Every Bite You Take: Nutrition and Mental Health

by Mar 7, 2014

We all know what it is like to be irritable because we haven’t eaten yet. T-shirts are popping up with phrases like, “I’m sorry for what I said to you while I was hungry”. We’ve known for some time the connection between hunger and feeling cranky. Low food intake leads to low blood sugar, leading to low serotonin levels which causes weaker communication between certain areas of the brain – particularly the parts that control emotional responses to anger. But new research is just beginning to uncover some of the positive and beneficial side effects of how, and more importantly, when food is taken in.

Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer published The Fast Diet in 2013 which has gotten widespread attention in the U.K. and recently here in the U.S. I heard about it on The Diane Rehm Show. The basic idea is that you eat normally 5 days of the week and on 2 non-consecutive days you limit yourself to 500 calories (600 for men).

Researchers studied how mice and rat populations responded to such a diet. Much of the data supported the notion that limiting food intake lowers the risk of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia in later life. The periodic fasting protected neurons against various kinds of damaging stress – the idea is that the mild stress to the body (the mammalian brain asking, “When will I find food again?”) creates transitive effects to better stress management in general. Certainly the jury is still out on the effects in humans – but Diane Rehm herself admitted to going on (and staying on) the diet, lost 20 pounds and is “feeling great!”

Can what we eat affect our mood too? Since 2011 when First Lady Michelle Obama and the USDA introduced MyPlate, giving the classic Food Pyramid a makeover, Americans’ focus on nutrition has seen an uptick. Yes, nutrition does help people to be better able to function, and Alan Logan, a naturopathic doctor, independent researcher, and consulting science writer tells us more.

Logan, author of The Brain Diet is among many others looking at the latest research in nutrition science and its relationship to mental health. “Just like the heart or any other organ, the brain is dependent upon nutrients for its structure and its function,” says Logan. “For example, vitamins and minerals run the machinery of the brain, they help to create the neurotransmitters; When proteins make the likes of serotonin and dopamine, the essential fats that we take in … make up part of the structure but also help with communication from nerve cell to nerve cell. Our antioxidants, our phytonutrients that are in colorful fruits and vegetables also influence our communication from nerve cell to nerve cell. For example the deep purple [and green] pigments that we get in blueberries and grapes and so on, actually leave, at least experimentally, a little bit more of the neurotransmitter, let’s say serotonin, around for use,” Logan said.

This helps us make sense of how processed food that is nutrient poor can actually lead to depression or even make symptoms worse. Researchers looked at the diet of depressed people and found that their nutrition was far from adequate. Most commonly found were nutritional deficiencies of omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and amino acids (the precursors to neurotransmitters).

So what foods give us a chemical advantage for increasing good moods, positive attitudes, and overall increased energy and wellbeing you ask? Submitted here are brainy fun facts and the associated foods that are great for our mood. Let your curiosity expand your search!

  • The brain is 60% fat and loves omega-3 fats: Flax seeds, Walnuts, Sardines, Salmon, Soybeans, Tofu, Shrimp, Brussel Sprouts
  • Vitamin D helps regulate serotonin, melatonin, and dopamine: Salmon, Sardines, Tuna, Milk, Eggs, Shiitake Mushrooms
  • Antioxidants protect the brain from free radicals (Atomic bad guys to your cell membranes!): Beans, Berries, Cooked Artichoke, Apples, Pecans
  • Whole grains, the good carbs, raise levels of serotonin (the body’s natural antidepressant): Wheat, Oats, Bulgur, Brown Rice, Barley, Rye, Buckwheat, Wheat Couscous, Quinoa

In the spirit of National Nutrition Month, I leave you with a quote from one of the great modernists of the twentieth century, who herself struggled with mental illness.

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Photo Credit: Chuck Grimmett

Originally Published March 4, 2014 at the Middle Atlantic Division – AAMFT Blog

Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD, and specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His clinical specialties include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, therapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.

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