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What We Eat Affects How We Think


It is estimated that 1 in 5 Americans experiences mental illness in a given year. Many challenges come along with suffering a mental illness. Prevention and pro-activeness are two of my favorite approaches. Whether you are already challenged or want to prevent future challenges, I like to empower patients with the knowledge of what they can control… and our diet is one of those things! We have the awesome ability to choose from a wide variety of food and drink. What are you choosing for your mental health? Here are a few recommendations to help make those choices a little bit easier next time.

  1. Skip the pastry and pick the protein- There are so many reasons this statement is important on a daily basis, especially during the holidays, but we will keep our focus on mental health. Did you know that the neurotransmitters, the communication tools for our nervous system, are made from amino acids, the building blocks of protein? Our bodies are capable of making some of the amino acids needed, however there are 8 remaining “essential” amino acids, meaning we MUST get those from our diet. Two important neurotransmitters related to mental health and well-being are Dopamine and Serotonin. Some of you may be familiar with Serotonin because that word is included in a very common drug class used to treat depression: Selective-Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors or SSRIs. The mechanism of these medications is to increase the level of serotonin in our brains. I invite you to be proactive and reap the benefits of consuming more protein and increase your own Serotonin levels! Animal protein is the best source for all amino acids, in fact eggs have the highest concentration. Plant proteins are also a good source, however it is important to note that different plant proteins must be combined to ensure the consumption of all the amino acids.
  2. Load up on the Omega-3 Fatty AcidsDid you know that the brain is the organ that has the highest concentration of lipids (fats) in the body? Not all fat is bad for you, but not all fat is created equal. The gray matter of our brain is estimated to contain 50% fatty acids of which 1/3 are Omega-3’s. It is strongly documented that for proper fetal brain development high levels of EPA and DHA (both Omega-3 fatty acids) are needed in the mother’s diet. Without the foundation set during development, a baby can struggle with cognitive development for the rest of his/her life. We should continue to ensure a diet rich in Omega-3’s for ourselves as adults! Experimental studies have shown that over time diets lacking in Omega-3 fatty acids can lead to “considerable disturbance in neural function.” I highly recommend considering a high quality like Standard Process’ Tuna Omega-3 Oil or Cod Liver Oil. There are also dietary sources in both seafood and plant form.
  3. Keep the alcohol intake reasonable- Although alcohol intake initially leads to a more excitable or energized state, the end results can be harmful to your mental health. As blood alcohol content lessens our brain’s response is fatigue, confusion, and depression. The extreme levels of mental states combined with behaviors that often lead to regret can be overwhelming for some people. Yes, there are potential benefits of moderate alcohol intake… but please keep in mind that moderate refers to 1 drink for a woman and 2 drinks for a man.
  4. Remember your vitamins and minerals- Our intake of vitamins and minerals is directly impacted by the food choices we make. There is no comparison between the nutrient content of a big, dark-green leafy salad and a quick meal on the go from Taco Bell. It is now widely accepted that some sort of nutritional supplementation is needed today to combat the lack of nutrients in the typical American diet. However, have you stopped to consider your medicine cabinet? Many major side effects from the daily consumption of drugs, even medicinal, lead to nutrient deficiencies. For example, did you know that medications, like SSRIs, can actually inhibit the absorption of minerals such as Calcium? Other minerals that reflect negative mental health status when less that adequate levels are ingested include chromium, iodine, lithium, selenium, and zinc. As for vitamins the B-vitamins are most commonly recognized for their role in brain function. Folate (folic acid or B9) is frequently discussed during pregnancy due to its heavy involvement in neural development.


The information in this article was adapted from Understanding Nutrition, Depression, and Mental Illnesses published in the Journal of Indian Psychiatry