Mental health and diet….connecting the dots

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According to the Department of Health, an estimated 400 million people worldwide suffer from mental or neurological disorders or from psychosocial problems. These include disorders related to alcohol and drug abuse. October is declared Mental Health Awareness month with the objective of not only educating the public about mental health but also to reduce the stigma and discrimination that people with mental illness are often subjected to.

But just how much of a role does diet play in maintaining good mental health?

Diet is linked to the hippocampus, a key area of the brain involved in learning, memory, and mental health says Renny Letswalo, Non-Executive Chairperson at Cambridge Weight Plan. People with healthy diets have more hippocampal volume than those with unhealthy diets.  “Science agrees that food can be a powerful tool for people dealing with depression and anxiety,” says Letswalo.

According to the SMILES trial, 166 people who were clinically depressed were studied. The researchers found that after 12 weeks of eating a modified Mediterranean diet, the participant’s symptoms were significantly better. The results from the study indicate that dietary improvement may provide an effective and accessible treatment strategy for this prevalent mental disorder.  

Where it all starts

Good nutrition starts in the womb. Children born to women who eat diets high in processed, fried and sugary foods during pregnancy have more emotional problems in childhood. Similarly, diets low in whole, nutrient-dense foods and diets higher in junk and processed foods during the first years of life are linked to more emotional problems in children. “Whole food, which consists of 80% of foods from plants and 20% animal protein, is the healthiest way to go,” says Letswalo.

A healthy diet

“A healthy diet includes a full range of vegetables, fruits, legumes, fish, whole grains, nuts, avocados and olive oil to support a healthy brain,” adds Letswalo.

People who eat a diet high in whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, legumes, fish and unsaturated fats (like olive oil) are up to 35% less likely to develop depression than people who eat less of these foods.

On the other hand, research shows that a diet that is highly processed, fried and sugary with little nutritional value can increase the risk of developing depression by as much as 60%.

Foods to keep in mind

OMEGA 3/Fatty acids

Omega 3/ fatty acids are essential to brain health and reduce inflammation and risk of heart disease. Oily fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, anchovies and sardines are the most highly recommended sources of Omega 3 fatty acids, and it is recommended that you eat these types of fish at least twice a week.

B Group vitamins

People who eat foods rich in folate have a lower risk of depression. Fish, eggs, and milk are natural sources of vitamin B12. People with a lack of vitamin B12 may be at increased risk for depression, especially if they are older.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is important for optimal brain functioning, including mood and critical thinking. Cod liver oil supplements are high in vitamins A and D and have some omega 3 fatty acids as well.

Sunlight is a major source of vitamin D. Five to thirty minutes of sun exposure twice a week generally produces enough vitamin D in the body.  However remember that lighter-skinned people require less time in the sun than those with darker skin.

“It is important to understand that researchers now believe that depression, in particular, is not just a brain disorder, but rather a whole-body disorder, with dysfunction of the immune system (chronic, low-grade systemic inflammation) as a very important risk factor,” adds Letswalo.