Most of us know that what we eat can have a direct effect on our physical health. It is now becoming clear is that our diet can influence our moods and emotions as well.
There is a growing body of scientific evidence supporting the once-niche idea of nutrition playing a direct role in maintaining and improving mental health. A 2018 review of hundreds of different nutrition, psychiatric, and social studies published in Health Education & Behavior shows nutrition therapy’s potential for not just maintaining mental health, but also for improving outcomes for people undergoing treatment for mental health disorders.
This has multiple implications for mental health maintenance, as well as aftercare for individuals who have gone through rehabilitation programs.
When nutrition therapy is combined with other mainstream treatments like psychotherapy, it may prevent mental health issues from turning into more serious disorders. It may also reduce the need for medication, prevent relapses, and shorten required convalescent periods for people undergoing rehab for mental illnesses.
Below are just some of the ways nutrition may improve your mental health. If you’re in North Texas, check out this comprehensive resource on rehab centers in Dallas.
1. Prevents Stress and Depression
We all know that we can get irritable and annoyed when we’re hungry or eating something we’re not satisfied with. However, eating some kinds of food regularly can have a much more profound and long-lasting effect on our moods.
A 2017 study has linked foods rich in simple sugars, empty carbohydrates, and artificial preservatives common in processed foods with the prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders.
While it may be a stretch to say that these foods directly caused these conditions, they are likely a strong contributing factor, as they can mess with insulin levels, which in turn can affect mood. When this occurs frequently, as when a person has a diet heavy in processed foods, this may contribute to mood and mental health disorders over time.
2. Improves “Gut Feel”
Food influences more than just your body’s hormones. It also has a direct impact on your gut flora. Recent evidence now points towards gut health as an important factor in regulating mood.
Many antidepressant medications have effects on the digestive system, as there is a strong link between this and the brain. These nerve connections are two-way streets. It seems that if our intestinal flora isn’t doing well, the subsequent gut problems can influence the brain, creating a negative mood.
Again, too much sugar can throw your gut bacteria out of balance, potentially giving you a chronic bad mood. Cutting back on simple sugars and red meat, as well as increasing the amount of fiber and fresh veggies you take in should help put your natural gut bacteria in an optimal state. Occasional servings of fermented foods like sauerkraut, yogurt, and kimchi should also help keep your gut health in check.
3. May Improve Mindfulness
Healthy eating is a challenge for most people, especially in the context of this postindustrial world where unhealthy food options are by far the most accessible. Eating deliberately is not always easy but this very difficulty could be harnessed as part of mindfulness practices.
Mindfulness is a type of meditation that has been shown in multiple studies to help with emotional regulation and mental health. It involves exercising focus and continuously developing an understanding of one’s current emotions and sensory inputs.
“Mindful eating” is, therefore, the application of mindfulness practices when selecting, preparing, consuming, and thinking about food. It can involve everything from learning how to eat slowly to understanding the differences between hunger and other cues that trigger eating. It also involves learning to cope with your emotions regarding food and learning how to eat only until you’re full.
Over time, applying mindfulness in eating habits can bleed off into other areas of life. This may help one better deal with different triggers and emotional challenges, which can be foundational to better mental health.
4. Optimizes Brain Function
Your diet can also improve your mental health in a much more direct way by improving how it functions. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, flavonoids, vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta carotene all serve to help the brain’s efficiency and cognition in some way. This improvement in function can partially alleviate symptoms associated with depression and anxiety, leading to better mental health.
As you might have guessed, a diet rich in green leafy veggies with regular helpings of seafood and nuts will give you all these essential nutrients. Reducing your intake of processed foods and red meat can also improve alertness throughout the day and reduce some of the typical symptoms of depression.
5. Helps Increase Confidence
Being more confident is a sign of good mental health. We’ve already discussed how eating right can help reduce anxiety and depression symptoms by influencing hormone levels and therefore, mood. As you would have guessed, reduced depression and anxiety are associated with more confidence.
However, this is not the only way a better diet may help one feel better about oneself. Understanding more about how your deliberate nutrition choices are benefiting you may also help you become more confident in other areas of your life.
Additionally, eating right will almost always improve physical appearance by improving skin tone and texture and helping shed unwanted pounds. This, in turn, may help someone with social anxiety or body image issues be more willing to engage with others.With the country currently undergoing both a COVID-related mental health crisis and the largest opioid epidemic in its history, there has been a renewed, serious interest in harnessing nutrition to improve mental health recovery outcomes while the reducing costs of treatment and rehabilitation. Different studies seem to indicate that better nutrition can and should be a component of any serious mental health recovery strategy.
However, it’s not just healthcare providers or people with serious psychiatric issues that could benefit from these new findings. Better nutrition could be used as a preventative measure to avoid more serious physical and psychiatric ailments, as well as improve the effects of ongoing therapeutic care.
While nutrition therapy alone will never be enough to significantly improve one’s mental health, it can be a cost-effective way of multiplying the effect of other practices and treatments. This ultimately means fewer people with serious psychiatric issues, a lower overall cost of treatment per individual, and a reduced strain on our healthcare system.