Are you what you eat? The link between diet and mental health

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We’ve all heard that junk food is bad for us. We’ve all been reminded about our five a day. But as well as keeping our fitness, physique and metabolism ship shape- does what we graze on affect our mental health?

There are many, many publications stating different reasons behind the cause of mental health issues, from genetics to the environment, all the way down to microbes in the gut. So, can something as simple as a Happy Meal be the answer to how our brains function? It’s probably not that easy, and overall mental health is complex and dependent on a wide range of factors, but studies have shown that different food products have profound effects on mental health compared to people without those foods.

Several studies have shown the benefits of a Mediterranean on improving mood and reducing depression in subjects, and many nutritional scientists advise eating more non-processed foods and fruit and veg. This all sounds quite familiar but, it turns out that there’s a scientific basis behind it all.

Unhealthy food can cause inflammation, affecting mood

Depression has recently been associated with chronic inflammation and the immune system, and there are strong links shown between specific inflammation in areas in the brain and depressive behaviours. Inflammation can cause tissue damage, and in the brain can affect neuronal transmission and neurotransmitter function, which affects the chemicals controlling our mood and how often, when and where they are released. Reduction in dopamine, which boosts our mood, has been correlated with increased inflammation around the brain.

So, where does my ASDA shop become relevant in all of this? Different foods have different nutritional properties, for example vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, which have different effects on our internal homeostasis. Thus, some foods play roles in inflammation.

Staying away from too much junk food is something of a broken record, but studies have revealed that processed and unhealthy foods can increase inflammation. As of yet, the mechanisms for this haven’t been elucidated, but it has been hypothesised that effects are mediated through the gut microbiota and effects the food is having there. Weakening of the gut lining can occur through consumption of unhealthy foods, which stimulates immune responses increasing inflammation. If junk food is a regular part of someone’s diet, a low level of chronic inflammation will be maintained, which could be a risk factor for mental illness.

Many things can affect mental health and studies have shown that is one of them

But it’s not all bad news. Eating ‘super foods’, along with omega-3-rich fish and a healthy dose of fibre will all contribute to a healthier internal balance. Organic foods and foods rich in anti-oxidants and fibre are known for anti-inflammatory responses, thus will help to maintain a healthy gut microbiome and stave off any inflammation. Whilst a blueberry a day won’t keep you fully in check, eating non-processed, healthy foods will improve overall internal bodily homeostasis to lower the risk of mental health disorders arising from chronic low-grade inflammation.

Although food may play a role in depression and studies suggest that certain foods have the potential to alleviate mental health disorder symptoms, it’s important to bear in mind that mental health varies vastly between individuals.

However, this field of research is becoming ever more prominent and exciting, with stronger links found between and mental health- it looks like the empty fruit bowl in the kitchen’s finally about to have its day.

Image: np&djjewell via Flickr and Creative Commons

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