What Is the Role of Nutrition in Mental Health?
The food consumed by an individual does not only affect physical health; it has a significant impact on the mental status and overall well-being of an individual. Daily food intake influences sleep patterns, temper, concentration, energy, hunger, and pain levels. Consumption of a good diet leads to better mental health, enhances mood, boosts energy and focus, causes feeble feelings of pain, and improves general performance. Whereas a poor diet consisting of a high concentration of sugars, processed food, and deficient nutrients results in lethargy, irritability, abnormal sleep, and critical health issues in the long term like diabetes, obesity, etc.
How Does Nutrition Impact Mental Health?
Besides digesting and absorbing food, the gastrointestinal tract (GI) produces about 95 % serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that acts as a mood stabilizer and makes healthy sleeping and appetite patterns. The lining of the GI tract comprises millions of neurons that synthesize serotonin. The gut microbiota influences the function of these GI neurons. The good bacteria also protect the intestinal lining, prevent inflammation, provide a barrier against harmful bacteria and other pathogens, and activate direct neural pathways between the gut and the brain. Maintaining a surplus load of good bacteria in the gut is imperative by consuming a healthy diet.
How and Why Do Different Nutrients Influence Mental Health?
The various nutrients available in our food influence our mental health differently. Their details are discussed below:
Carbohydrates: They affect the mood and behavior of a person. Carbohydrates consumption causes insulin release in the body, permitting tryptophan to reach the brain. Tryptophan further impacts the neurotransmitter level in the brain, so the carbohydrate-rich diet triggers tryptophan and serotonin production, thereby uplifting the mood and behavior of a person. A diet lacking carbohydrates leads to feelings of depression and lethargy. Though the body requires carbohydrate intake in abundance, foods with a low glycemic index are preferred to check the blood glucose levels simultaneously.
Proteins: Proteins are made up of amino acids. Many amino acids are synthesized in the body, but a large quantity of them has to be fulfilled by the diet. Dietary sources are required to fulfill the need for eight amino acids. The amino acids like tryptophan and tyrosine make up the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, respectively.
If enough protein is not taken into the diet, then the synthesis of the neurotransmitters is compromised, leading to aggression and low mood. Yet, the accumulation of phenylalanine in large quantities in the brain results in mental retardation and brain damage. Only an appropriate amount of proteins is essential to prevent adverse effects.
Fatty Acids: The brain has large amounts of fats in the body. The brain fats comprise the cell membranes, and the gray matter consists of 50 % of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), of which 33 % are omega-3 fatty acids. Some studies claim that an adequate quantity of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) may slow down the occurrence of depression, and a diet lacking it may cause disturbance in neural function and cerebral aging. The omega-3 fatty acids have a vital role in dyslexia and autism. The DHA is obtained from omega-3 fatty acids alpha-linolenic acid, omega-6 fatty acid linolenic acid and cannot be synthesized by the body. PUFA, specifically DHA, is also imperative during the third trimester of pregnancy and early postnatal life for the normal development of neurons, the brain, and the retina.
An optimal quantity of vitamin B12 slows down the occurrence of dementia and certain blood disorders. Vitamin B12 supplementation in seniors improves cerebral and cognitive functions, and its deficiency in adolescents causes manifestations of analytical impairment.
Folate proportions in the body are linked to a state of depression. Bad mood indications occur due to folate deficiency. Folate levels are directly proportional to the effectiveness of antidepressant therapy. Low folate levels are found in patients with depression.
Minerals: Iron is required by the brain for oxygenation, energy production, neurotransmitters, and myelin synthesis. Iron is essential to people of all ages, particularly women. Iron deficiency anemia is related to generalized weakness, fatigue, apathy, low mood, and bad temper. Iron deficiency in children is seen in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and in infants, it causes impaired development of intellectual functions. Depression is most commonly seen in women of reproductive age.
Chromium and iodine also guide mental health. Iodine helps the cerebral cells utilize energy, and iodine deficiency during pregnancy can cause cerebral dysfunction or cretinism. Selenium concentrations affect the status of mental health. Its appropriate concentrations in the body enhance mood and prevent anxiety. Zinc protects the brain from free radicals and is also associated with clinical depression. Its supplementation improves the efficacy of antidepressant therapy. Lithium is effective in psychiatric diseases and is an adjunct to psychiatric drugs. It stabilizes mood and is safe for patients with comorbidities like cardiovascular, renal, endocrine, pulmonary, and dermatological diseases. However, care should be taken to prevent its toxicity.
Why Does Nutrition Affect Mental Health?
Though the precise answer to why food consumption influences mental health is not there, some studies claim that the inflammatory effect of the diet plays a role. The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich diet has proved beneficial to mental health, whereas the pro-inflammatory diet causes mental issues.
How to Go for a Healthy Mental Diet?
Consuming a balanced diet has an affirmative effect on mental health. There are some easy ways through which mental health can be improved. They are listed as:
Taking meals regularly and at the proper time. This prevents alterations in blood glucose levels. The lowering of blood glucose levels causes tiredness and irritability.
Drinking optimal quantities of water or liquids and maintaining good hydration. Proper hydration increases concentration and energy levels and enhances mood.
Consuming food items containing healthy fats such as polyunsaturated fatty acids in olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, etc., and preventing intake of processed and packaged foods comprising saturated fats and trans fats.
Including good sources of vitamins and minerals in the diet.
Incorporation of optimal quantities of proteins like legumes, beans, and pulses that help regulate mood.
Taking probiotics, prebiotics, and fiber-rich food like fruits and vegetables to improve gut health.
Preventing the overconsumption of caffeine in tea, coffee, cola, and energy drinks as it hampers good sleep and mood.
As it is said that a healthy mind resides in a healthy body, it is suggested to consume a diet full of essential nutrients in the required quantities and some micronutrients in trace amounts. Care should also be taken to prevent the toxicity of any nutrients to pave the way to a healthier and happier life.