Nutrition and Mental Well-Being: What Role Does Nutrition Play in Mental Health?

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Mental health concerns have been growing in recent years as more and more people come forward to talk about dealing with anxiety and depression. The World Health Organization (WHO) has even indicated that depression could be one of the top health concerns in the world by 2030. 

The Link Between Nutrition and Mental Well-Being

Many factors influence mental health conditions. The specific conditions in one’s life will dictate how much each factor impacts overall mental health and the related symptoms of the condition. Patterns in our daily life can worsen or improve symptoms. For example, a healthy diet, adequate sleep, and exercise to maintain physical health can benefit individuals suffering from a wide range of mental health conditions.  

The link between nutrition and mental illness has recently been particularly interesting to clinicians and patients. This trend has a lot to do with recent research that indicates nutrition and mental well-being are more closely linked than previously thought. Examples of relevant research include:

  • A 2017 systematic review of 21 studies across ten countries found that healthy dietary patterns were associated with a reduced risk of depression. This study described a balanced diet including a high intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fatty acids, olive oil, fish, and low-fat dairy. 
  • A 2013 meta-analysis found that a Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of depression by almost a third. 
  • A 2019 review of 56 studies found that a high intake of healthy foods can also reduce the risk of depression in adolescents. 

In addition to the studies noted, many more studies support the findings that healthy eating can positively affect mental well-being. 

While mental health is impacted by healthy eating, it has also been found that key nutrients can play a role in mental health. For instance, those with a poor diet may have low levels of certain nutrients, such as folate, magnesium, iron, zinc, and vitamins B6, B12, and D. Low levels of these nutrients may result in increased anxiety and a greater risk of depression. 

Magnesium is especially important in treating severe depression, as it is a critical nutrient that can promote brain health. Many anti-depressants elevate blood cell magnesium in addition to other physiological changes. Omega-3 fatty acids are another nutrient that may improve mood, although it is most effective in people with minimal intake of this nutrient. 

Interestingly, despite all the research supporting the positive impact of a healthy diet for those with mental illness, scientists still do not understand why this happens. There are several theories, including one that looks at inflammation, as several mental illnesses are linked with increased levels of inflammation. Therefore, healthy eating tends to include foods rich in anti-inflammatory compounds. 

Additionally, there is a theory that a great diet may affect bacteria in the gut, and there is a link between gut health and brain health. Some early research has found that healthy gut bacteria can lower the rates of depression. It is thought that healthy gut microflora transmits brain signals through neurogenesis, neural transmission, and behavior control pathways under stable or stressful conditions. 

Maintaining Good Nutrition to Promote Mental Well-Being

The link between nutrition and mental well-being is well researched, and it has been found that certain foods contain nutrients or compounds that impact brain function and mood. These foods help maintain focus, ease depression symptoms, and increase energy levels. Conversely, poor nutrition can worsen symptoms and lead to feelings of sadness or irritability. 

And while some nutrients help in isolation, clinicians are beginning to focus more on unique interactions between nutrients in food. The most benefit occurs when dietary patterns include a wide variety of whole, minimally processed foods that improve nutrition. These diets include food from every food group, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy, and protein.  

Processed foods may promote the proliferation of bad gut bacteria, leading to inflammation. Highly processed foods often include:

  • ‘Naturally-flavored’ foods 
  • Fast food
  • Frozen meals
  • Canned, cured, or blended meats
  • Food advertised as ‘ready-made.’
  • Sugary desserts
  • Fried foods 
  • Refined grains

The best foods for mental well-being have many vitamins, nutrients, amino acids, and proteins. A good diet for mental health may include:

  • Foods with B vitamins, such as liver, fresh orange juice, milk, cheese, poultry, and red meat (in small quantities). B vitamins can combat depressive states and reduce irritability. 
  • Iron-rich foods, such as meat (in small quantities), nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and iron-fortified bread and cereal. Iron can enhance the production of brain chemicals that regulate mood. 
  • Probiotics, such as miso, yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi. These foods can help the body absorb nutrients needed for better mental health. 

The Mediterranean diet is also commonly recommended for treating depression. This diet is high in Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin D, methyl folate, and s-adenosylmethionine. The Mediterranean diet consists of:

  • Lots of fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Potatoes
  • Cereals
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Olive oil
  • Small or medium amounts of dairy, fish, and poultry
  • Very little read meat
  • Small amounts of wine
  • Occasional eggs

Nutrient-dense diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, can ease the symptoms of many mental health conditions and lead to weight loss, which promotes great physical health. 

Unfortunately, the rates of depression and mental illness continue to climb in many parts of the world, including the United States. Nearly one in four Americans have some type of mental illness each year. And these conditions are increasingly found in younger individuals. Half of all long-term mental illnesses start by the age of fourteen. 

Moreover, the risk of depression in teens increases by about 80% when you compare those with the lowest-quality diet to those that regularly eat high-quality whole foods. Additionally, the risk of developing attention-deficit disorder (ADD) doubles. 

This research and many other studies demonstrate the significant link between nutrition and mental well-being. This link is much more vital than previously thought. While many patients may still need additional interventions when treating mental health issues, a healthy diet filled with nutrients can be one component that helps ease the symptoms of many individuals.

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