The Link Between Food and Mental Health

The choices we make about what we eat affects more than just our weight, heart, and  physical health. Studies of diet and exercise for mental health have shown a significant link between food and mental health.

What we eat can affect our mood, how we feel, and how well we cope with stress in life. Dr. Eva Selhub says, “Think about it. Your brain is always ‘on.’ It takes care of your thoughts and movements, your breathing and heartbeat, your senses — it works hard 24/7, even while you’re asleep.

“Think about it. Your brain is always ‘on.’ It takes care of your thoughts and movements, your breathing and heartbeat, your senses — it works hard 24/7, even while you’re asleep.

This means your brain requires a constant supply of fuel. That “fuel” comes from the foods you eat — and what’s in that fuel makes all the difference. 

Put simply, what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.”

For many years, I worked in an office, surrounded by others, all of us in cubicles. I had a cup of coffee at home, then another when I got to work.  I worked productively throughout the morning, which I attributed to being a “morning person.” I was always productive and full of energy at the start of the day.

After lunch, I resumed work, a little less energetically. By 3pm, I’d hit an energy low. Problem solving became more difficult. So I’d have a diet cola mid-afternoon. It gave me a boost for the last stretch of the workday.

I’d commute home, have dinner, and by 8pm, I’d hit another low. My brain was mush, and I was exhausted. Every day was the same – clear headed and mentally energetic in the morning, brain fog by 3pm, caffeine-assist mid-afternoon, and crash by 8pm.

But then, during the height of popularity for detox ‘cleansing,’ I did a 3 day juice ‘cleanse’ over a weekend. I spent the weekend with a classic caffeine withdrawal (excruciating) headache. But by Monday morning, I was on the other side and the headache was gone. I hated the idea of having endured that headache for nothing. So, I decided to stay off the caffeine.

The impact of that one small change in my diet was astonishing. Without the caffeine, my energy level for the entire day remained steady.  My brain was fully functioning all the way to bedtime. I wasn’t crashing mid-afternoon, so didn’t need the soda to make it to the end of the work day.  I got to the other side of the dinner hour and still had mental and physical energy. It was amazing to enjoy the evening, instead of watching the clock as I held up my weary head at least as long as the kids were still up.

I was amazed at how the caffeine I’d been drinking – just two cups of coffee in the morning and a soda in the afternoon – had impacted my mental and physical health for the entire day. I was happier and healthier without the caffeine.

What we eat really does affect how we feel and how well we cope. Licensed nurse Carolyn Denton, says, “The food we eat gives our bodies the ‘information’ and materials they need to function properly. If we don’t get the right information, our metabolic processes suffer and our health declines. If we get too much food, or food that gives our bodies the wrong instructions, we can become overweight, undernourished, and at risk for the development of diseases and conditions, such as arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease.

Functional Medicine practitioners examine the role of nutrition in chronic disease, they look at multiple systems, such as the digestive system, the immune system, and the detoxification system, because of the interconnections between those systems. For instance, because 80% of the immune system is contained in the gastrointestinal system, a person’s issues with immunity could be related to faulty digestion.”

Many studies have also looked at the impact of nutrition on young children.  A review of the research done in 2014 found that a poor diet is linked to poorer mental health in children and adolescents.   

They conclude that there is an important relationship between diet patterns or quality and mental health early in life. The evidence also indicates that what we – and our children – eat may play an important part in preventing or managing mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), and dementia.

The UK Mental Health Foundation says, “Just like the heart, stomach, and liver, the brain is an organ that requires different amounts of complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and water to remain healthy.”

Not surprisingly, good nutrition includes fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, meat, fish and dairy.  These foods, known to benefit our heart and liver, also benefit our minds, memory, and emotions.  

And while a healthy diet helps everyone’s mental health and brain function, for infants and children under the age of 3, whose bodies and brains are growing more rapidly than they ever will again, good nutrition also feeds their ability to learn, setting them up for a lifetime of benefit.

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