A recent review published in the Journal of European Neuropsychopharmacology looked at nutritional psychiatry and whether mental health can be improved by what you eat.
“The popular press often provide advice to the general public about recommendations on how to improve one’s mental health by changing what we eat – specific diets, supplements or foods,” review author Suzanne L Dickson told us. “We are a group of researchers with much diverse yet collective knowledge on nutrition and brain health. We know when facts are clearly wrong, when they are right and all the shades of grey in between. We wanted to set the record straight and explain in an informed balanced manner, the actual data behind common claims and misconceptions.”
Dickson is a professor in the Depart of Physiology/Endocrine at the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology at the the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
“We addressed many different aspects of nutrition and brain health – for some of these quite a lot is known and so the evidence pretty much aligned to current theories proposed by scientists,” Dickson told us. “However, for other areas, even scientists are drawn in by assumptions, for example, that eating too much sugar exacerbates symptoms observed in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Actually, the evidence for this is very slim indeed.”
The review notes that the brain requires certain nutrients in order to function properly including minerals, vitamins, lipids, and amino acids.
“We read as much possible literature on the various topics and summarized the key components. We wanted to provide an explanation as to why it is difficult for scientists and nutritionists to provide proof that any dietary ingredient or food really does improve brain health,” Dickson told us. “We also want to explain likely ways that we can make better progress in the future.”
In addition to nutrients the brain requires, other elements such as gut hormones, neurotransmitters, and neuropeptides.
“There are so many different topics in the article, some relating to cognitive function, some to ADHD and others to depression and anxiety disorders,” Dickson told us. “Essentially, for most disease areas, nutrition can have beneficial effects but often the effects are marginal and we lack knowledge regarding how the nutritional change could cause the proposed effect on mental health.”
There are scientific studies do show that proper nutrition is a benefit for one’s mental health. Some studies link a higher intake of fresh vegetables and fruits with increased happiness. But more research is needed.
“As scientists we were surprised at how scarce the evidence is to back dietary advice for mental health,” Dickson told us.”We need to battle on to sort out fact from fiction regarding dietary advice for mental health and this can only be done by rigorous investigation. We need well controlled clinical studies as well as basic mechanistic studies examining the impact of nutrients on the body, on metabolism and brain.”
Another study showed how depression could be reduced with a higher intake of not only fruits and vegetables but also whole grains and fish, or otherwise popularly known as the ‘Mediterranean diet’. Studies have also shown that a lack of vitamin B12 can cause lethargy, poor memory and depression. Studies have shown that adequate intake of vitamin D has a beneficial effect on memory and attention.
“Be kind to your brain by making healthier food choices,” Dickson told us. “The effects of diet on mental health are likely real. Since most data on nutrition and brain health is provisional, it is important not to follow dietary advice that is not evidence-based.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com