Eat your way to improved mental health

Eat your way to improved mental health

Media and medical experts often tell us about the risks of junk food and the benefits that nutritious eating habits deliver to our physical body. What we don’t often hear about is the effect our food consumption has on our overall mental health. We kind of instinctively know that food affects how we feel, don’t we? We know that if we drink lots of soda or sugary drinks, we tend to feel a bit foggy, and binging out on too many pizzas or burgers makes us feel lethargic and unenthusiastic. You just have to watch the 2004 documentary ‘Supersize Me’ to get a sense of how a constant diet of McDonalds can wreck your body functioning and make you feel a bit rubbish.

A lot of interesting research has been emerging, for the past few years, on how our diet affects our mood. This is not just about what unhealthy food choices do to our bodies, making us feel bad about how we look, but more specifically about the kind of bacteria and microbes that reside in our gut that affect our moods. Each of the various microbes and bacteria that live in our gut survive off what passes through it – i.e what we eat and drink. Each of them have a very specific function (we don’t currently know what they all are) including breaking down food particles so the nutrients can be absorbed into the system and the production of various types of hormones and chemicals – including dopamine (the ‘feel-good hormone’), serotonin, GABA (which has a similar effect to Valium) and hunger hormones. 

Although there are a number of factors that determine the mix of microbes and bacteria we individually have, how many of each time can depend on which we choose to feed or starve – and this is mostly determined by what we eat. Interestingly, the hormones and chemicals that are produced by these microbes and bacteria, communicate directly with our brains via the vagus nerve (the main nerve that runs between the gut and brain) which send messages between the gut and the brain. So, they can directly influence what type of food choices we make and what type of mood we are in. 

Some recent research has pointed to the positive impact of diets such as The Mediterranean Diet in enhancing mood (including depression and SAD) and subduing symptoms of ADHD. It is also said to reduce memory loss and cognitive decline and lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia.

I am not saying that following a Mediterranean Diet will be a mental health miracle cure or that changing our current eating regime is an easy task. I am however suggesting that if the Mediterranean Diet can give our bodies (including our gut health) and minds the best opportunity of working towards a more positive mental state, why wouldn’t we do what we can to help ourselves out? 

Saying that I would suggest not trying to change your entire diet at once. Rather try swopping in one healthy food choice for one not-so-healthy thing and stick with it for a week. Maintain this, while you try swopping in another healthy for another unhealthy food choice for a week. If you can keep at this, you will start to slowly form better eating habits that could give your body the chance to start changing the chemical and hormonal balance in your body, thereby improving your overall mood. 

Source: Dr Michael Mosley ‘The Clever Guts Diet’ & Dr Joseph Mercola:

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