One of the most important power-players in mental health and wellbeing is the neurotransmitter serotonin. It allows the body and mind to manage mood, regulate sleep, appetite and even reduces physical pain.
What might come as a surprise to anyone that’s not a nutritional psychiatrist, though, is that 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is produced not in the brain, but in the gastrointestinal tract.
More and more research is linking a healthy digestive system directly to an individual’s mental health. Now, dietary interventions for the treatment of common mental disorders, like anxiety and depression, are gaining momentum.
“Today, fortunately, the burgeoning field of Nutritional Psychiatry is finding there are many consequences and correlations between not only what you eat, how you feel and ultimately behave, but also the kinds of bacteria that live in your gut,” writes Dr. Eva Selhub, a contributing editor at Harvard Health Publishing.
The Relationship of Food to Mental Health
Advances in this relatively new field treatment are important considering the stigma surrounding issues of mental health, despite how common these problems are. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) illustrate the latter point:
- Around 50 percent of all Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime
- Among 18 to 44 year olds, mental illness is the third most common cause for hospitalization in the country
- Adults with serious mental illness live, on average, 25 years less than people with stable mental health
Selhub cites studies about probiotics – supplements to boost “good” bacteria in the gut – that show an improvement in people’s sensitivity to stress, anxiety levels and overall mental outlook when taken on a regular basis.
She also compares research about cultural diets, such as the Mediterranean Diet and the Japanese diet, which are rich in fish, seafood, fruits and vegetables, to the typical “Western” diet that’s high in refined sugars and processed grains.
People in these parts of the world or that live on these diets are less prone to depression by up to 30 percent.
The Goals of Nutritional Psychiatry
Here are some of the goals of this dietary discipline, outlined by the Center for Nutritional Psychology:
- Develop evidence-based knowledge about how nutrients affect inflammation in the body, sleep, energy, cognition, medication needs and behavioral dysfunction
- Educate people and patients on the positive and negative roles diet plays in overall mental health and wellbeing
- To consider a patient’s nutritional needs and deficiencies in the context of their mental health treatment
- Using nutritional psychology in integrative health endeavors by treating patients conditions as a whole and not just as a set of separate symptoms
How to Eat For Gut-Brain Health
The question of what foods to get and how to implement a healthier, mood-lifting diet is likely rattling around in people’s brains right now.
“Start paying attention to how eating different foods makes you feel – not just in the moment, but the next day,” writes Dr. Selhub.
She suggests eliminating processed foods and sugars for two to three weeks and replacing them with natural probiotic foods, such as sauerkraut, pickles, miso and kombucha. “Then, slowly introduce foods back into your diet, one by one, and see how you feel.”
As with most medical care, information is key and, sadly, not everyone shares the same access, for any number of reasons. Growing up in a family with a poor diet can often mean a poor nutritional education, regardless of socio-economic status.
Even with the right information, shopping for organic and unprocessed foods is often more expensive or not available in some communities.
Perhaps in the distant future, the science behind nutritional psychiatry and the role of nutrients in overall mental health and wellbeing will transform access.
In the meantime, public awareness and education about gut-brain connection continues to expand.