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Food + Mood: How Nutrition Impacts Mental Health

This post is part of a series in which I talk about simple lifestyle factors everyone can focus on in order to support their mental wellness as much as possible. I always harp on lifestyle changes as an important aspect of therapy because I view health holistically. If you are taking care of yourself physically, it will almost always benefit your mental state. But if sleep, rest, nutrition, exercise, play, and social support are neglected, it will be harder to progress towards your mental wellness goals.

Nutrition plays an important role in your mental wellness. Creating a nourishing and supportive diet may help support your recovery from mental illness, addiction, or similar concerns.

Disclaimer: I am not a registered dietitian. Please consult a RD about the best food choices for your dietary needs.

Second disclaimer: Diet culture sucks. I am not here to tell you to lose weight, restrict your food intake, or beat yourself up for the food choices you make. I look at food as a way to support and nourish the amazing people we are, not as a thing that should make us miserable.

Mental illness and the impacts on digestion

Mental illness and nutrition can create a feedback loop with each other. People with anxiety may not feel hungry. People with binge eating disorder may overeat foods that make them feel icky. People on certain medications may struggle with unwanted weight gain and resort to extreme dieting. People with eating disorders may struggle to take in enough food to meet basic caloric needs. Mental health symptoms can make it hard to eat healthfully. The more a person struggles to eat a balanced diet, the more their unmet nutritional needs can exacerbate mental health symptoms.

Neurotransmitter production

Researchers are only beginning to realize the impact that diet has on mental health. While writing this post, one of the most fascinating things I learned is that the gut or digestive tract is often called the second brain [1]. This is because many neurotransmitters are produced and stored in the gut. Neurotransmitters are chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and GABA that have an impact on mood and mental health. The bacteria located in the gut also plays a role in neurotransmitter production. This means that digestive health concerns or a diet low in essential nutrients can directly impact the production of neurotransmitters and mental health.

Blood sugar spikes

Another aspect of nutrition that impacts mental health and mood is blood sugar level changes or hypoglycemia. Certain foods cause blood sugar to spike then crash. When this occurs, people tend to not only feel bad physically, they feel bad mentally. Irritability, anxiousness, nervousness, panic, personality changes, confusion, and lack of focus can all occur in people who are riding the blood sugar roller coaster. Blood sugar crashes are usually the origin of feeling “hangry” (hungry and angry).

Addiction and nutrition

Addiction is an illness that impacts mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health. People who are in addiction recovery often need a lot of love in the nutrition realm to get well. For instance, people who are dealing with alcohol addiction often experience hypoglycemia [1]. Between the depressant effects of alcohol and the mood fluctuations caused by blood sugar spikes, it’s easy to see why people with alcoholism tend to struggle. Additionally, excess alcohol consumption inhibits the absorption of certain nutrients, leaving people malnourished. In serious cases, people may get a condition known as wet brain or Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. Wet brain is actually a severe vitamin B1 deficiency. This can result in permanent brain damage that persists even after a person gets sober. Symptoms include confusion, memory loss, loss of muscle control, and loss of mental functioning that may result in coma or death [2].

More generally, people in active addiction are rarely eating enough food or eating balanced meals. I encourage people to improve their diet early in their recovery process in order to support a stable mood and a healthy routine, all of which support recovery!

What about eating disorders?

Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that can have devastating consequences. I am not trained to work with clients with eating disorders, so I won’t spend too much time on this topic. Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder are all recognized conditions in the DSM 5. Orthorexia is a new category of disordered eating that is not currently recognized by the DSM 5, but is being studied. The highlight here is that all of these conditions are related to difficult relationships with food, challenging emotions, and negative mood states. Obviously, people with eating disorders often become malnourished. I would predict that there is a relationship between the lack of nourishment and the continuation of the mental health symptoms. Only more research will reveal this relationship.

What is a good mental health diet?

This all depends on your individual needs! I won’t recommend any specific diet plan here or tell you to get on supplements. Those choices should be made by you and a registered dietitian who has ran appropriate lab work to fully understand your unique circumstances. Here are a few tips I am comfortable giving:

*Eat balanced meals:

Most bodies need a balance of protein, carbs, and fat in each meal to feel full and avoid blood sugar spikes. If anyone tells you carbs or fat are the enemy, take it with a grain of salt. Do your research to determine good sources of these nutrients.

*Eat regularly:

Eating consistently throughout the day stabilizes blood sugar and provides the fuel your body needs. Find a routine that works for you and stick to it.

*Eat the rainbow:

Fruits and veggies provide a wide variety of nutrients that your body needs to produce neurotransmitters, hormones, and other chemicals that support your mood and mental health [1]. Most people benefit from adding lots of colorful produce to their plate to provide adequate nutrients, fiber, etc.

*Cut back on certain substances:

I don’t like to categorize foods as inherently good or bad. If you want to eat pizza or cake, do it and enjoy it! But, it also pays to be aware that certain substances are not likely to support digestion or your overall health, especially if eaten in excess. Cutting back on alcohol, caffeine, smoking cigarettes, and excessive sugar are usually a good move for your digestion and your mental health.

*Reduce stress:

High levels of stress tend to have a negative impact on digestion, hormones, and the body overall. Take a few minutes to breath and come into the present moment before you eat. Mindfulness practices can help with this!

*Consider prebiotics/probiotics:

Maintaining the balance of bacteria in your gut is important for overall digestive health and the production and regulation of neurotransmitters [1]. Consider adding in prebiotic/probiotic foods if they are appropriate for your specific needs.

*Keep a food/mood diary:

Not everyone can access a dietitian to help them create a customized eating plan. If that isn’t realistic for you right now, consider tracking how your diet impacts your mood and mental health symptoms. Keep a journal of what you eat and your mood throughout the day. You may be surprised at what patterns emerge!

If getting a handle on your nutrition and mental health feels difficult, please give me a call. I can help you assess your needs and identify options for treatment.

[1] Nutrition essentials for mental health: A complete guide to the food-mood connection by Leslie Korn


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