It’s pretty widely known that eating regularly and well is an important part of remaining a healthy, functioning human being. A drop in blood sugar due to skipping meals can lead a person to feel temporarily depressed, irritable and exhausted. However, these kind of symptoms are usually easily remedied, and can be prevented altogether by eating complex carbohydrates, which release energy very slowly, rather than quick fixes which make blood sugar spike and plummet.
This is a well-known, well-researched example of how diet can influence our physical wellbeing. However, our diet has a far deeper and more complex impact on our mental health.
Multiple studies in nutritional psychiatry have shown that a healthy — largely ‘Mediterranean’ — diet can be significantly beneficial in terms of treating and preventing depression and anxiety, sometimes as effectively as therapy and prescribed medicine.
Digging a little bit deeper, there are multiple studies that have linked different kinds of foods to mental health, and while these kind of studies are newer than those concerning physical health, our diet has already been shown to have a link to mood, brain function and overall mental health.
Think of your gut
Often, the gut is a good indicator of the rest of the body and mind’s health. The gut reflects and reacts to stress and anxiety, and so — especially in these stressful and anxious times — it is extra important to take good care of it.
Plenty of fibre and probiotics will be the most helpful foods for your gut’s health. Likewise, ongoing gut issues can affect your emotional and mental health. Problems with gut health can be very upsetting and difficult to deal with.
The problem, of course, is that for those suffering with depression, it can often be really difficult to make the healthiest choices when it comes to nutrition.
When possible, eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, unprocessed grains, oily fish and low-fat dairy can go some way to preserving good mental health. Clinical studies have shown that Omega-3 fatty acids — found in fish and other seafood, or nuts and seeds — can help to treat mood disorders.
Widening the net, we can see that essential vitamins and minerals, in general, can significantly affect mental health — a deficiency of any of these can cause complications and alter mood. The Mental Health Foundation has a helpful guide on these.
Your brain and your body
Your brain is working literally every single second of every day and it needs to be fed in order to keep functioning properly, so although I realise it is not always easy to make healthy choices it is important to try.
Why not experiment to see how your diet affects your mood: cut out certain factors such as refined sugars, alcohol, processed fats, and concentrate on how this makes you feel. Eat more of these things, and investigate how that impacts your mood and demeanor. A food journal is a good way to start — document how you feel after consuming these foods.
Of course, some mental illnesses, such as eating disorders, often make it nearly impossible to make healthy dietary choices, and this therefore requires a significantly different approach. Likewise, dietary choices are less likely to have a significant impact on severe mental health issues. Nobody’s experience is the same, and if you are suffering with mental health issues, it’s important to go with what helps you personally.