Nutritional psychiatry: the obvious link between nutrition and mental health

Diet influences many aspects of health, including mental health. Anxiety and depression are among the most common mental health problems in the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression could be one of the main health problems in the world by 2030.

Nutritional psychiatry: a new field of research

It is therefore not surprising that researchers continue to search for new ways to reduce the impact of mental health problems. Rather than relying solely on current therapies and medications. Nutritional psychiatry is an emerging area of ​​research. She specifically studies the role of nutrition in the development and treatment of mental health issues.

The two main questions that arise regarding the role of nutrition in mental health are:

– Does diet help prevent mental health disorders?
– Are nutrition interventions useful in the treatment of these disorders?

When diet prevents, reduces or promotes depression

Several observational studies have shown a link between the overall quality of the diet and the risk of depression. For example, a review of 21 studies from 10 countries found that a healthy diet was associated with a reduced risk of depression. A healthy diet includes: high intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, fish, low fat dairy products and antioxidants. There are also low intakes of foods of animal origin.

Conversely, a Western-style diet was associated with a significantly higher risk of depression. That is, a diet involving: high consumption of red and processed meats, refined grains, sweets, high-fat dairy products, butter and potatoes, as well as low consumption of fruits and vegetables.

An older study found similar results. High compliance with the Mediterranean diet is associated with a 32% reduction in the risk of depression.
More recently, a study in adults over the age of 50 linked higher levels of anxiety to diets high in saturated fat and added sugars.

Also for children and adolescents

The researchers found similar results in children and adolescents. For example, a 2019 review of 56 studies found a link between a high intake of healthy foods, such as olive oil, fish, nuts, legumes, dairy products, fruits and vegetables. vegetables, and a reduced risk of depression during adolescence.

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Treating mental health issues through diet

Research to determine whether dietary interventions can help treat mental health issues is relatively new and still quite limited. The SMILES trial was one of the first randomized controlled trials to examine the role of diet in the treatment of depression.

For 12 weeks, 67 people with moderate or severe depression received either dietary advice. The dietary intervention was similar to a Mediterranean diet. It emphasized vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fatty fish, extra virgin olive oil, legumes and raw nuts. It also allowed the consumption of moderate amounts of red meat and dairy products.

At the end of the study, people who followed this diet saw their symptoms of depression improve significantly. These improvements remained significant even when the scientists took confounding variables into account. Including body mass index (BMI), physical activity and smoking. Furthermore, only 8% of individuals in the control group achieved remission, compared to 32% of individuals in the diet group.
Although these results look promising, the SMILES study was a small, short-term study. Therefore, larger and longer-term studies are needed to apply its findings to a larger population.

It is therefore difficult to draw solid conclusions from the existing body of research. Especially since the type of dietary intervention studied varied considerably from one study to another. Overall, more research is needed on specific eating habits and the treatment of mental disorders. In particular, there is a need for a more standardized definition of a healthy diet. As well as larger, long-term studies.

The role of dietary supplements?

In addition to dietary habits, scientists are interested in the potential effects that individual nutrients in the form of dietary supplements could have on mental health.

Scientists have found links between low levels of certain nutrients such as: folate, magnesium, iron, zinc and vitamins B6, B12 and D and poorer mood, feelings of anxiety and risk of depression.

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Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that play a key role in brain development and cell signaling. An article in Frontiers in Physiology explains how they reduce levels of inflammation. Due to their anti-inflammatory effects and importance for brain health, scientists have studied the potential effects of omega-3s on mental health.

In 2018 and 2019, reviews of randomized controlled trials found omega-3 supplements to be effective in treating anxiety and depression in adults. Experts recommend acquiring the majority of these nutrients through a healthy and varied diet. Anyone concerned that they cannot meet their nutrient needs through diet alone should consult a doctor to see if supplements may be helpful.

The 3 main hypotheses of the link between diet and mental health

Observational studies suggest, overall, that there is a link between what people eat and their mental health. But it’s still unclear why diet can have this effect. There are several theories about how diet can influence mood or the risk of conditions such as depression and anxiety.

1. Some scientists believe that the inflammatory effects of certain diets may help explain the relationship between diet and mental health. Several mental health issues appear to be linked to increased levels of inflammation. Authors of articles published in the journals Frontiers in Immunology and Current Neuropharmacology discuss this relationship. For example, diets associated with mental health benefits tend to be high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. These are all foods rich in anti-inflammatory compounds. Diets rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods are associated with a reduced risk of depression.

2. Another possible explanation is that diet can affect the bacteria in the gut, which is called the gut microbiome. Ongoing research has uncovered a strong link between gut health and brain function. For example, healthy gut bacteria produce about 90% of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which affects mood. Additionally, early research shows a potential link between a healthy gut microbiome and lower rates of depression.

As diet plays a major role in the health and diversity of the gut microbiome, this theory is a promising explanation for how what we eat can affect our mental well-being.

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3. Finally, it is possible that diet plays a more indirect role in mental health. It may be that people with healthy diets are more likely to engage in behaviors that are also linked to a reduced risk of mental health disorders. We think of regular physical activity, good sleep habits and abstention from smoking.

The complexity of mental health

It is important to keep in mind that many factors can influence both eating habits and mental health.

Factors that can contribute to mental health problems include biological factors, such as genetics, life experiences, and family history. Socioeconomic status can also influence mental health, as can access to food and overall diet quality.

Mental health can, in turn, influence eating habits. For example, it’s not uncommon to turn to less healthy foods, such as sweets or highly processed snacks, when feeling angry or upset. Similarly, many antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can increase appetite and cravings. In both of these situations, struggling with mental health can make it more difficult to adhere to a healthy diet.

Overall, while diet can be an important factor in mental health, it’s important to remember that many other aspects of life can also contribute to mood.

Although more research is needed, current studies suggest that we can influence our mental health through our food choices.



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