October 10 was World Mental Health Day, a yearly reminder of the increased awareness of mental health issues and the undeniable benefits of ongoing research. With that in mind, I decided to devote this blog post to an area of mental health research that is growing in popularity; specifically, the link between food and mood. Part of a larger emerging field known as nutritional psychiatry, the research reveals that food not only affects people physically, but also mentally.
It’s hard to argue with the concept, considering the brain controls how every part of the body functions. When the brain is not properly nourished, it lacks the ability to perform at higher levels. Knowing that makes it a bit easier to understand the link between mental health and gut health.
Here’s how it works: Your intestines are lined with neurotransmitters, like serotonin, which regulate sleep, appetite and mood. Alongside the neurotransmitters are billions of live bacteria, both good and bad. The health of your gut – and ultimately your brain – depends on your body’s ability to maintain good bacteria, while filtering out bad bacteria and free radicals that inhibit the important work of the neurotransmitters.
That may sound interesting, and frankly, a bit complex, but keep in mind that it all begins with what you eat.
Food for thought
While I’m not suggesting that dietary changes take the place of therapy, or in some instances, medication, I do believe that a healthy lifestyle is an important component of mental health. In addition to seeking psychiatric treatment for depression and anxiety, there are plenty of things you can do to help improve your mood and outlook on life. Eating healthier foods is certainly one of them.
Start by examining what you eat on a regular basis. Chances are, if it doesn’t make you feel good physically, it won’t make you feel good mentally. While the occasional treat is fine, it’s best to avoid fried, processed and high-sugar foods, which can zap your energy and produce inflammation in the body. Not surprisingly, inflammation and mental illness go hand in hand.
On the other hand, foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and probiotics fight free radicals, increase good bacteria, and lower inflammation. The secret can be found in whole foods and clean eating. When your body is well fed, you naturally feel better, have more energy and think more clearly.
The important thing to recognize is that I’m not asking you to go on a diet or starve yourself. I’m simply encouraging you to practice self-care. When you make choices to invest in your personal wellbeing, you reap the benefits. Whether it’s starting the day with a green smoothie, going to bed an hour earlier or walking with a co-worker during your lunch break, healthy living equips you both mentally and physically for any challenges that come your way.
David Lowenstein, Ph.D. is a psychologist and the clinical director of Lowenstein & Associates, Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to providing therapeutic services to individuals and families, he offers training and consultation to numerous associations, schools and agencies around the country. Additionally, he is a frequent radio and TV guest and a resource and contributing writer for numerous newspapers and magazines nationwide. Contact Dr. David Lowenstein at 691 South Fifth Street, Columbus, Ohio, 43206, or call 614.443.6155 or 614.444.0432.