One of the most interesting approaches to mental health is the link that is being shown to be more and more important – the link between food and mental health.
I started talking about this many years ago, but most people didn’t get it. I talked about the link between junk food and mental health problems. This was almost forty years ago, and people generally trusted manufacturers much more than they do today.
When I talked about the link between sugar in drinks and processed food and mood swings, people’s eyes would glaze over. They thought this was a very strange idea.
The popular view around at that time was that food was important for the physical body. We needed adequate supplies of calories for energy. We needed enough protein for building and rebuilding the body. We needed a range of vitamins and minerals at fairly low levels so that we didn’t get diseases such as scurvy.
I remember talking to a professor of dietetics, who told me that the vast majority of people in the UK didn’t have dietary problems, apart from eating too many calories.
Slowly that view is changing for two reasons: there is mounting levels of scientific and medical research on the effect of what you eat on your mental health. There are also lots of people who have talked about how changing their diet has effected their mental health.
In an article on the link between food and mental health Rebecca A Clay writes:
“Western-style dietary habits, in particular, come under special scrutiny in much of this research. A meta-analysis including studies from 10 countries, conducted by researchers at Linyi People’s Hospital in Shandong, China, suggests that dietary patterns may contribute to depression (Psychiatry Research, Vol. 253, 2017), for example.”
What is nutritional psychiatry?
This growing body of research has brought about a new field of psychiatry and a new set of tools for those working with people with a range of mental health problems.
“More research is finding that a nutritious diet isn’t just good for the body; it’s great for the brain, too. The knowledge is giving rise to a concept called “nutritional (or food) psychiatry”
This is a developing field that recognises that many people, even with severe psychiatric problems, can improve if their diet is changed.
What should you be eating to improve your mental health?
Mental Health Foundation says: “Eating well (i.e. a well-balanced diet rich in vegetables and nutrients) may be associated with feelings of wellbeing. One 2014 study found high levels of wellbeing were reported by individuals who ate more fruit and vegetables. A recent study found that a Mediterranean-style diet (a diet high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, cereals, grains, fish, and unsaturated fats such as olive oil.) supplemented with fish oil led to a reduction in depression among participants, which was sustained six months after the intervention.”
Personally I don’t think we need to eat fish. There is increasing evidence that many fish caontain high levels of mercury. As a vegan I don’t want to eat fish, so I take omega 3 capsules that come from algae.
The wonderful book by Dr Michael Greger called “How Not To Die” includes a chapter on “How Not To Die From Suicide.” His website has articles and videos on suicide and diet.
What foods can depress your mood?
It’s very clear that sugar is a major culprit in generating mood swings. A friend, who gave up sugar to support his wife when she wanted to lose weight, found that his long-standing insomnia improved dramatically.
It also affects more serious mental health issues.
David Sack MD writing in Psychology Today:
“The roller coaster of high blood sugar followed by a crash may accentuate the symptoms of mood disorders. Research has tied heavy sugar consumption to an increased risk of depression and worse outcomes in individuals with schizophrenia. There are a couple theories explaining the link. For starters, sugar suppresses activity of a hormone called BDNF that is low in individuals with depression and schizophrenia. Sugar is also at the root of chronic inflammation, which impacts the immune system, the brain, and other systems in the body; inflammation has also been implicated in depression. Interestingly, countries with high sugar intake also have a high rate of depression.”
What food shouldn’t you be eating because of drug interactions?
The problems of certain drug and food combinations have been known for a long time. Some foods can be dangerous to eat if you’re taking certain medications. For example:
- f you’re taking an MAOI (a kind of antidepressant) you should avoid eating anything which has been fermented, spoiled pickled, smoked, cured, hung, dried or matured. This is because when food is exposed to the air, a substance called tyramine rises to high levels, and the interaction between tyramine and the MAOI can be very dangerous. You may also want to avoid foods and drinks containing caffeine such as chocolate, tea and coffee as these can also contain tyramine.
- If you’re taking lithium, you will need to be very careful about the amount of salty foods and liquid in your diet. This is because suddenly changing the amount of salt and fluid in your body can affect your lithium level, and if your lithium level becomes too high it can be very dangerous.
- If you’re taking an anti-anxiety medication such as buspirone you may need to avoid drinking grapefruit juice or eating grapefruit. This is because grapefruit can affect the way that enzymes break down medications, which can cause too much or too little of the drug to be absorbed in to your blood.
So, what does all this mean if you are suffering from mental health problems?
You need to pay attention to your diet, not just for your physical health but for your mental health too. This can be difficult when you are low. Reaching for a chocolate bar or a highly-processed meal may seem like they will help, but for many people they won’t.
Try to take simple actions:
- Concentrate on what you can eat, rather than what you need to exclude. Start to make the right food choices for your mental health.
- If possible, don’t keep high sugar or highly processed food in the house.
- If you can’t avoid it, keep nutritious food at the front of the fridge in clear containers. Keep other food towards the back in dark containers. The same with your store cupboards.
- Spend time finding new recipes and planning meals so that you have nutrition-dense meals planned.
- Recognise that sometimes you won’t be perfect. Don’t beat yourself up if the off bar of chocolate ends up in your mouth.
- Ask family, friends and colleagues to help you. Even if they don’t have mental health problems, eating the foods that are good for you and excluding the highly processed food is very good for them too.