One in four people will suffer from some kind of mental illness during their life. Taking care of mental health is hugely important. Fortunately, after decades of stigma, awareness of this issue is finally increasing.
Whilst mental health issues need to be dealt with by a trained professional, there are many things you can do to help promote your mental health. Mental health is of course linked with physical health, and it's only recently that scientists have started to research this relationship.
What effect does food have on mental health?
The food we eat goes further than our physical health. It can also affect how we feel and how we act.
Our diets affect our mental health in two ways:
It affects mental health directly through the nutrients that control our hormones, and indirectly through the emotional impact of having a physical condition caused by an unhealthy diet.
Experts are well aware of the significant impact diet has on mental health. However, they are only just beginning to explore how the brain can be specifically influenced by the different nutrients we consume.
One study reported by the BBC suggests that the rise in mental health problems over the last 50 years can be attributed to that the great changes to the way food in the UK is produced. The rise in popularity of processed foods means we are consuming significantly more saturated fats and sugars, and less fresh fruit and vegetables than we did 50 years ago.
Significant changes to the way British food is produced and the effect this has on the nation's health include:
- Chickens now reach slaughter weight twice as fast as they did 30 years ago, increasing their fat content from 2% to 22%.
- Due to the popularity of processed foods, we now eat 34% fewer vegetables and two-thirds less fish than we were 50 years ago.
These changes are thought to have an impact on:
- Depression: Depression is a long term feeling of despondence, hopelessness and inadequacy which can sometimes lead to drastic actions such as suicide. Depression has been linked with a lack of omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel.
- Schizophrenia: Schizophrenia is a long term neurological disease that affects a person's perception of reality, and can cause inappropriate thoughts, actions and feelings. According to one study, a diet high in sugar and saturated fat, and low in unsaturated fat can be detrimental to the outcome of schizophrenia.
- Alzheimer's: Alzheimer's is a degenerative age-related condition that severely impairs memory. A number of studies have shown that eating lots of vegetables can help to protect against the development of Alzheimer's.
- ADHD: ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is a behavioural disorder that most commonly affects young boys. Research has shown that children with ADHD tend to be low in fatty acids and iron.
Research into nutrition and mental health is only in its infancy, so it is difficult to conclude that diet directly affects the state of our minds. However, it seems to be common sense that a healthy body can help to maintain a healthy mind.
Indirect ways diet can affect mental health include:
- Eating a balanced diet can prevent a feeling of bloating that usually occurs after the consumption of lots of stodgy unhealthy foods such as pizza, burgers and chips. Bloating, pain and discomfort can stop us living normally and can often lead to low moods.
- Eating a balanced diet can prevent cholesterol from building up in the arteries, which can cause diabetes, heart disease and stroke. All of these conditions can completely change yours and your loved one's lives. People with diabetes often live by a strict diet and may have to take regular insulin injections; heart disease can require extensive surgery and a high risk of heart attack, and stroke can cause problems with speech, movement, memory, thinking and concentration. Living with these conditions is known to cause stress, anxiety and often severe depression.
Sometimes these conditions can occur seemingly at random and are not always caused by diet.
Seasonal Affective Disorder and food
In winter, many people tend to notice a dip in their mood, and often crave more ‘hearty’, warming foods such as stews, casseroles and soup to get them through the colder months. However, for those that suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), there are more serious effects during winter, which are not fixed with warming food. SAD sufferers experience depression and lethargy during the winter, finding themselves lacking motivation and energy. Symptoms include craving carbohydrates and sugary food which ultimately lead to weight gain and do not help to lift their mood.
Protein is formed from amino acids and used for growth and repair around the body. Chemical messengers, mainly formed from amino acids, are used to transport information to other parts of the brain, including signals about mood. Whilst the body can produce some of these amino acids itself, some must come from food.
Main sources of protein include:
- milk and cheese
- meat and fish
- lentils and pulses.
It is important that those on a vegetarian or vegan diet substitute dairy products, meat and fish for alternatives containing protein.
Whilst it is important not to consume too many fats, a certain amount is required to function well. Nerve cells in the brain are made up of fat and need it to be flexible and work quickly.
Main sources of fat include:
- oily fish, nuts and avocado
- oils – vegetable, sunflower (some studies have shown that those suffering from schizophrenia have low levels of essential fatty acids.)
- vitamins and minerals
- vitamins and minerals help the body to convert amino acids and fatty acids into the brain
The body and brain run on glucose, which is found in carbohydrates. However, there are good and bad sources of carbohydrates. Good sources will release energy over time, helping you feel full longer.
Good carbohydrates include:
How can a nutritionist help with mental health?
With such a wealth of information available on how to have a healthy diet, it can be overwhelming and confusing to know exactly what to eat, and how much of it. A nutritionist can create a plan to help prevent problems and maintain mental health.
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