Opinion | The food-mood connection

Focusing on nutrition to improve mental health

By on March 6, 2018

As someone highly susceptible to stress, anxiety and bouts of depression, learning how to prevent and cope with my negative emotions can be quite challenging. A few months ago, however, I started focusing on my diet and my life completely changed.

Despite the growing body of research on the link between food and mood, the impact of nutrition is often neglected in mental health treatment efforts. Many mental health professionals don’t even realize that the Western-style diet, which contains an excessive amount of unhealthy fats, refined sugars and carbohydrates, actually damages the brain.

“You can’t separate the mind from the body,” Robert Lechler, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences told The Daily Telegraph. “Our model of healthcare is outdated. We have a separation. Mental healthcare is delivered by mental health professionals, psychiatrists, mental health nurses and so on, often in separate premises from where physical health care is delivered and that is simply wrong and we need to find ways to ever more closely integrate and train amphibious healthcare professionals who can straddle this divide.”

There is ample scientific evidence to support Lechler’s claim.

“Diet is the only way the brain gets what it needs to make the chemicals we call neurotransmitters,” Integrative Psychiatrist Henry Emmons, MD, author of The Chemistry of Calm told Experience Life magazine.

A diet high in processed foods, especially refined carbohydrates and sugars, increases gut inflammation, which prevents the brain from getting sufficient amounts of serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and gamma-aminobutyric acid. All of these chemicals convey signals throughout the nervous system, including the digestive tract, which is also the birthplace of many neurotransmitters and is where 95 percent of the serotonin in the body is produced, according to Experience Life magazine.

Serotonin is the brain’s “feel good” chemical that helps control mood, appetite and sleep. Eating sugary snacks spikes serotonin levels before they rapidly fall even lower.

“That’s why we crave carbohydrates and sweets when we are stressed,” Emmons said.

This coping mechanism is counterproductive because refined carbohydrates and sugars cause insulin to drive sugar from the blood into the cells, which results in a low-blood-sugar crash that feels like anxiety and fatigue. The National Institute of Mental Health finds that people with depression often have below average levels of serotonin.

“What we take into our body today becomes our brain of tomorrow,” Emmons added.

I was previously unaware that improving my eating habits would significantly alter my emotions and elevate my spirits. Sure, junk food made me feel great for a moment, but in reality, it made me feel worse in the long run. It’s the same as self-medicating with a drug. Refined sugars and carbs have a powerful effect on the reward centers of the brain. They release a large amount of dopamine and function similarly to drugs of abuse like cocaine and nicotine.

For the past two months, I’ve minimized my intake of sugar and carbohydrates and started practicing what I call anti-anxiety eating. Since then, I’ve noticed extreme improvements in sleep, motivation, emotional resilience and energy. In my experiences, eating healthy enhances my ability to engage in productive activities, like exercise, which also improves brain health. Procrastination leads to stress and anxiety and now I find myself more focused in the classroom and efficient in managing my time. I just feel better.

Before I shifted to a diet rich in unprocessed meats, eggs, fish, fruits, vegetables and nuts, if I was told not to eat a candy bar, for example, I’d reply with something like, “Leave me alone, it’s fine. One candy bar isn’t going to kill me.” Clearly it didn’t kill me, but there are huge flaws with that approach.

While eating healthy does in fact increase life expectancy, I should have been thinking about nutrition in terms of quality of life, not longevity. After eliminating these damaging foods, I started to feel better on a daily basis, both mentally and physically. Sugar is an addictive substance, and one candy bar likely leads to another. That’s why when I ate too much and tried to stop, I got headaches and cravings, and more often than not, I’d give in to those cravings.

Refined carbs also led to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels. Foods like bagels, pizza, pasta, white bread and anything else containing flour, lack nutritional value because they’re stripped of almost all fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Most whole grain breads usually aren’t made with actual whole grains, since the grains are processed into flour. The bottom line is that even though some breads might be less bad than others, they all spike blood sugar to unhealthy levels.

Now I’m rarely tempted by such harmful foods, and the more I stay away, the easier they are to resist.

Not only are symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression largely preventable by avoiding refined carbohydrates and sugars, but eating foods with the right nutrients releases the chemicals that make us feel good.

I’ve replaced these poisons (as I like to call them), partly with foods containing Omega-3 fatty acids, which can be found in certain fish, nuts, avocados and more. Omega-3’s improve brain health and stabilize blood sugar. Foods with antioxidative properties, like blueberries, nuts and leafy green vegetables, reduce gut inflammation and promote brain health as well.

It’s really easy to find the healthiest foods to eat once you are aware of the benefits. All it takes is the internet and a little bit of research. One of the hardest parts about committing to a healthy diet, however, is thinking that it’s okay to eat a sugary snack for dessert because everything else you ate was nutritional. No it probably won’t kill you, but you will never see the full effects of what good nutrition can do for your mental health if you don’t cut it out completely. What’s the worst that will happen if you don’t eat anything bad for an extended period of time? Nothing. You will only feel better and begin to crave healthy foods you once found unappealing because your body is now used to them.

Sugar and harmful ingredients are hidden in almost everything, so it’s important to question the nutrition facts provided on a package. There’s one simple saying I have: if it’s processed, put it back.

I used to live off of sugar and carbs. Now I avoid them at all costs, and life has never been better.


About Kevin Meiselman