Diet and Depression? The Brain-Gut Connection to Mental Health
It turns out the old adage “you are what you eat” is not just about our bodies, but about our minds as well. Diet, according to the latest research, is as important to mental health as is it is to physical health. Some psychiatrists have even started examining their patients’ diets and prescribing proper nutrition before medication.
Beginning around 2007, Scientists have come to understand that bacteria in the gut produce neurochemicals that interact with the brain. There are more bacteria in the stomach and intestinal tract than there are cells in the body. While the bacteria help us digest food, they also produce hormones that stimulate the vagus nerve, which runs from the brainstem all the way to the abdomen. This interaction between the brain and stomach affects the way we feel.
It’s no wonder we have seen a huge increase in the number of probiotic and yogurt products available on supermarket shelves like the ones shown here.
In an interview with The New York Times, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Tom Insel, said, “[This] has enormous implications for the sense of self. That’s an enormous insight and one we have to take seriously when we think about human development.”
What we eat changes the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract and can therefore have some responsibility for mood and mental well being. A 2011 study of the modern Western diet, shows low nutrient, high calorie, processed foods, proved a link between increased rates of anxiety and depression and the foods we consume.
Researchers are now looking closely at diet and the link between mental health and the following neurological conditions:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Bipolar Disorder
Psychiatrists have known for some time that vitamins, such as B, iron and magnesium, play a role in mental health. Following that logic, it makes sense for mental health professionals to look at nutrition. Dr. Drew Ramsey, an integrative psychiatrist at Columbia University, says, “Food should be the first line of defense because it’s a foundational treatment. We really need to move away from thinking of things like diet and exercise as ‘complimentary’ or ‘alternative.’ That’s really bad thinking that’s gotten psychiatry into trouble.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that an estimated 450 million people worldwide suffer some type of mental illness, and that depression is the leading cause disability in the world. The vast majority of these people never seek treatment due to discrimination, stigma, poverty and a lack of education. Mental health is a global health crisis that cannot be ignored.
In light of the brain-gut connection, physicians are encouraging their patients to keep food diaries.
This smart and simple approach to your mental health and diet includes:
- Writing down what you eat after each meal
- Noting changes in mood and energy
- Avoiding foods that have a negative impact on mood
- Keeping a list of foods that positively affect on mood and feeling
Current psychiatric treatment focuses on adjusting brain chemistry to treat mental disorders. A new field that some have started calling “psychobiotics” is now emerging. This is where psychiatrists alter the bacteria in their patients’ guts in an effort to treat the root causes of mental illness. Perhaps that old adage should now be “you are what you eat and what you eat can change how you think.”
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