Recent studies have been conducted on whether what you eat affects your mental health. Although specific details are still under research, the evidence points to diet as a major factor in the health of your brain. It makes sense. John M. Grohol, Psy.D. used to say, “A balanced diet that includes lots of fiber helps keep your gut system running efficiently by helping to support a more diverse gut microbiome.”
Although we tend to think of the mind and mental health as separate from the body and physical health, your brain is an organ, and it requires appropriate nutrition just like any other part of your body. New research suggests that the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) may be a treatment for a range of diet-related mental health issues. Find out how what you eat may be damaging your brain and how SCD may help.
Can diet be substituted for medicine?
Mental health researchers like Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride are looking into ways to treat mental health disorders ranging from depression to OCD to schizophrenia with diet interventions instead of drugs. That being said, the research is not complete, and not all cases can be treated with diet alone. But changing the way you eat may be able to reduce your symptoms, make your medications work more effectively, and possibly reduce or eliminate your dependency upon medications. But Julia Hogan, LCPC emphasizes that “It’s important to underscore here the importance of monitoring your mental health and knowing how different medications and lifestyle changes can impact your mental health.”
Diet has already been researched as a factor or treatment in cases of autism and ADHD, and in many cases a healthy diet has a bigger impact on overall health than any prescribed drug. Aside from poor diet affecting your brain function, existing mental health issues can also lead you to eat a less healthy diet.
Depression and anxiety are both linked to weight gain and unhealthy habits like smoking and excessive drinking. And that makes diet both a cause and an effect of your brain’s state of health. Because of this, conventional medicine may be able to help you overcome your poor eating habits and eventually wean off the medication.
What you eat affects how you feel
You’ve probably heard of emotional eating. It’s a person’s tendency to eat more food and often eat less healthy food when they are in a bad mood or stressed out. But bad eating habits are not just a reaction to your mood. Food choices can actually make a difference in your mood and how you feel, and it’s not just energy levels that are affected. “Certain foods are linked to mental health issues such as increased symptoms of depression and decreased self-esteem.” Christina L. Gmyr, LMHC, NCC said.
Research shows that a diet high in sugar and processed foods can be a factor in the development of depression. People who have eaten a poor diet over the long-term are much more likely to develop depression than those who eat a healthy diet made up of whole, natural foods. Unfortunately, depression can make you feel lethargic and fatigued, and a natural response to that feeling is to seek out sugar for quick energy. Turning to more sugary, processed foods only exacerbates the situation.
Many people find sweet foods pleasurable. The problem is that some turn to sugar addiction as their primary form of pleasure instead of seeking to fix the other issues that are causing sadness, frustration, or depression. Instead of feeding the symptoms, a better option is to seek out a professional therapist who can help you form a plan for treating your mental health issues and building a happier life.
You can also help your depression symptoms with other natural treatments that combat the effects of stress. Exercise is a known mood booster because it releases endorphins in your body. Instead of turning to food, you can take an exercise break to feel better. With the right mindset, exercise is a pleasure that improves your day rather than a chore that you dread.
Here’s another interesting fact about how food intake affects how you feel. According to Eva Selhub, MD, 95% of the serotonin your body makes is produced in the digestive system. Serotonin regulates sleep and moods.
Serotonin production is influenced by the good bacteria in your gut. Those bacteria thrive in an environment where they are fed by lots of natural foods like fruits and vegetables, as well as fermented foods. Eating a standard Western diet with processed grains, sugars, and oils, on the other hand, invites harmful bacteria to take up residence in your gut and override the good bacteria you need for a healthy mood.
Diet is a potential intervention for mental health problems
More mental health professionals are beginning to understand and question the role diet has for their patients. In fact, the field of nutritional psychiatry is growing, and more doctors are embracing the idea that they should be asking about their patient’s eating patterns, something that psychiatrists have not been trained for traditionally. But even those doctors specializing in mental health, who did not learn about the role of diet in medical school, are now seeing the truth of this new research.
The bottom line is that your brain requires a specific type of fuel and nutrients, just like your body does. And you don’t have to make it complicated. What is good for your heart, muscles, and digestive system is good for your brain too. When you eat foods that agree with your body and mind, you feel better overall and have more energy.
Foods that damage your brain
So which foods should you be avoiding when it comes to brain health and balanced moods? Stay away from the items on this list of foods that can damage your brain:
- Packaged snack cakes, pies, and cookies. Many of these foods are made with trans fats and other preservatives in order to prolong their shelf lives. Although this prevents the food from rotting or becoming moldy, it takes a toll on your health. Trans fats have been shown to increase inflammation and raise cholesterol levels, which decreases blood and oxygen flow to the brain.
Additionally, these foods come loaded with sugar. Just like other cells in your body, brain cells do not respond well to spikes in blood sugar levels and insulin overload, which can impair memory. If you want a baked treat or dessert, you’re better off going with something freshly made in order to avoid dangerous trans fats. And limit these to occasional indulgences to keep your blood sugar levels under control.
- Shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and other high-mercury seafood. Mercury is known to cause damage to memory and other brain functions. Eating too much food that contains this toxin causes it to build up in your body over time, potentially leading to mental health disorders. Unfortunately, much seafood is contaminated.
That being said, eating seafood that is lower in mercury is actually really good for your mental health. Many fish contain omega 3 fatty acids, which are known to boost brain health. Salmon and light tuna are good options. And mussels also contain omega 3, as well as high levels of b-vitamins, which promote good memory and brain health.
- Salty snacks. Foods that are high sodium can lead to high blood pressure, which restricts blood flow to the brain. In fact, studies show that the best way to fight dementia is with regular exercise that increases blood flow to the brain.
Healthy foods high in potassium will balance your sodium levels, helping to maintain optimal blood circulation as well. All vegetables and fruits are good sources of potassium. Eating whole, natural foods every day can help protect mental health.
Where the specific carbohydrate diet comes in
Now that you know how closely the gut influences your mind, you can understand where the specific carbohydrate diet comes into play with mental health. When the digestive system is not in order, the effects can disrupt your mental function as well.
The SCD restricts a wide range of carbohydrates, similar to other low-carbohydrate diets. But the end goal of the SCD is not weight loss. It is a diet designed to improve gastrointestinal health for individuals with digestive issues. Among the foods that are eliminated are grains, dairy (with the exception of hard cheese and well-fermented plain yogurt), and added sugar. They are on the restricted list because they can potentially cause inflammation in the digestive system.
The reason these foods are suspected of causing inflammation is the way in which they break down into sugars that are easily digested by bacteria. If your gut does not contain enough of the appropriate enzymes to break down the food, bacteria production increases beyond a healthy level.
The SCD doesn’t necessarily have to be adhered to strictly forever in order to maintain a healthy gut, and thereby healthy mental state. Once your symptoms subside, you can try adding some restricted foods back into your diet slowly and waiting to see if you have any symptoms. There may be certain foods that are on the list to avoid that you tolerate well, and some foods on the allowed list may need to be eliminated if you have a specific intolerance or sensitivity.
The tie between gastrointestinal bacteria and mental health
So how exactly could the SCD or other dietary changes improve your mental health? The truth is that a healthy diet is the number one controllable variable in the health of your entire body, and that includes your brain. Moods and mental health are very much a function of the health of your physical brain. Of course, that doesn’t mean that diet is the only factor, but it is important.
A strong connection has been found between gastrointestinal bacteria (or your microbiome), mood, and mental function. According to David Perlmutter, MD, “your microbiome also affects your mood, your libido, and even your perceptions of the world and the clarity of your thoughts.” In fact, a large nerve runs from your brain stem to your gut, allowing the digestive system to send neurotransmitters, like serotonin, directly to your brain.
And that is exactly why diet matters. What you are producing in your gut is being sent to your brain. The gut-brain connection is why many anxiety and depression sufferers experience greater symptom relief from dietary changes than from anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications. Keep in mind that even if you choose to seek relief from anxiety or depression through dietary changes, it’s smart to also get counseling from a professional therapist while you are experiencing these symptoms.
Foods that promote a healthy gut
The type of food that is most easily used by harmful bacteria is sugar. That is why too many sugary or starchy foods can create an overabundance of bacteria that disrupts your digestive system rather than keeping it functioning smoothly. As already discussed, excessive sugar intake is also linked to worsening moods and depression symptoms. Sugar intake also has a strong link to increased anxiety.
To turn around the health of your gut, and find relief from unexpected mood shifts and other mental health issues in the process, try changing out cakes, cookies, muffins, candy, packaged snack bars, and bread for the following foods:
- Almonds or almond butter. These foods are filled with healthy fats that keep you feeling full without spiking blood sugar. Limit your nut intake to one serving per day to prevent gas and diarrhea that can occur from eating too much of these foods.
- Avocados. Another healthy fat food, avocados can help keep you from snacking on sugar and carbohydrates because you will remain full longer.
- Non-starchy vegetables. Vegetables should be a major component of your diet. Because they are a low-calorie food, they probably won’t make up the majority of your calories, even if they make up the bulk of your diet. Broccoli and cauliflower are good options that are easier to digest when steamed. You should also eat some raw vegetables like celery and leafy greens.
- Non-sugary fruits. Many foods that we consider vegetables are botanically fruits. These include cucumber, squash, and tomatoes. Non-sugary fruits can be used in meals, salads, and as snacks.
- Occasionally starchy vegetables. Vegetables with a lot of carbohydrates or natural sugar are also healthy food choices. They just shouldn’t be eaten in quantities as large as non-starchy vegetables. Sweet potatoes and carrots are part of this group.
- Occasionally sweet fruits. The natural sugar in fruit comes packaged with water, fiber, and lots of nutrients. That being said, even natural sugar can be a digestive disruptor and a cause of brain fog and mood shifts. It’s well-known that too much fruit can lead to diarrhea. But having one or two small servings of fruit each day should be fine for most people.
It turns out that the foods that are best for your body are also best for your brain. Sticking with whole, natural foods and striking a balance between carbohydrates, protein, and fat is the key to a healthy gut and mental state. Your brain is an important organ. Take care of it easily by following a healthy diet.