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Nutritional Psychiatry.  That was a new term to me, but I am fascinated about nutrition’s impact on brain health so I enrolled in the course.  The bottom line (as always) is we should be eating whole foods with an emphasis on plant foods and healthy fats, but read on for information on how to improve mood with healthy eating.

Mood Foods

Depression affects over 300 million people globally and only about half eliminate their depression with drug therapy and consulting a mental health professional.  What could happen if nutrition were brought into the treatment plan?  Since poor diet often proceeds the onset of depression it would seem that healthy eating could help keep us happy.

in fact, opposed to the SAD (Standard American diet), which includes sugar, heavy emphasis on meat and inflammatory omega-6 fats, additives, and artificial sweeteners,  the HAPPY diet goes along with the well-researched Mediterranean diet (vegetables, fruits, nuts/seeds, fish, whole grains).  The SMILES trial found a significant improvement in depression scores, with the healthy diet group overcoming depression by 32% compared with only 8 % for the group who didn’t change their diet. 

Why does diet matter in depression?

Inflammation is implicated in the development of depression.  Factors like stress, smoking, obesity, poor sleep, and poor diet can create inflammation and those with higher inflammatory markers may not respond well to conventional drugs.  The good news is that research found that they DO respond well by changing to a less inflammatory diet.

Oxidative stress can create inflammation and cause damage and accelerated aging.  Vegetables and fruit are our best sources of anti-oxidants to protect from this process. 

Brain neurons are protected and improved with a high-quality diet.  BDNF or brain derived neurotrophic factors help brain growth and plasticity and these helpful factors are increased with a healthy diet.

Epigenetics is the influence on the activity or expression of genes and a good or bad diet can impact how genes are expressed.

Organisms in the gut, or the Microbiota, can be either healthy or unhealthy directly related to a healthy or unhealthy diet.   An imbalance where unhealthy organisms predominate (dysbiosis) leads to inflammation and, according to this course, “chronic systemic inflammation is a major cause of mental illness”.  Scary.  Changes in the diet can actually affect the microbiome composition within a single day.  Less animal fat, high fiber foods, a variety of plant foods and limited processed food have been found to be the key to healthy gut organisms.  

Gut-brain axis is the way that the gut communicates with the brain either by the nervous system pathway or by chemical/hormone messengers from the gut organisms/microbes.  The gut microbes have actually been called a “chemical cellphone” because of their communication with the brain. In fact, serotonin, one of the brain neurotransmitters/chemical messengers that help provide a happy mood, is mostly stored in the gut.  This means that a happy gut will send these happy chemicals to the brain and result in a happier person.  

Supplement support research has shown might be helpful include:

  • Omega-3 found in foods like fatty fish and walnuts and/or in supplement form (EPA 1-2 grams daily)  is anti-inflammatory and helps support neurotransmitters and brain growth. 
  • Vitamin D deficiency (<30 nmol/L) may create a depression risk for certain populations at risk for depression (obese, diabetic, elderly).   
  • Probiotics (healthy organisms) and Prebiotics (healthy fiber that feeds the healthy organisms – onion, garlic, banana, chicory root and Jerusalem artichoke) may be a good adjunct to a healthy lifestyle.  

Nutritional research is often hard to glean results from, but the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry may be a resource for the future.  In the meantime, a good old fashioned healthy diet helps the brain and pretty much everything else I have found.  

Where can you decrease your SAD diet and bring in more of the HAPPY diet? 

Resource: INR (Institute for Natural Resources) Nutritional Psychiatry + Brain Health, 2020.