Dec. 7, 2020

Nutritional Psychiatry

President's Blog
Margaret Hudson
President, Burnbrae Farms
4th Generation Farmer

It’s common to equate nutrition with health, and for many years we’ve been told get enough calcium for strong bones or eat the right types of fat for a healthy heart. But what about mental health? The connecting between foods and mental health has been overlooked for many years, but that is slowly changing.

There’s a new-ish field of nutrition called nutritional psychiatry that’s dedicated to the treatment and prevention of mental disorders through food, nutrition and supplementation. Mental health issues are often treated with therapy and medication, but there’s compelling evidence to show that what we eat plays an important role in the prevalence and incidence of mental disorders, including anxiety and depression. In fact, health professionals suggest that diet is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology and gastroenterology, with one even calling nutritional psychiatry “ the future of mental health treatment.

I’ve been reading a lot about this topic, and just listened to a fascinating podcast hosted by my dietitian colleague Doug Cook called “ Food mood and eating to beat depression .” Here’s some food for thought.

According to an overview of nutritional psychiatry published in the journal EBioMedicine by the Lancet, the first studies to show a link between overall diet quality and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety were published in 2009, and the field has been expanding ever since.

Dietary patterns – what you eat daily over a long period of time – make a difference on your mental health. Following the Mediterranean Diet is often recommended. This dietary pattern includes whole foods such vegetables, fruit, grains, beans, fish, eggs and nuts, and is lower in meats and sweets. Review studies show that the Mediterranean dietary pattern is associated with a reduce risk for depression, and a systematic review noted that people who eat more vegetables, fruit, whole grains and fish seem to be at a lower risk of developing depression.

A dietary pattern that’s low in vegetables, but high in ultra-processed foods, may have the reverse effect. There’s a link being drawn between nutrient-poor diets (those high in ultra-processed foods) and mood disorders. In one study , about 26,000 people without depressive symptoms were followed over 5.4 years. In that time, 2221 cases of depression were identified, and an increased risk of depressive symptoms was observed in those with an increased amount of ultra-processed foods in their diets.

It’s also becoming clear that certain nutrient deficiencies can be linked to mental health issues. Research is showing that foods and supplements with the right levels of folate, zinc, magnesium, probiotics, vitamin D and omega-3 fats may help improve people’s mood and relieve anxiety and depression. Sometimes we can get enough of these nutrients from food alone, and other times, supplements are required.

Eggs are a source of some of these nutrients including folate, vitamin D and omega-3 fats (in enriched eggs such as Burnbrae Omega Plus), and are a delicious food to include in a healthy dietary pattern.

There are several plausible reasons why food plays such a big role in mental health. The multiple pathways between the gut and the brain are being studied, including the gut microbiota (where good bacteria – or probiotics - may play a role). Studies focused on understanding the pathways between diet, nutrition and mental health are pointing to the immune system, oxidative stress, brain plasticity and the microbiome-gut-brain axis as key targets for nutritional interventions.

The bottom line? What we eat has the potential to impact our mental health by influencing our brain function, gut microbiota, and levels of inflammation throughout the body. Emerging studies continue to suggest that diet and lifestyle (including physical activity) have the potential to help prevent and treat mental health, and should be at the forefront of treatment options. Further investigation is required to help researchers determine the links between food and mood, and large randomized controlled trials need to put these ideas to the test.

For now, if you are looking into therapists, physicians or dietitians to work with for mental health issues, make sure they are up-to-date with nutritional psychiatry, and that they take your whole lifestyle – including diet – into account when making recommendations.

Margaret Hudson

President, Burnbrae Farms