The brain is the body’s control center that is working day and night. As a result, it requires fuel to keep functioning. By eating higher quality foods — containing a lot of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants — your brain can better protect itself from oxidative stress, or the waste products produced by your metabolism. On the flip side, eating a lot of processed or refined foods can displace other nutrients and be harmful to your brain.
High-sugar, high-fat and high-salt foods cause inflammation. For example, eating a lot of sugar and refined carbohydrates worsens your body’s regulation of insulin. Multiple studies found a link between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function. This included a worsening of mood disorders, such as depression.
Here are some of the most studied problems caused by a poor diet that researchers have linked to mental health issues:
- Chronic low-grade inflammation. This is caused by lifestyle factors, including poor diet, smoking, lack of sleep and psychological stress. And it has been observed in people with depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
- Elevated oxidative stress. Patients with depression experience this. Many people with a mental illness have lower levels of antioxidants in their system compared to control groups.
- Brain plasticity. Some research shows healthy dietary patterns improve brain plasticity, or the capacity of the brain to change with learning throughout life.
- Gastrointestinal microbiota. There is a link between mental illness and “gut flora,” or the microbe population living in our digestive tracts. When inflammation starts in the gut, paired with a poor combination of nutrients that affect the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria ratio, it can in turn cause brain inflammation. Ultimately, this causes our brain cells to die. Studies have shown that people taking probiotics have improved their anxiety levels, perception of stress and mental outlook.
Mental illness is a top cause of global disability, and the problem continues to grow. Mental health is complex, and if you’re experiencing a problem you should work with a professional on a well-rounded solution.
Nutritional psychiatry supports the role of diet in mental health, and its potential role as a modifiable risk factor for mental illness. Some of the nutrients identified – such as magnesium, vitamin D, zinc, omega 3, b-vitamins and probiotics – are prevalent in a Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet is high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish and seafood, with modest amounts of lean meats and dairy. They are also void of processed foods, which are staples of the Western diet.
If you’re interested in seeing how food affects your mood, start keeping a food record. Jot down how eating different foods make you feel, not just in the moment, but the next day. Make positive changes and compare how you feel . Your body — and brain — will benefit.