There is growing evidence of a link between diet and mental health

Did you know that:

  • Nearly one in four Americans has some kind of mental illness.
  • According to a recent article in WebMD Health News, “Half of all long-term mental disorders start by age 14. Today, childhood mental illness affects more than 17 million kids in the U.S.”
  • Drew Ramsey, MD, a psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor at Columbia University, says, “the risk of depression increases about 80% when you compare teens with the lowest-quality diet, or what we call the Western diet, to those who eat a higher-quality, whole-foods diet. The risk of attention-deficit disorder (ADD) doubles.”
  • Felice Jacka, president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research, says: “A very large body of evidence exists that suggests diet is as important to mental health as it is to physical health. A healthy diet is protective and an unhealthy diet is a risk factor for depression and anxiety.” She also says that food allergies may play a role in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
  • The Mental Health Foundation recently made this statement: “the evidence indicates that food plays an important contributing role in the development, management and prevention of specific mental health problems such as depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease.”

    Yet, “Nearly two thirds of those who do not report daily mental health problems eat fresh fruit or fruit juice every day.” And those who do report mental health issues “eat fewer healthy foods” and “more unhealthy foods.”

  • The WebMD Health News article also says that “Certain foods may play a role in the cause of mental disorders, or they may make symptoms worse. A nutritious brain diet follows the same logic as a heart healthy regimen or weight control plan. You want to limit sugary and high-fat processed foods, and opt for plant foods like fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains,” cornerstones of the Hallelujah Diet.
  • “More psychiatrists need to recognize the nutrition-mental health connection,” says Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD, a board-certified doctor of natural medicine and international best-selling author of 18 books. A Registered Nutritional Consulting Practitioner (RNCP) and a Registered Orthomolecular Health Practitioner (ROHP), she says, “We can have so much power over our mental health using food and nutrients.”

Where do we get those vital nutrients?

Like Hallelujah Diet, Mental Health America urges us to avoid “High-fat dairy, and fried, refined and sugary foods, which have little nutritional value. In addition to contributing to weight gain, and conditions like diabetes, research shows that a diet that consists primarily of these kinds of foods significantly increases risk of depression.”

Conversely, like Hallelujah Diet, Mental Health America encourages us to eat a diet rich in “fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains” and unsaturated fats. Those “who follow this kind of diet are up to 30% less likely to develop depression than people who eat lots of meat and dairy products.” Roxanne Sukol, preventative medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, points out that “When we eat real food that nourishes us, it becomes the protein-building blocks, enzymes, brain tissue, and neurotransmitters that transfer information and signals between various parts of the brain and body.”

However, as has been discussed in many articles written by experts at Hallelujah Diet, we can’t get enough vital living nutrition from even the healthiest diet. The Mental Health Foundation echoes this fact:

“What we are eating now is very different from that of our recent ancestors. Food production and manufacturing techniques, coupled with changing lifestyles and increasing access to processed foods, mean that our intake of fresh, nutritious, local produce is much lower” and “our intake of fat, sugar, alcohol and additives is much higher.” The Foundation also points out that if people cut out unhealthy beverages and snacks, they could afford healthier foods, including organic produce.

However, as both the Foundation and Hallelujah Diet have stated, we cannot get enough living nutrition from our nutrient-deficient foods to achieve and maintain optimal physical and mental health. Fortunately, there is growing evidence that certain supplements can help us to sustain a healthy mind and body well into old age. Specifically, certain whole food supplements and other remedies appear to promote mental health:

  • WebMD Health News says that specific “Nutrients might be particularly helpful for treating or preventing mental illness,” namely:
    • Vitamin B12 because “People with low B12 levels have more brain inflammation and higher rates of depression and dementia.”
    • Folate or folic acid because “Falling short on folate has been long linked to low moods.” Conversely, people who get enough folic acid are less likely to be diagnosed with depression.
    • Iron because “Too little iron in the blood (iron-deficiency anemia) has been linked to depression.
    • Omega-3s because “These healthy fatty acids improve thinking and memory and, possibly mood.”
    • Zinc because “This nutrient helps control the body’s response to stress. Low levels” of zinc “can cause depression.”
  • The Mental Health Foundation says:
    • Studies have shown that depression has been linked to “low levels of zinc and vitamins B1, B2 and C. In other studies standard treatments have been supplemented with these micronutrients resulting in greater relief of symptoms in people with depression and bi-polar affective disorder, in some cases by as much as 50%.”
    • The Foundation also says: “We all need to eat enough protein to maintain our skin, organ, muscle and immune function but recent research suggests that one particular component of protein, the amino acid tryptophan, can influence mood.” You can get tryptophan from protein-rich foods including “nuts, beans, lentils (dhal), or a meat substitute such as textured vegetable protein or mycoprotein.”
    • The Foundation also says that selenium is “thought to decrease the symptoms of depression.”
  • Mental Health America points out that “Rates of depression are higher in people with Vitamin D deficiency compared to people who have adequate levels of Vitamin D. Moreover, “Vitamin D deficiency is associated with heart disease and increased risk of heart attacks.”
  • An article by Gisela Telis in The Washington Post includes this quote from Linda A. Lee, director of the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center: “There’s a two-way street between what’s going on in the gut and what’s going on in the brain.” The article says that “Gut bacteria are known to make most of the body’s serotonin, one of several chemicals that regulate mood, and the bugs may even have a hand in shaping behavior.”

Experts agree that, in addition to a healthy diet and the right supplements, sound mental and physical health also involves getting plenty of exercise and purified water.

What’s next?

Dr. Drew Ramsey, integrative psychiatrist at Columbia University and author of Fifty Shades of Kale, told the Huffington Post: “Depression is the leading cause of disability in the world and soon it will be the leading cause of disability in America. So, as somebody who treats depression, it’s of great interest when we see a data signal that suggests that we can treat depression by focusing on nutrition and what we eat.”

The Huffington Post article goes on to say that mental illnesses have traditionally been treated with medications and therapies. “Bringing diet into the equation would represent a major shift in the field of mental health care, opening up new modes of treatment and low-cost, low side-effect interventions for individuals suffering from a range of mental health concerns.”

Much is known about the impact of diet and supplemental nutrition on mental health, but we are still at the frontier of this emerging phenomenon. Now that mental health practitioners and nutrition experts are awakening to the possibilities, we can all anticipate greater progress and results in the days and years to come.

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