From Biosis 9, March 2006
Food for Thought: Diet and Mental Health
Over the past century or so, we’ve grown used to thinking about our food as little more than a source of energy – the fuel that keeps us going. After all, when we’re hungry, we often feel tired, too. We may feel mentally sluggish. A good meal alleviates these feelings. We’re refreshed, re-energized and ready to go.
But food is more than just this.
Our bodies need the nutrients in food for a host of physical functions. For instance, we need proteins to rebuild the tissues that daily activity breaks down. Likewise, we need fats for the synthesis of hormones and to aid in the storage of some vitamins. We need minerals to support and maintain bone health. The roles nutrients play are, in fact, legion.
Even if we do think about such physical effects of food, however, seldom do we give much thought to the mental effects of our diet.
As soon as you do think about it, you can probably find a number of real-life examples to show how food affects mood. The classic example is chocolate. If you’re feeling blue, a little chocolate can lift your mood. A variety of elements contribute to this feeling, from the sugar rush itself to the amino acids and other micronutrients in cocoa that cause your brain to release endorphins, the “feel good” hormones.
In a sense, humans have understood the relationship between diet and mental health for ages. The concept was understood as far back as Classical Greece. Of course they didn’t know what specifically about food made for mental well being. They couldn’t name the exact nutrients with the kind of precision modern science can. But they did know that a person’s total well being – physical and mental – depended on eating well.
The explicit link between diet and mental health began to be expressed more specifically in the early 20th century. In his landmark work Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, the great dental and nutritional researcher Dr. Weston Price noted that shifts to an industrial-type diet – one rich in processed foods that are not native to the region in which one lives – not only lead to physical problems but poor mental health, as well.
In January , the UK-based Mental Health Foundation released two reports on the current knowledge of the diet and mental health connection:Feeding Minds and Changing Diets, Changing Minds. The project involved collaborations with two British advocacy groups, Which?  andSustain . This review of the medical literature focuses on some key nutritional factors implicated in the development of psychological and neurological conditions such as ADHD, depression, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. They found that in some cases, these problems and diseases could be prevented through the manipulation of diet. In others, dietary changes actually caused reversals and improvements. A wide variety of nutrients play a role, ranging from C and B vitamins to minerals such as selenium and zinc. Most important seem to be the essential fatty acids (EFAs), especially omega 3 fats.
At bottom, though, is one simple fact: the diet that supports optimum physical health will also support optimum mental health. As put in the introduction to Changing Diets, Changing Minds, “The brain is an organ, just like the heart, stomach or liver – and whatever affects these organs can also affect the brain.”