Is nutritional psychiatry the key to understanding mental health?
Mental illness accounts for a significant proportion of global health. This is why it poses such a substantial social, economic and health worry1.
While treatment has historically been dominated by prescribed medication and psychotherapies, such as talking therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, nutritional psychiatry is showing us that food and diet can also play a part when it comes to understanding mental health.
Nutritional psychiatry suggests that the food we consume could have a greater role to play in stress control than we may have previously thought. New studies have focused on understanding the biological pathways that mediate the observed relationships between diet, nutrition and mental health: they are pointing to gut health as a key factor in our wellbeing and happiness2
What is known about the relationship between gut health and mental health?
While nutritional psychiatry is a relatively new discipline a number of studies over past decades have shown the possible unity between certain foods and the effect they have on our mental health. Supplementation has been used to try and help treat mood disorders and there have been a number of observational studies focusing on the intake of single nutrients or foods for common mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.3
How can our gut health influence our mood?
The gut microbiome is key to regulating inflammation. Trillions of bacteria live in our gut and, when the balance is right and the ‘good bacteria’ are plentiful and not being overruled by the ‘bad’ bacteria, they help to convert the amino-acid tryptophan into serotonin.4 Serotonin is the key hormone that regulates our mood: feelings of well-being and happiness. Low levels of serotonin are linked to depression5 and higher levels of bad bacteria prevent the body from producing as much serotonin: so, it goes that keeping your gut health in check, through a healthy diet, can stop these bad bacteria from growing out of control. Thereby allowing the good bacteria to do their job of creating more serotonin and positively impacting our mood. We really can eat ourselves happy!
So… which foods will make you happy?
The Food and Mood project recently conducted a survey6 backed by the mental health charity – Mind. The results published identified certain food ‘stressors’ and food ‘supporters’. Stressors, perhaps unsurprisingly, include foods such as sugar, caffeine and alcohol: the foods found to support our mood are water, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fiber, wholegrains and oil rich fish.
Why not try consuming more of the supporters and less of the stressors for a few weeks and see what effect it has on your mood? While it might be hard at first, the pay-off being a happier and more positive mind set will soon make up for it!
- NCBI: Nutritional psychiatry – the present state of the evidence
- NCBI: Nutritional psychiatry – where to next?
- Psychiatry online: Association of Western and Traditional diets with depression and anxiety in women
- The Guardian: Nutritional psychiatry – can you eat yourself happier?
- Hormone Health Network: What is Serotonin?