Are our food choices affecting our mental health?
We spoke to Isabel Leming, who explains more about diet and mental health, and if there is a link between the two. Isabel is a technician at Smart TMS, the UK’s leading mental health clinic specialising in Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.
Mental health problems are one of the main causes of the overall disease burden worldwide, with an estimated 1 in 6 people experiencing a common mental health problem in the past week. The most prevalent of these mental health conditions are depression and anxiety, which is thought to affect 19.7% of people in the UK aged 16 and over. Yet, did you know that the food you eat can be the cause of your mental health woes?
Research suggests that having a healthier diet can actually lead to better mental health, and it has been seen that a change in diet is often followed by a change in mental health. Here we will break down different dietary styles and the impacts they can have on your mental well-being.
One of the most researched diets is the vegetarian diet. Vegetarian diets generally include a low consumption of saturated fat and cholesterol, due to a higher intake of fruit, vegetables and whole grains. The research so far has revealed mixed results, however, one study showed that vegetarians were not only more likely to have a mental health disorder, but they also had a poorer general state of health.
A study on 10,000 healthy Spanish adults revealed that eating a Mediterranean diet, (which comprised of plant foods – vegetables, fresh and dried fruits, whole grain cereals, nuts and legumes) could protect against depression.
People who eat a “Western diet”, which is highly inclusive of processed and fried foods, sugary products and beer, will be at higher risk of depression. It is thought that foods that are high in fat, sugar, carbohydrates and emulsifiers can impact the levels of specific neurotransmitters in the brain. This theory is solidified by the knowledge that deficiencies in neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, and γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) are often associated with depression, and so a link is possible.
Asian and American
In terms of the impact of specific nutrients, the dietary intake of many Asian and American countries shows that they are often deficient in many nutrients, especially essential vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids. A notable feature of these diets and patients suffering from mental disorders is the severity of deficiency in these nutrients and as such, some researchers attribute the decline in the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids from fish and other sources in most populations, to an increasing trend in the incidence of major depression. Studies have indicated that daily supplements of vital nutrients are often effective in reducing patients’ symptoms. These supplements can restore serotonin levels that have shown to be diminished in people with depression.
This research does suggest that diet could be one of the attributing factors impacting upon mental well-being. However, this alone is not conclusive or definitive enough to say that diet can cause depression or any other mental illness.
If you’re worried that your diet is affecting your mental well-being, it may help to keep a food diary. This could help you to understand your current diet, and assess if you are deficient in a range of nutrients that could be negatively impacting upon your mental health. Once you have a broader idea of your food intake and what you would like to achieve, we suggest you visit your GP or a nutrition professional in order to ascertain the correct changes you should be making to your diet, in a way that is safe for you.