They say you are what you eat, and we all know that the foods we eat have an effect on our weight and our physical health. What most people don’t overlook is the effect that your diet has on mental health.
How Important Is Your Diet?
Making healthy choices when it comes to food can be difficult, especially when you can get a fast food hamburger for $1 and a salad costs you $4-5, but it’s more important than a lot of people realize. Up to 50% of the determinants of our physical health come through lifestyle and personal behaviors. This includes food, physical activity, and bad habits like smoking and alcohol use.
Even the Department of Health and Human Services started to look into the effects that diet can have on mental health. Many of the chemicals found in food that could be beneficial, such as omega3 fatty acids as a potential treatment aid for depression, haven’t been studied enough to be considered treatment options. Still, they have finally started to take some steps in the right direction.
Food Allergies and Mental Illness?
Food allergies suck — especially if you’re allergic to a common food that is found in a lot of restaurant foods or takeout — but for most people, they don’t result in more than an upset stomach or maybe the need for an EpiPen. Recent studies, though, have found that there could potentially be a link between food allergies and mental health.
Food allergies were found to be linked to everything from depression and hyperactivity to full-blown psychotic episodes. While it might not be a cure, an elimination diet to determine which food or food group is affecting a patient’s mental health could potentially help with symptom management.
What Is Affecting Your Mental Health?
What are you eating or what should you be eating to improve your mental health? Some of the most common food/mental health links are:
- Antioxidants — If you’re on the road to recovery, antioxidants can help heal and detoxify your body. Evidence suggests that N-acetylecysteine (NAC) can help diminish cocaine and alcohol cravings, regulate neurotransmitters and more.
- Caffeine — This molecule is responsible for the jolt of energy you get from your morning cup of coffee or tea, but it could also be affecting your mental health. People with ADHD, for example, might benefit from that extra energy, helping them focus, but high doses of caffeine can also cause hallucinations and psychotic symptoms in some people.
- B Vitamins — If your diet consists mainly of junk food, chances are you have some vitamin deficiencies. Some of the top minds at Harvard linked B vitamin deficiencies, specifically B-12, to depression and anxiety.
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids — We’ve already mentioned how these fatty acids are being looked at as a possible treatment for depression, but research is also starting to find that these components can be useful for treating or at least helping people cope with psychotic disorders like schizophrenia.
- Citrus fruits — There’s nothing like a glass of orange or grapefruit juice with breakfast but if you’re already taking medication for a mental illness, you might want to skip the citrus. A number of different mental health medications react badly with citrus fruits, making them less effective.
This is just a small sample of the types of eating habits that can affect your mental health — a healthy diet is the main goal and your biggest tool toward improving your mental health or managing the symptoms of mental illness.
It’s All About The Gut
More studies than ever are linking gut bacteria to illnesses and disorders throughout the body, including mental health disorders. Even Parkinson’s disease, once thought to be exclusively a neurological disorder, could be potentially tied to the health of your gut bacteria.
Inflammation from an unhealthy gut microbiome has been known to affect both mood and mental capabilities, while high sugar diets have been tied to worsening of schizophrenia symptoms. Eating the occasional Activia yogurt, while tasty, isn’t enough to refresh your gut microbiome. You need to start from the ground up, so to speak, and eat an overall healthier diet to help improve the health of the bacteria in your gut.
So much of our health is tied to microscopic creatures living inside our body, whether we realize it or not, and it’s up to us to make sure those bacteria are healthy enough to keep us healthy.
Changing Your Diet
Now that you know how much your mental health is affected by the food that you put into your body, what changes can you make to your diet to improve both your physical and your mental health?
- Ditch the junk — Stop with the easy snack foods, the fast food lunches, or the frozen meals for dinner. The easiest step you can make to improve your diet is to just ditch the pre-made and pre-packaged food.
- Eat more lean proteins — steak is a great treat but for a healthy diet, lean proteins like fish and chicken are the best options.
- Fresh it up — Fresh fruits and vegetables are always going to be your best option, but they’re not the only one. Frozen produce or even canned can be an option too — just get more fruits and veggies into your diet.
- Talk to your doctor— They’re the ones who will be best able to determine if you are missing a specific vitamin or mineral in your diet that you might need a supplement for. Also, make sure to talk to them before you start taking any supplements. There’s no point in loading up on stuff that you don’t actually need.
Studies about the specific effects of food on our mental health are still rolling in, but we can tell you one thing for sure — you’ll probably feel better, both mentally and physically, if you work on improving your diet. Don’t take our word for it though…try it out for yourself.