Diet And Mental Health: What You Need To Know

Do you someone who consumes energy drinks, and drinks alcohol frequently? I think we can all answer a definitive “yes” to that question. Sadly, in America, this is almost the norm when it comes to lifestyle choices. But what is this type of day in and day out consumption doing to our brain cells? It must be having an adverse effect, right?

Though the scientific community has been seeing the link between diet and mental health for many years now, the general public is now also starting to come around to the idea that these two elements may indeed be linked. No doubt, it makes perfect sense that if you are eating a terrible diet, you are likely to have terrible mental health – and vice versa. I’m not quite sure why it was ever thought otherwise, since a large amount of your body’s serotonin is produced in your gut, and the nutrients from your food have an important impact on the neurotransmitters in your brain.

Where things start to get scientifically interesting is when we look specifically at cases of diets, food intolerances, allergies, or specific mental disorders and their possible dietary links. For example, one interesting study seemed to conclude that vegetarians display elevated rates of depressive disorders, as well as increased anxiety. What’s important to note is that the vegetarian diet was not shown to be casual in nature – meaning that the diet may have been adopted after the mental health problems set in.

Since it would seem odd to think that a vegetarian diet (obviously rich in many vitamins and phytonutrients) would be somehow related to poor mental health, we must dig deeper into the scientific literature. Perhaps more predictably, another study found that those with better-quality diets were less likely to be depressed – and a higher intake of processed and unhealthy foods was associated with increased anxiety.

Further research backs this up, citing that unhealthy diets are indeed risk factors for mental disorders – specifically depression and dementia. Since prevention is paramount here (as with all disease) this makes prioritizing a healthy diet absolutely vital. No waiting for Monday, no excuses – just get it done. Besides the obvious benefits of a Paleo diet, there are even specific foods that researchers have looked at, in order to maximize potential mental health benefits.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these foods include vegetables, fruits and fish. It must also be noted that across large amounts of studies, non-processed meat was shown to be beneficial – another win for the Paleo approach. Again, remember that grass-fed, organic meat is superior to all processed forms. Fish in particular has been correlated with lower rates of depression and conditions such as bipolar disorder. This is likely due to the DHA content (an omega-3 fatty acid).

Other research has shown that processed food intake goes hand in hand with depression rates – and by contrast, a diet with more whole foods is related to lower rates of depression. Since this was a large, 5-year study, the evidence must be weighed heavily. Interestingly, researchers have also looked at a ketogenic diet for mental health issues, finding that a ketogenic diet is a potentially sustainable option for mood stabilization. Keep in mind that a dietary approach like this should be conducted under the supervision of a healthcare professional.

Other studies note that small sample sizes sometimes mean that no definitive conclusions can be made with regard to diet and mental health. However, this is where (I think) a little common sense is warranted. Or — more scientifically — how could a diet lacking nutrients, high in sugar and refined elements, and low in protein, help mental issues? Exactly.

This is sometimes the frustration I have with the scientific community. Important advice (like eating better if you are prone to depression or mental health issues) can be greatly delayed — simply due to scientific rigor. While this is admirable (in a scientific sense) when you have a world population approaching 8 billion people it is important to give the most help possible – especially to those suffering from mental health issues.

This advice can be general, or it can be very specific. In fact, if one were to look specifically at bipolar disorder, they might find that there are even specific foods that can worsen the condition – bringing on fits of mania and the resultant low moods. What may not be known by some, is that caffeine – yes, even that morning cup of organic coffee – may be greatly exacerbating symptoms. In fact, some report that caffeine can even cause bouts of mania. This is definitely something to try and avoid if you think you may be susceptible to mental health issues. Another culprit in possibly inducing mania is energy drinks. That gives you just one more reason to skip the Red Bull in the morning (or evening).

Since you are gambling with your own mental health here, it is very important to understand the risks. And if you don’t have good mental health, can you really have any other kind of health? I would argue that you can’t. Alcohol is another key risk factor which many overlook in those who may be slightly more susceptible to mental health issues, and can also serve as a key trigger of depression. Do not consume alcohol with any sort of regularity if you are susceptible to mental health problems.

These pieces of advice may all seem like elementary conclusions, but it is easy to simply read them. It is much harder to stay away from these substances in your own life. This is especially true in the long term. All of those office parties with tempting sugary treats, free alcohol, and energy drinks present a real temptation, and risk surrounds us every day. Another overlooked item is the fact that caffeine and alcohol may interact very adversely with medications – which mental health conditions make more common.

Another problematic element to avoid if looking to improve mental health is excess sugar. Many researchers have found that high consumption of sugar is associated with mental health problems. This shouldn’t be surprising. There is even some evidence that sugar and ADHD are linked. However, it must be noted that there is much controversy in the scientific community about whether this correlation is correct — or merely an interesting idea.

Even if you are not likely to develop cognitive problems, food can make a difference in your mental health. This is especially poignant for people in situations where stress may already be high – college students, for example. Research has shown that a healthier diet correlated with lower depressive symptoms and lower levels of perceived stress for this population.

So if you are looking to maximize your mental health, and avoid depression, what is the best path to take? For starters, get enough sleep. Sleep is a hugely underrated aspect of positive mental health, and most of us are not getting enough of it. Exercising regularly would be another good step to take, as exercise has many positive mental health benefits. This brings us to the dietary element. A Paleo diet, rich in bioavailable omega-3 fatty acids, high quality sources of protein, and antioxidants, will only help your mental health.

An overlooked aspect of the Paleo diet is the fermented foods that many choose to consume. These foods have been shown to be hugely beneficial for your mental health. Ancient cultures certainly knew this – at least in an anecdotal sense. Thought it may not be hugely appetizing to eat a big plate of sauerkraut, it is definitely beneficial to your brain and gut health – both of which are very closely linked.

This is why it is important to emphasize regular fermented food consumption, and/or probiotic supplementation. Besides this, vegetables need to be at the core of every meal, building your plate around them – not the other way around. Many who practice a standard Western diet do not consume nearly enough vegetables. And they are paying the price for it. Some studies even indicate that vegetables play an important role in preventing type 2 diabetes. Other dietary approaches that have been shown to work for diabetes? Following a Paleo diet.

In conclusion, your diet is perhaps the most important element in controlling your mental health – assuming you are getting proper sleep, exercising and keeping stress at bay. The choices you make with your plate – day in and day out – have much more of an effect on your brain than you may realize. Make poor choices, and you’ll feel the effects. Make good ones, and you’ll reap the benefits.

This article originally appeared on PaleoHacks.