General Health

Impact of Diet and Nutrition on Mental Health

Mental, neurological, and substance-use disorders like epilepsy, depression, dementia, alcohol dependence, etc., estimate for about 13% of the global load of mental illness, exceeding both cardiovascular diseases (CVD) and cancer. Many scientist are exploring the relationship between nutrition and mental health to formulate novel approaches to treat common mental health illnesses. The physical health benefits of healthy eating also benefits a person’s mental health. Healthy and mindful eating habits also impact the level and type of neurotransmitters produced in a person.

Micronutrients are associated with mental health are folic acid, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, and a few other vitamins. These nutrients aid in combating sleeping disorders, stress, anxiety, etc. Macronutrients like carbohydrates also play a role in mental health as it provides the 20% energy requirement for the brain to function. However, fluctuations in a person’s blood sugar levels can deliberately affect the frame of mind.

Vitamins and minerals also play an integral role in determining one’s mental health. Oftentimes medical practitioners suggest supplements or diet plans to maintain the day-to-day vitamin and mineral requirements. Minerals like chromium picolinate is found to help with atypical depression because of its antidepressant effects.

The Association of UK Dietitians states that ‘brains are made up of fifty percent of fat, and there is a requisite need of fat for our cells to maintain their structures’. They recommend that that there should be a modest amount of unsaturated fat and omega-3 in a diet. Approximately, 90g fat is required by an adult male and 70g fat is required by an adult female. Trans fats are usually not recommended since it harms heart and brain health and if consumed, the portions should not exceed 2% of the daily energy uptake.

Dehydration also significantly impact a person’s mental state. A healthy brain is made up of around 78% of water, it is indeed important to stay hydrated throughout the day. Dehydration caused due to excessive alcohol and caffeine consumption can trigger anxiety attacks. Increased intake of caffeine also affects a person’s mood. An article published in Expert Review in Neurotherapeutics demonstrates how caffeine aggravates symptoms of anxiety and panic disorders. People with mental health issues are more susceptible to withdrawal symptoms when they skip caffeine for a day. Hence, many nutritionists recommend moderate consumption of caffeine. They also suggest opting for alternative beverages options.

Proteins also play a vital role in mental wellness as they aid in producing neurotransmitters which help to prevent anxiety and depression. Proteins are composed of amino acids that are involved in brain function and producing said neurotransmitters. The amino acid L-Tryptophan, found in dairy and chicken, help in improving mental health as they are the precursors of serotonin. Interestingly, there are certain links established between serotonin and suicides. A region-specific elevation is found in 5-HT2 receptors consecutively leading to a drop in serotonin levels.

Other amino acids like tyrosine, phenylalanine, and methionine are also helpful in treating depression. On the contrary, excessive neurotransmitter synthesis will have an adverse reaction in the brain and can lead to retardation.

Some findings suggest that malnutrition impacts cognitive abilities in young kids. These young children develop poor social behavior as they age. Malnutrition in adults has been frequently linked with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety. Several studies and surveys have also found that people with anorexia nervosa often deal with clinical depression and OCD. Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder where there is the deliberate lowered consumption of food which causes malnutrition and can further exacerbate mental health disorders.

The flowchart above, explains the complex multidirectional link between diet and mental health. Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7322666/

Food has established a relationship between the gut microbiome and mental state due to the gut-brain axis. Together with genetic factors, environmental exposure and antibiotic interaction, food intake is modified each day. A decrease in the functions of the gut is referred to as ‘leaky gut’, and this can be attributed to an unhealthy gut microbiome due to a low fiber diet.

Substantial progress is being done in combining nutritional genomics with psychiatric research to develop effective treatments. However, these advancements are contingent upon recognizing the role of nutrition at a regulatory level.

Author:

Amirtha Varshini Ramesh is pursuing her Master’s by research with Biotechnology specialization. She loves exploring the nuances in health, nutrition, and wine sciences.

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