What is Nutrition?
When you think of nutrition, what comes to mind? A food pyramid? A donut with a big red “x” through it? For me, nutrition was all about the physical repercussions of the food I ate. “Not too many carbs, summer is right around the corner” is a phrase that always seemed to echo in my head around this time of year. However, there are so many ways that the food we eat can impact our well-being beyond the physical. In recognition of National Nutrition Month let’s briefly go over some of the science around the link between nutrition and mental health. Over the past decade, there has been a steady increase in epidemiological studies investigating the relationships between dietary patterns and mental states (Owen & Corfe, 2017). It’s an exciting time; we are only now beginning to understand the impact of our diet on mental health. Let’s dive into 4 tips about nutrition to improve mental health straight from the research.
Micronutrients are key
Maintaining a healthy balance of vitamins and minerals is good advice for anyone who is trying to improve their diet. The impact of micronutrients on your body is endless; a boost to immune function, blood pressure regulation, and improved bone development just to name a few (Hoeft et al., 2012). However, recent studies have found that the benefits of these important vitamins and minerals don’t end there. Omega 3s, B vitamins, and other micronutrients have been shown to improve various aspects of brain function and mental wellbeing (Low Dog, 2010). Furthermore, low levels of crucial micronutrients such a B-6 vitamins, have been linked to increased depressive symptoms (Avas, 2004). It is critical for both body and mind to include these substances in your diet. One option is to take supplements to get your daily dose of vitamins and minerals. However, the best way to get these micronutrients in your system is through the food you eat. Different foods provide different nutrients to your body, so an easy start is to introduce more variety into what you eat. Don’t be afraid to stray from your staples and mix new foods into your diet.
The sugar problem
This point isn’t all that surprising, as whenever diets of any kind come up, sugar is usually the first thing to go. High sugar intake can lead to several health problems such as high blood pressure, weight gain, and diabetes, all of which are associated with increased risk of heart attack or stroke (Rippe, J. M., & Angelopoulos, T. J. 2016). However, research reports that increased sugar consumption can also be related to mental health issues such as depression (Westover et al., 2002). It’s worth noting, however, that moderation is key. This negative impact on mental health only presents itself in those with very high sugar intake levels. This research shows us the dangers of excess while also reminding us of the safety in moderation. If you struggle with cutting down on sugar like me, an easy place to start is removing sugary beverages from your diet. Juices, sodas, and other sweet beverages are incredibly high in sugar and can be replaced with sparkling seltzers, tea, or other sugar-free options.
Caffeine and anxiety
For those of us who rely on caffeine to jump-start our day (myself included) this one might be a tough pill to swallow. Coffee is an extremely popular source of caffeine that some can’t imagine living without, and we now have numerous ways of consuming it (energy drinks and other canned beverages). It is widely known that caffeine can be addicting (Jena Hilliard, 2021), but it is less known that it is also associated with higher levels of anxiety (Richards & Smith, 2016). Several peer-reviewed studies have been able to identify this link among a variety of populations (Bertasi et al., 2021). This research makes it clear high levels of anxiety symptoms are present in those individuals who drink caffeinated beverages daily. If you struggle with anxious feelings throughout the day, it might be worth cutting down on your caffeine consumption and seeing how you feel. Now, I realize that cutting caffeine out of your diet completely is not a realistic piece of advice, but gradually cutting down or skipping on the energy drinks could do wonders for alleviating anxious feelings.
The Gut-Brain axis
All food you eat is broken down in your gut to a simple form that can enter the bloodstream and be delivered as nutrients throughout your body. The gut-brain axis refers to the two-way biochemical signaling between the gastrointestinal tract and the nervous system. This link between your gut and your brain tells us that the importance of your gut goes beyond digestion. If we don’t prioritize and maintain a healthy gut, it will struggle to perform essential functions. This can cause many issues, including chronic fatigue, illnesses, and inflammation throughout the body(Spielman et al., 2018). Furthermore, recent studies have linked inflammation of the gut to several mental illnesses including anxiety and depression (Clapp et al., 2017). So, how can we ensure a healthy, balanced gut biome? Research in the field has provided us with some easy places to start. First, including probiotics or fermented food in your diet can be helpful; kimchi, yogurt, and other fermented foods can give your gut biome a boost and maintain its equilibrium (Hemarajata & Versalovic 2013). Second, prioritizing a regular sleep schedule can improve gut health. A recent study showed how irregular sleeping patterns can lead to negative outcomes for the gut flora, which increase the risk of inflammatory conditions (Voigt et al., 2014). Lastly, foods full of sugar can get in the way of your gut performing its essential functions. Research has shown us that eating a lot of sugar or artificial sweeteners may cause gut dysbiosis, which is an imbalance of gut microbes (Magnusson 2015). Maintaining this healthy balance of bacteria in your gut is key to feeling your best.
Now that we’ve gone over how nutrition is linked to your mental wellbeing, let’s address the elephant in the room. Whenever I receive tips or advice about my diet my immediate response is always “easier said than done”. It’s one thing to be educated about a healthy diet, but setting goals around nutrition can be difficult! As someone who’s struggled with this most of their life, I can appreciate how challenging it is to change your habits; but your mind and body really are linked. Nutrition can influence how you feel! However, given the prevalence of fad diets and purportedly easy shortcuts, it can be difficult to know where to turn to. If you’re thinking about making a change to your diet, I’d like to leave you with a few final pieces of advice for easy ways to go about it. If you can, consult your healthcare provider. They can provide advice that’s tailored to you. Furthermore, set goals that are achievable. Starting small, such as cutting soda or including more probiotic food in your diet can encourage you to continue down the path of healthy living. Reward yourself along the way, and don’t forget to celebrate the small wins as you begin to make these changes. The SilverCloud suite of interventions recognizes the importance of setting goals that help you make effective changes in your life. We believe in empowering our patients through tools that are effective in achieving these changes. On a related note, give it some time. Taking one multivitamin won’t make you the healthiest person on the planet, but it can be your first step in the right direction of habits that make you feel good and make sure you function well. The more that diet and nutrition are pushed to the front of the public mindset, the more the need to understand the link between mind and body. The research discussed here allows us to cut through the noise and expose the truth about what we eat. I challenge you to practice these research-supported nutrition tips. Together we can improve the health of both our mind and our body from the food we eat.
About the Author
Scott is a Junior Clinical Research Associate and has a M.A. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Elmhurst University. His background working with adolescents in an inpatient environment has grown into a passion for improving mental health care for young people.
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