s appetite. When this happens, maintaining a healthy eating pattern becomes more difficult. Issues such as depression and anxiety can further influence your appetite, mostly leading to its suppression. Since a lack of food and nutrients can exacerbate these issues, this creates a vicious cycle that worsens symptoms and nutrition over time.
A nutritional diet can combat depression
Depression has become a widespread phenomenon in today’s world. This can be attributed to a wide variety of causes. Stressful work environments and big expectations are certainly a factor, as is a lack of job security in many sectors. Some experts suggest it could be due to a constant influx of negative information from news sources. An often-overlooked part of the equation is nutrition, which has a direct impact on our mental state.
Much like our bodies, our brains are made up of various different nutrients bundled together. It’s not a stretch to assume that a lack of certain nutrients can affect and even cause depression. Countless studies have been done on the topic and some interesting results have arisen. Minerals such as zinc and magnesium are of particular interest. Diets that lack these essential metals are more likely to exacerbate existing depression and anxiety in individuals.
Omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins are also linked to depression, but the mechanisms are still a mystery. Adding these nutrients to one’s diet might not be able to stave off depression completely, but studies continue to show that their presence has a positive effect.
Too much sugar is a big no-no
We’re all pretty familiar with a little substance called glucose. Also commonly known as sugar, this macronutrient is an essential part of our everyday diet. It comes in many forms, depending on how it’s structured in the food we eat. We all know that some sugars are better than others, but why is this the case when it’s all mostly glucose?
It has to do with how glucose is metabolized in our bodies. Starting with our digestive system, glucose is pretty easy to absorb. This can be a good thing and a bad thing. On one hand, digestion goes pretty smoothly when it comes to taking care of sugar. On the other hand, this really depends on how much sugar is involved. We’ve all had situations when we’ve eaten a little bit too much sugar. The nausea might be bad, but it’s not nearly as bad as the fatigue that comes afterwards.
Our bodies aren’t built to predict exactly how much sugar has entered our digestive systems. A rough approximation is great when the sugar is combined with different macronutrients and isn’t absorbed too swiftly. Get a little too much in and problems start to show. The body releases a lot of insulin to counteract the sugar intake, but it often goes overboard. It leaves you feeling fatigued and low on energy, both in body and mind.
Regularly consuming this much does little to counteract this, but it does leave you feeling drowsy for most of the day, which stifles motivation and productivity. Sticking to lower amounts of processed sugar is recommended to avoid this. Something that takes a while to digest and break down the sugar would let your body adapt before it gets overwhelmed with glucose.
Diets improve mood
Protection from depression is one thing, but the food we eat provides much more. It can even foster an improved mood throughout your day. Part of the reason for this is our gut biome. The nerves that are located in our guts are considered part of the nervous system on their own. This enteric nervous system reacts to the hormones that our gut produces after eating food, which are byproducts of the things our gut biome produces.
This complex system answers to our brain and sends it various signals, which can be good or bad. Consuming certain food will lead to specific signals that the brain has to interpret. Food that’s on the heavy side and difficult to digest might make you drowsy to allow for digestion. Unhealthy and processed foods will have a similar effect, but they might even cause you some anxiety due to a lack of nutrients. If the gut biome isn’t well-fed, this means bad signals are to be expected.
A consistent and nutrient-rich diet fosters a healthy gut biome, which then sends positive signals through the enteric nervous system. With a bit of experimentation and intuition, you can determine what food makes you feel good and what you should avoid. As long as you trust your gut, you’ll be able to make yourself feel better with the right diet.
Diverse food fosters stability
When discussing diets and their effectiveness, the importance of diversity can’t be understated. There are countless nutrients that our bodies require, which are difficult to supply from a pretty limited array of food. Even with the healthiest choices in local cuisine, you’ll find yourself lacking a nutrient or two that is crucial to your brain’s healthy function.
This is why the term “diet” has become controversial. While diets are just the sum of everything we eat, this isn’t how the word is used colloquially in some circles. Some use it to refer to restrictive diets and specific food regimes that only use certain products. While restricting diets due to illnesses and goals has its place, it might not be the healthiest option for mental health.
Some of the nutrients our brains need aren’t in huge supply, nor are they needed in large amounts. Occasionally consuming certain vitamins and minerals is important, which is why introducing foods that contain them is so beneficial. Switching up your diet every once in a while helps keep food diverse and nutritional. Having all of these nutrients available keeps the brain well-fed and functional, improving mental health.
Coffee stimulates brain activity
There’s nothing quite like a good cup of coffee to get your day started. It’s something most of us can agree with. “Most” would be an accurate statement, as coffee is arguably the most popular warm drink in the world. From Australia to Siberia, people drink coffee to get a good head start on their day and responsibilities. It’s not without reason, either. Coffee helps jolt us awake and makes productive work much more manageable, even when you’ve been fast asleep just half an hour before.
It’s not just productivity that gets a head start, though. Coffee is thought to improve a variety of mental faculties. Drinking a few cups of black coffee a day has been shown to decrease the onset of Alzheimer’s, as well as other degenerative diseases. Research also suggests that coffee can balance one’s day-night rhythm if used at the proper times. All in all, it’s hard to argue against coffee as a mental health supplement, at least to an extent.
While caffeine might be good for you in certain doses, overdoing it can have the opposite effects. In terms of sleep habits, drinking too much coffee can cause insomnia and sleeplessness, counteracting the positive effects. Another side effect of too much coffee is the numbness of certain receptors in the mind. The brain’s sensitivity to neural messengers is lessened if coffee overstimulates them for long periods of time. Sticking to a reasonable amount of coffee helps, though.
Supplementation goes a long way
A diverse diet is one of the most potent protectors of mental health. As with all such systems, it’s hard to get the perfect diet right from the start. The brain is a very complex organ that demands a diverse number of nutrients. To get all of them from food alone, one would have to put in quite a bit of work in their diet. Finding these kinds of foodstuffs and incorporating them in recipes is a huge time investment, which is why supplementation is considered a much more sustainable option.
There are many supplements out there that contain vitamins and minerals that are essential to our bodies. When these natural nutrients are concentrated in large amounts, taking a teaspoon or two per day would be more than enough to satisfy our brain’s nutritional needs.
Nutritionists often recommend adding fish oils, acai berries, Ginkgo, and moringa leaves to regular diets, as they contain lots of healthy substances that our bodies need. They are normally consumed in relatively small amounts, as they’re chock-full of nutrients. Satisfying nutritional requirements is made a lot easier with supplements, and it increases the chance that an individual will maintain a healthy diet for longer periods.
Shared eating brings serenity
Humans are inherently social animals, and this stretches beyond coffee dates and social gatherings. Even the act of eating is considered a social activity to some extent. People have been eating in groups for thousands of years. While this may not seem very significant for diets, it actually has quite an impact on the way we eat.
Eating in groups helps foster healthier eating habits, whether it’s during prehistoric or modern times. When you eat alone, a meal isn’t considered a social activity, nor do you have an incentive to eat slowly or carefully. Eating with your family or friends stimulates a few healthier eating habits. For one, you find extra time to create a more diverse meal that is spread out evenly. While eating, you’d have enough time to chew and properly process every bite before taking the next one. It’s benefits like these that make social eating even more pleasant than it already is.
Studies have shown that people feel calmer and more serene when eating with those close to them. It can make for a very relaxing setting. Hosting a potluck or work lunch club can help people contribute more nutrients to the overall meal, while also creating a calm, social atmosphere. It’s not a huge boost, but it helps make healthy eating even more effective.
There’s no shortage of evidence that shows how much diet impacts our mental health. The food we consume is integral to both our physical and mental health. To create the utmost stability in mental health, one’s diet should be carefully chosen. Healthy eating allows for a healthier and more functional state of mind. The above pointers show how certain foods affect our minds, but it only scratches the surface. There’s a lot more to it than it seems, which is why there’s a constant influx of new research being done in the field.