Nutritional psychiatry is increasingly being used to treat common mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. But what is it? And how might it help?
What is nutritional psychiatry?
In very basic terms, nutritional psychiatry is all about the impact of nutrition on the brain and on mental health.
People have been changing their diets for a long time now in an attempt to loose weight, decrease fatigue or to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. But the brain hasn’t received that much attention, and yet it’s the most energy-consuming organ in the body.
In fact, it uses more than half of your body’s glucose supply. What’s glucose again? It’s the sugar that comes from all the carbohydrates that you’re eating. And the body uses that glucose as fuel to make energy in all sorts of places, but yes the brain uses up more than half of it.
And when the glucose levels drop because of what you’ve been eating (or not been eating), then some of the first symptoms you’ll get are changes to your mental functioning. Confused thinking, a change in your mood, irritability and grumpiness.
So there’s a very direct (and quick!) effect between what you eat (or what you don’t eat) and how you’re feeling mentally. And that’s just one example!
overfed yet undernourished
Particularly in the Western World, we all tend to eat too much and yet what we eat is often devoid of nutrients. Too many calories and not enough nutrients. Overfed yet undernourished.
What you eat affects every cell, organ and system in your body. If you give your body all it needs, then it can function well, grow, replenish and repair (or it certainly has a better chance to do so).
You can think of food as information for the body. Your body will react in very, very different ways to a bowl of chips than it will to a plate of steak. Depending on what you eat, your body will respond with different reactions and processes. It might create energy, it might store fat, it might regenerate cells, it might make hormones or neurotransmitters. To a large degree, it’s up to what you eat. You’re in charge!
nutritional psychiatry for depression
So can nutritional psychiatry be used to treat depression?
The answer is yes absolutely, particularly when its used as part of a holistic approach to better mental health.
And to be honest, talking about dietary strategies for depression could fill pages and pages of information.
The very most important aspect is probably this:
Slow down and start to become aware of how you feel after eating certain foods. Pay attention and become mindful. Start to notice which foods make you feel great, and which foods don’t.
A client of mine told me just yesterday that she never used to pay much attention to her symptoms. She’d just brush them aside, knowing that they will eventually go away. Now that she’s become much more aware of her body and her mood, she knows that certain foods simply don’t make her feel great. She doesn’t need to rely on other people’s opinions on what to eat anymore, she knows herself.
Basic recommendations to use food for your mood
I’ll keep this one brief, and no doubt there will be more posts to follow on each one. But for now, take a pick and see if it makes a difference to your mood.
- Reduce your sugar consumption, ideally a lot. Remove processed foods form your diet, stop drinking juices or fizzy drinks, and go for wholegrain options. And limit fruit to one to two portions a day.
Just give it a try for 5 days and I’d be very surprised if you don’t feel better.
- Include protein into your meals and snacks. Protein is used to make neurotransmitters such as the feel-good serotonin!
- Eat oily fish 2-3 times a week for the super important omega 3’s. Don’t eat fish? Add ground flaxseeds to porridge or salads or smoothies or use flaxseed oil as dressings (but don’t heat it!). Snack on walnuts or make chia seed puddings.
- Go for colour. Choose a variety of different coloured vegetables. Beetroot? Fennel? Celery? Carrots? Chard? Kale? Herbs? Cauliflower?
- Eat breakfast. Remember to add protein to it.
- Have your vitamin B12, so that’s mostly animal products (fish, oysters, meat incl. liver, poultry, eggs, dairy products) or nutritional yeast for vegans (but you might want to consider a supplement).
- Remove foods that you might be intolerant to and see if that makes a difference. You just don’t want the inflammation in your body that they can contribute to. But long-term, do consult a nutritionist or otherwise qualified practitioner to make sure you’re dealing with food intolerances properly.
So that’s it for a really basic introduction to nutritional psychiatry including some generic food recommendations to help support your mood. There really is sooo much more to it and the whole field is still very much evolving with research into the gut brain connection and much more.
Next week, I’ll be writing about my insights from the Nutritional Psychiatry Summit and I can’t wait to share those with you!
Plus, if you sign up to my weekly letters community, then you’ll be getting some extra information!