The Importance of Nutrition in Mental Health: A Deep Dive into Nutritional Psychiatry


When I was growing up, mental health was not talked about nearly enough. In recent years, the discourse surrounding mental health has broadened beyond conventional therapies and medications to encompass lifestyle adjustments and dietary modifications as important aspects of treatment. Nutrition can be a super useful instrument in managing and ameliorating mental health issues. I have recently begun to explore more deliberately the importance of nutrition in mental health and understanding how dietary changes can influence my emotional state, cognitive faculties, and overarching mental welfare.

Nutritional Psychiatry Fundamentals

Nutritional psychiatry has gained popularity as an interdisciplinary sector of psychiatry, unearthing the relationship between what we consume and our mental health. It theorizes that the quality and types of food we eat is directly proportional to our emotional disposition, behavioral tendencies, and cognitive performance.

Eating healthy food with lots of important nutrients helps our brains work well and might make us feel better if we’re struggling with depression or anxiety. But if we don’t get enough of these important nutrients in our diet, it could make our symptoms worse or even cause these mental health issues to develop or progress.

I have always struggled with my weight and my mental health and, since taking more control over what I’m eating, I have absolutely seen positive changes in my mood and overall well-being. I started researching nutritional psychiatry to understand more.

Some Pivotal Nutrients

Specific nutrients wield substantial importance in safeguarding mental health. Some are known for their anti-inflammatory properties and their ability to support brain health. Others are essential for regulating mood and keeping our neurological systems in balance. By including these valuable nutrients in our diet, we can effectively manage feelings of depression and anxiety, think more clearly, and enhance our emotional well-being.

Nutrients that may help with mental health:

  1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Found in fatty fish like salmon, walnuts, and flaxseeds, omega-3s are crucial for brain health and may help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  2. Vitamin B Complex: This group of vitamins, including B6, B12, and folate (B9), is essential for proper nerve function and neurotransmitter synthesis. Foods like leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, and lean meats are good sources.
  3. Magnesium: Involved in hundreds of biochemical reactions in the body, magnesium plays a role in regulating mood and reducing stress. It can be found in foods like spinach, almonds, avocado, and legumes.
  4. Vitamin D: Often referred to as the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D is important for brain health and mood regulation. It can be obtained from sunlight exposure as well as fortified foods like fortified dairy products, fortified cereals, and fatty fish.
  5. Antioxidants: Compounds like vitamin C, vitamin E, and flavonoids help protect brain cells from damage caused by free radicals. Foods rich in antioxidants include berries, citrus fruits, nuts, and leafy greens.

Incorporating these nutrients into your diet through a variety of whole foods can support overall brain health and potentially contribute to managing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

I take Magnesium and Vitamin D supplements myself and I’ve definitely noticed improvements to my sleep cycle and dealing with my seasonal depression.

Establishing Attainable Milestones

Embarking on a journey toward a healthier diet, especially when you’re feeling down, might seem like a big task. However, breaking it into smaller steps can make it more manageable. Start by adding just one new food each week that’s good for improving your mood. Over time, you’ll gradually build up to eating a more balanced diet with lots of healthy nutrients.

Taking small steps like these can make a big difference in how you feel. By making gradual changes to your diet, you can improve your mood and overall well-being, even when facing challenges like depression.

Small steps I’ve implemented

  1. Cook more: The first step to controlling what you’re eating is to have a full understanding of every ingredient that’s going into your body. Try to cook at least 4 nights a week instead of ordering out. I cook 6 nights a week.
  2. Drink more water: It seems cliche because of how much drinking enough water has been in the cultural zeitgeist for the past decade, but that advice rings true. Dehydration can make you irritable, depressed, and inhibits the functions of your body. I drink at least 64 oz of water per day.
  3. Focus on whole foods: It’s easier to track calories and nutrients when you’re eating whole foods as you know exactly what you’re adding to each meal. I try to cook meals that consist of whole fruits, vegetables, proteins, herbs, and spices.
  4. Physical activity: This seems obvious, but I aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week, at minimum. Moving your body around has all kinds of mental and physical benefits beyond just burning calories.

Overcoming Hurdles

When mental health issues take hold, they disrupt many aspects of daily life, including eating habits. It’s common for emotional instability to lead to changes in appetite, causing some people to eat more while others may lose their desire to eat altogether. Feelings of fatigue and low motivation can make it challenging to plan and prepare nutritious meals.

I sympathize mightily with the way that my mood can affect my eating habits. I fall into the camp of “eating my feelings away” and it can be a constant struggle to remember to treat my body well in times of extreme depression.

What helps me is to try and calm my impulses. I take a moment to step back in the kitchen and think about what I’m eating. I don’t just order delivery or go through the drive through because I’m not feeling great. I try to be cognizant and remember that my goals are my goals for a reason and they deserve the respect of seeing them through.

I am not perfect, but if I can be diligent 80% of the time, then I’m doing better than I ever was before.

Seeking Professional Assistance

Getting help from professionals is really important when you’re trying to improve your diet and cope with emotional issues. A dietitian can give you personalized advice about what to eat based on what your body needs. They can help you figure out the best foods for you. A mental health specialist can also be really helpful. They can support you emotionally and teach you ways to deal with obstacles.

Here are three places where you can find professional help for both your diet and your mental health:

  1. Your local community health center may have dietitians and mental health counselors you can talk to.
  2. Many hospitals have nutrition departments and mental health clinics where you can get help from experts.
  3. You can also look for private practices in your area that specialize in diet and mental health. They may have professionals like dietitians and therapists who can work with you one-on-one.

Conclusion

The connection between what we eat and how we feel is really important. Making smart food choices can have a big effect on how we feel emotionally. By paying attention to what we eat and following the ideas of nutritional psychiatry, we can work toward taking control of our mental health.

It’s important to remember that making small changes can make a big difference. Whether it’s being mindful with what we eat or just making sure we drink enough water, every little change helps make us mentally stronger.

I always try to remember that the journey should not be ignored in favor of the destination. Every brick we lay every single day helps build that wall. It can’t be instant and it won’t be linear. Keep walking forward.

Citations:

  1. Jacka FN. Nutritional psychiatry: Where to next? EBioMedicine. 2017;17:24-29. doi:10.1016/j.ebiom.2017.02.020
  2. Sarris J, Logan AC, Akbaraly TN, et al. Nutritional medicine as mainstream in psychiatry. Lancet Psychiatry. 2015;2(3):271-274. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(14)00051-0
  3. Głąbska D, Guzek D, Groele B, Gutkowska K. Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Mental Health in Adults: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2020;12(1):115. Published 2020 Dec 31. doi:10.3390/nu12010115