When we speak of good health, we often tend to think of physical health first. However, it is important that we perceive health from a holistic perspective, including our brain and mental health. The majority of us know that a balanced diet is beneficial for our physical health, but what about our mental health? Research suggests strong links between food and our mental health and emotional wellbeing (Atlas Biomed Team, 2020a).
Our brain takes care of our thoughts, movements, heartbeat, breathing and senses. It is on the go constantly, even whilst sleeping. Therefore our brain requires constant looking after too. Our brain functions best with nutritous food, just like any other body part (Selhub, 2020). But, in order to understand how food can improve our mental health, it is important to understand the science behind this.
According to Gomstyn (n.d.), the brain is closely connected to the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), and this is what links diet to emotions. Billions of “good” and “bad” bacteria reside in the GI tract and these influence the production of neurotransmitters, i.e. chemical substances which continually transfer messages from the gut to the brain. Serotonin is one of these neurotransmitters, of which approximately 90% is produced in the GI tract (Atlas Biomed Team, 2020b). It plays a key role in mood and it is in fact known as a “feel-good hormone” as it boosts our general wellbeing in many ways, including regulating sleep, apetite and digestion, stabilizing moods, brain function, cardiac rhythm and inhibiting pain (Atlas Biomed Team, 2020b; Selhub, 2020).
According to Atlas Biomed Team (2020a) and Gomstyn (n.d), a poor diet consisting of processed, refined, high-sugar or high-fat foods promotes “bad” bacteria and inflammation which hinder neurotransmitter production. Consequently, this can negatively impact normal brain functioning and mental health, including our emotions, mood and energy, and it also increases the risk of depression, anxiety, dementia or stroke. Contrastingly, a nutritious and healthy diet is rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other micronutrients which nourish and protect the brain in many ways. They enhance “good” bacteria which protect the lining of the intestines and block toxins and “bad” bacteria. As a result, this fights against inflammation and oxidative stress, i.e. waste and free radicals produced when the body uses oxygen and which can damage cells (Atlas Biomed Team, 2020a; Selhub, 2020). Furthermore, it activates neural pathways between the gut and the brain and it enhances neurotransmitter production, especially serotonin, and it can also improve symptoms of depression and anxiety. In summary, when neurotransmitter production is in good form, the brain receives this and reacts to it positively, whereby our emotions, mood and energy reflect this, and therefore improving overall mental health and wellbeing.
As Gomstyn (n.d.) explains, along with a healthy and nutritious diet, proper hydration is also important factor for our physical and mental health as approximately, 60% of the human body is composed of water and the brain is 73% water. Studies have in fact found that drinking more water improves fatigue, mood, anxiety and depression (Gomstyn, n.d.; Stanborough, 2020). Some studies have also shown that drinking more water alleviates tension, confusion, disorientation, thus improving mental clarity (ibid.).
It may take time till you start feeling the positive and feel-good effects of a healthier diet, but this depends on how many changes you apply. However, it is not impossible. Start off with finding ways of moderating and cutting out processed, refined, high-fat or high-sugar foods slowly, and gradually increase healthier options which enhance physical and mental wellbeing and which suit your lifestyle. The healthier the choices you make, the more the brain and body positively react and as a result improve health, energy, mood, and overall mental health.
In the second part of this blog, we will be looking further at which diet and foods support and enhance mental health and wellbeing.
Michela Aquilina is a trainee Gestalt Psychotherapist who is currently reading for a Masters in Gestalt Psychotherapy at the Gestalt Psychotherapy Training Institute Malta (GPTIM) and is working as a Trainee Gestalt Psychotherapist with Willingness Team. Michela offers therapy to young adults and adults who are experiencing various challenges and issues relating to mental health and psychosocial, emotional wellbeing.
Atlas Biomed Team, (2020a, October 1). Diet and mental health: The best diets and foods for mood. Atlas Blog. https://atlasbiomed.com/blog/diet-and-mental-health/
Atlas Biomed Team, (2020b, May 27). Essential guide to serotonin and the other happy hormones in your body. Atlas Blog. https://atlasbiomed.com/blog/serotonin-and-other-happy-molecules-made-by-gut-bacteria/#what-are-the-happy-hormones
Gomstyn, A. (n.d.). Food for your mood: How what you eat affects your mental health. Aetna. https://www.aetna.com/health-guide/food-affects-mental-health.html
Selhub, E. (2020, March 26). Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Harvard Health Blog. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626
Stanborough R. J. (2020, December 15). Dehydration and anxiety: How to keep calm and hydrate on. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/anxiety/dehydration-and-anxiety