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How Diet Impacts Mental Health: Exploring the Connection Between Nutrition & Brain Function

Diet influences numerous aspects of our health and according to recent studies, it even affects our mental health. But how are nutrition and mental health connected? Let us take a look.

Aarushi Chadha
Mental Health
Several researches conducted in the last two decades have indicated that dietary interventions can help treat mental health problems

Our brain is responsible for coordinating all of our movements, thoughts, and senses. It is constantly working, even when we are asleep. Naturally, for the brain to function smoothly without overeating, it requires fuel and nourishment which it receives from the food we eat. In simple terms, what we eat affects the function of our brain.

So, it makes sense that eating healthy, high-quality foods which are balanced and contain loads of vitamins, minerals, micronutrients, and antioxidants, helps our brain function properly. On the flip side, eating food that is extremely processed, refined, high in sugar, and high in sodium can not only promote inflammation of organs and increase oxidative stress but also impair brain function.

Let us take a look at how food affects our mental health:

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate our mood, sleep, and appetite. More than 90% of serotonin is produced in our gastrointestinal tract, more importantly, our gut. Our gastrointestinal tract is lined with millions of nerve cells that not only help us digest food but also regulate our emotions.

Studies show that the production of serotonin is highly influenced by the billions of beneficial bacteria present in the lining of our intestines. These bacteria protect the lining of our intestines, limit inflammation, improve the absorption of nutrients from food, and create a barrier against toxins and bad bacteria.

Foods such as probiotics, prebiotics, fermented foods, foods rich in a high fibre, nuts and seeds, legumes, and dark chocolate are good for our gut health. On the other hand, regularly eating foods that are rich in sodium and sugar, or ultra-processed and refined food items can affect the production of serotonin as it does not provide the nutrients required to feed the beneficial bacteria in our guts.

Several researches conducted in the last two decades have indicated that dietary interventions can help treat mental health problems. One such study was ‘SMILE,’ a randomised control trial that ran for 12 weeks. In this study, participants with severe or moderate depression received dietary counselling.

The participants had to eat a diet that included raw nuts, and extra virgin olive oil. Oily fish, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. At the end of the study, the participants who followed the diet showed greater improvements in their depression system. Nutritionists and psychiatrists are also looking into the validity of claims that low levels of nutrients like- magnesium, iron, folate, and zinc, are linked with feelings of anxiety, worsening mood, and depression.

Healthy Eating Tips for a Healthy Gut and Better Mental Health

In order for our brain, nervous system, and body to function properly, our body requires a combination of a variety of carbohydrates, proteins, and minerals. Nutritionists recommend eating meals and snacks that include a variety of foods instead of eating the same meals every day. Some healthy eating tips are-

  • Not all fats are bad. Fats are not evil. In fact, our body requires certain fatty acids to function properly. Healthy fats present in olive oil, fatty fish, meat, eggs, avocado, and nuts are crucial for the proper function of our brain and nervous system.

  • Avoid or limit your consumption of processed snack foods, such as potato chips, because they are full of additives, high in sodium, and high in empty calories. Whenever you are in the mood for snacking, have a healthy snack, such as popcorn, hard-boiled eggs, fruits, and nuts.

  • Also, find an alternative to high in sugar beverages, such as cold drinks, as they can lead to ups and downs in our energy levels.

  • Do not skip a meal and be mindful while eating. Sit in a place that is relaxing, chew slowly, and savour the taste and texture.

  • Choose complex carbohydrates over simple carbohydrates. Start incorporating whole grains into your diet which are not just a good source of carbohydrates but also have more nutritional value.

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