Have you ever had that busy week when you couldn’t even include a proper meal time in your extra-tight schedule? Those days when the best you could do was to grab a quick hamburger and fries with a large soda? Your hunger pangs were satisfied and your stomach was filled, but your mind became foggy. You were unable to perform your tasks well and eventually, you ended up feeling disappointed and anxious.
Nutritional Psychiatry and the Big Problem That It Helps to Solve
Chances are, your mighty, 24-hour operating brain was not at all satiated or nourished by the foods you ate. Instead, it was actually impaired by saturated fats, refined sugars, and free radicals – all thanks to the fast food and soda you consumed. Medical professionals have been studying the effects of certain foods and nutrients (or lack thereof) on mental and emotional health, giving birth to the relatively new field of Nutritional Psychiatry. Their research findings are very significant since mental health issues are becoming more prevalent in our modern times.
Nowadays, people no longer react upon hearing that someone they know has depression or anxiety; psychiatric disorders have become quite common. In the United States alone, ten percent of Americans are taking anti-depressants, and among those are patients being treated for psychiatric conditions in addition to depression (2). Nutritional Psychiatry has introduced the treatment of mental disorders such as depression and anxiety using enhanced nutrition targeted on treating the patient’s underlying physical illnesses. For instance, it has been observed that specific amino acid deficiencies, such as tyrosine, can affect dopamine levels and result in mood changes and depressive or anxious emotional states.
What Is The Gut-Brain Connection?
“You are what you eat, digest, and absorb.” According to Nutritional Psychiatry, this is most likely true. All the helpful nutrients or harmful toxins that you get from the foods that enter your stomach contribute to the makeup of your brain (1,5). Science has proven the direct correlation between the gastro-intestinal system and the nervous system: what enters the gut subsequently enters the brain, in one form or another.
Imagine your stomach lining as a strong wall guarded by sentinels and populated by messengers who deliver important information to your brain. What could happen if the wall was destroyed and the sentinels were defeated? The messengers would also fail to deliver the important information that is crucial to your brain. These sentinels are the good bacteria naturally found in your gut, and the messengers are neurons tasked to process and transmit signals to your brain. One of the “happiness hormones,” serotonin, for example, is produced mostly in the gastro-intestinal tract. If toxins and free radicals from food enter your gastro-intestinal tract, they will adversely affect your good bacteria, your neurons and their production of serotonin, and consequently, your brain.
Nutrition in the gut affects not only the hormonal aspect of the nervous system but also its cognitive aspects. Our parents always told us to eat healthy foods because the nourishment would help us in school, and it turns out this is true according to science. In a study conducted across several schools in Durham, United Kingdom, results showed that nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids (administered to children as supplement drinks) helped in the significant reduction of cognitive deficits measured through reading and spelling. Another study, which used omega-3 fatty acids combined with micronutrients, was conducted among children in Australia and Indonesia and yielded similar results (5).
What Kinds of Nutrition-Based Questions Should Be Asked If You Are Concerned About Mental Health?
In Nutritional Psychiatry, physicians perform a psychiatric evaluation on a patient by using lab tests to determine which vitamins, minerals and other nutrients the patient lacks. Some specialists examine these factors through a nutritional assessment, asking basic questions such as what foods the patient eats frequently and which they usually avoid, foods they have never eaten or are allergic to, and similar queries (3).
If you are concerned about your mental health and would like to try the nutritional approach, you may want to be assessed for the following:
- Vitamin levels
- Blood sugar
- Sodium and potassium levels
- Thyroid activity
- Quality of sleep
- Cerebral allergies
- Mood levels
- Memory and cognition
The significance of determining the answers to these evaluations is based upon the fact that certain physical and mental conditions are caused by the deficiency of one or more specific nutrients. Low levels of vitamin D3, for example, are associated with fatigue and other symptoms of depression.
What Kinds of Foods Support Brain and Mental Health?
Now that we have established how the foods we eat affect our mental health, we can personally discover how we can gain a healthier emotional and psychiatric state through improvements in our diet. To help you get a head start, here’s a list of natural foods and how they can contribute to your overall mental health.
Nutritional psychiatrists recommend eating more fruits, vegetables, fish, and other natural food products that help elevate mood and alleviate depressive or anxious symptoms. Try swapping your hamburger, fries and soda for fish like tuna or salmon, leafy green vegetables like spinach, and sugar-free yogurt, and observe how your brain will feel clearer and your mood lighter, ever after a few days.
Gomez-Pinilla, Fernando. Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature reviews. Neuroscience 9.7 (2008): 568–578. PMC. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805706/. Accessed October 8, 2018.
Null, Gary. A Natural Approach to Overcoming Depression. GreenMedInfo. 2014. http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/natural-approach-overcoming-depression. Accessed October 8, 2018.
Ramsey, Drew. The Key to Mental and Cognitive Health Is Diet – This Diet. Big Think. 2018. https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/nobel-peace-prize-2018-mukwege-murad. Accessed October 8, 2018.
Ross, Carolyn C. Healthy Gut, Healthy Mind: 5 Foods to Improve Mental Health. Psychology Today. 2013. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/real-healing/201301/healthy-gut-healthy-mind-5-foods-improve-mental-health. Accessed October 10, 2018.
Selhub, Eva. Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Harvard Health Blog. 2015. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626. Accessed October 8, 2018.
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