Nutritional Psychiatry: The Link Between Food and Mental Health
The right kind of food can encourage growth of nerve cells, elevate our mood and improve cognition.
(National Nutrition Week is observed in India from September 1-7 to increase awareness generation on the importance of nutrition for health which has an impact on development, productivity and economic growth of the country. FIT is republishing this story from its archives.)
Food and Mood. Yes, they are connected and in a number of ways.
Nutritional psychiatry might be a fairly new field right now, but if you get back to basics and reexamine the brilliance and intelligence of the human body, it has always existed.
Nutritional psychiatry looks at the interconnection between food and brain function and uses nutrition to enhance the same. It encompasses the type of food intake, digestion, absorption, impact of pesticides and environmental pollutants on the nervous system.
Nutritional psychiatry also looks at how different foods stimulate, cause gut inflammation, nutritional deficiencies that speed up or slow down metabolic processes in our body, effect of blood sugar on mental health, gut ecology and neurological effect of different allergies.
The Connection Between Brain Functions & Food
Brain is a very complex and busy organ. Even if you are sitting idle or asleep, it is continuously working and busy thinking, processing, storing, transmitting, receiving information and carrying out vital functions like breathing, regulating your heart beat, coordinating sensory and motor skills.
All of this certainly takes up a lot of energy but where does that energy come from?
The food we eat! And the kind of food can make all the difference.
The right kind of food can encourage growth of nerve cells, elevate our mood, improve cognition, increase attention span, help cope better with stress, help cope with brain disorders like dementia, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder(ADHD), Autism etc.
But the wrong kind or nutritionally deprived food can cause brain cells to die, induce inflammation, irritability, mood swings, anger, negative and suicidal thoughts, forgetfulness and shorten attention span.
Its important that we feed ourselves a balanced and nutritious diet that contains a lot of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that prevents free radical damage and inflammation.
Without the right nutrition, the brain cannot produce neurotransmitters or neurochemicals like serotonin or dopamine, that are responsible for mood, social behaviour, appetite, memory and even boosting libido.
A diet rich in sugars and salt is the worst for brain health as it causes inflammation and oxidative stress.
In a nutshell, what you eat, directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.
How Does Nutrition Affect Our Mental Health?
Nutrition can impact our moods either directly or indirectly. Directly when certain foods have an immediate impact on our moods i.e. within minutes of eating.
Ever noticed how your child’s or your mood uplifts when you feed on sugar? Does it look normal in any way? No!
There are several studies that show how sugar, salt, MSG and transfat can be addictive in nature.
Indirect affect is experienced once food reaches our gut. Ever seen a constipated face? Now you know why it’s called that!
All that we eat ultimately reaches our gut.
Our gut is quite rightly called the ‘second brain’ because of the intricate connections between the two through the vagus nerve. In fact, there is an entirely separate nervous system called Enteric Nervous system to govern that.
If you look at the inner linings of the gut, it’s lined with millions of nerve cells.
These nerve cells not only transmit signals between gut and brain, but also produce neurotransmitters like Serotonin, which is a powerful mood booster.
All of this is influenced by the dense population of good bacteria that reside in our guts.
Apart from activating these neural pathways, the gut microflora also plays a crucial role in protecting intestinal mucosal lining, preventing any bad bacteria from entering the blood stream, controlling inflammation and aiding absorption of nutrients.
Why We Need to Add Probiotics to Our Diets
Any imbalance in the ratio between good and bad bacteria, due to wrong eating habits, can disturb this communication and stop the secretion of serotonin, paving way for depression, irritability, anxiety and all negative behaviors.
This is why a regular intake of probiotics is so important in everyone’s diet, because our current lifestyles are regularly depleting the stores.
Other gut issues like constipation, bloating, acidity, leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) etc all work the same way - by disturbing the gut ecology.
In a study, where one set of people were fed a traditional diet and the other set were fed a modern diet, it was found that the former set faced 25% to 35% lesser risk of depression than the latter.
This accounts for the abundance of raw foods, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and fermented food in a traditional diet as opposed the modern diet rich in processed and refined foods that feeds bad bacteria.
Hence more than depression drugs, its important to use food as medicine that not only heals the root cause (gut) but also creates an overall sense of well-being.
Lets talk about Candida for a minute.
Candida is a notorious yeast that grows in our body due to faulty eating habits and overdo of sugar that feeds it.
Candida overgrowth can lead to multiple symptoms like brain fog, nail biting due to nervousness, mood swings, cravings, fatigue, low sex drive. This explains a lot about how certain foods affect our gut and mental state.
A disturbed gut health can also lead to mal-absorption of nutrients that might actually be beneficial for brain health.
Additionally, our gut is quite prone to inflammation with certain foods like sugar, wheat, dairy and meat because of the amount of toxins it holds.
In such cases, minimising or eliminating all of these foods would have a drastic impact on an individual’s physical, mental and emotional health.
(Luke Coutinho is M.D. Alternative Medicine (Integrative & Lifestyle) & Holistic Nutritionist. Luke treats patients with disease and specializes in cancer with a holistic and integrative approach worldwide.)
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