Nutrition and mental health: what is the connection?

Man is what he eats – everyone knows that nutrition has a decisive influence on physical health and fitness. But many people are not fully aware that there is also a connection between nutrition and mental health and well-being.

The connection between the psyche and nutrition is even stronger than previously thought. However, this is actually not surprising when you consider that a healthy brain, like all other body parts and organs, depends on the availability of important nutrients. The structure, composition, and ultimately the function of the brain are influenced by nutrition. The growing branch of nutritional psychology and also brain researchers who specialize in the effects of food are therefore of great importance.

There are already many scientific studies that prove various connections between the psyche and different foods and eating habits, and thus also show treatment and prevention possibilities of mental illnesses through a targeted and conscious diet. However, these are very complex relationships that still require many more detailed studies to better understand concrete effects and individual correlations.

Nevertheless, researchers agree: our brain is influenced by what we have on our plates! In the following, we would like to introduce you to some of the connections that have been investigated and proven so far, in order to make you understand the importance of nutrition for your mental health and mood. Because our nutrition and eating habits are relatively easy to change. You can therefore directly contribute to your mental health in this way.

The impact of vitamins and nutrients on the psyche and brain

The first and most important prerequisite for optimal brain function and activity is an adequate supply of all necessary vitamins and nutrients. To ensure this and thus prevent a deficit, you must eat a healthy and balanced diet. The effects of a poor diet, which is characterized by little variety and diversity and consequently a deficit of nutrients, is more than clear if we observe nature.

A real-life example: The field hamster living in the wild in Europe was and is increasingly – due to agricultural corn monocultures – exposed to an unbalanced diet. The result is a vitamin B3 deficit with serious consequences. The reason for the severe population decline was investigated in more detail in laboratory studies and it was found that hamsters, which were severely deficient in vitamin B3 due to a one-sided diet of corn, exhibited unusual and cannibalistic behavior. However, a separate supply of the deficient vitamin prevented these behavioral abnormalities.

Vitamins and neurotransmitters: This – albeit very drastic – example nevertheless more than clearly illustrates the relevance of an adequate supply of nutrients. It is known from other studies that a deficiency of vitamin B3 triggered by an unbalanced diet can be the cause of digestive disorders, psychological changes, and dementia in humans. However, in addition to vitamins, there are many other nutrients, such as amino acids and minerals, which the body needs for the formation of important messenger substances in the brain – the so-called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters include serotonin and dopamine, for example. They are largely responsible for a balanced mood as well as for drive, sleep, and concentration. If they are missing, fatigue, listlessness and irritability can be the result.

Nutrient deficiency and depression: Since depression, in particular, is also characterized by changes in these two neurotransmitters, a connection can be assumed between nutrient deficiency and depression. This connection is currently being investigated in greater detail as part of a European study.

Key factor omega-3 fatty acids: Researchers are already in agreement, however, regarding the irreplaceable role of omega-3 fatty acids. The gray matter of the brain itself consists of 90% omega-3 fatty acids, which the body cannot produce on its own. It is therefore dependent on a dietary supply. If this does not happen, there is a risk that the network – consisting of nerve cells – in the brain will not function efficiently. In contrast, the results of studies show that an adequate supply of omega-3 fatty acids actually has a positive influence on the structure and connection of brain areas. This in turn is demonstrated by improved memory performance.  

The impact of high blood glucose levels: However, high blood glucose levels, which are characterized by a large amount of glucose in the blood, have the opposite effect. Studies showed that higher measured blood glucose levels were associated with poorer brain performance and also poorer states of the brain regions studied. These findings suggest that by lowering their blood glucose levels, people can protect and improve their brain function. Lowering blood glucose levels can be achieved by avoiding obesity, eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and being physically active, but it also means that some foods should be avoided or at least limited.

Avoid excessively sugary and fatty foods

This brings us to the second rule: avoid excesses of certain foods! Those are mainly ready-made products and processed foods, because they often contain a lot of sugar and fat and at the same time have a low nutritional content. The fats are often so-called trans fats, which can be found in fast food, pastries, cakes, and snacks, among other things. They are vegetable oils that have been industrially hydrogenated. They damage not only the heart and blood vessels but also memory functions, emotion regulation, and mental well-being. They can also increase the risk of obesity, in addition to increased sugar consumption.

Obesity, in turn, can lead to insulin metabolism disorders, which are associated with cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease. Therefore, industrially produced products should be consumed consciously and only in moderation. This does not mean that you have to be careful to avoid all sugar and trans fats from now on. Instead, you should be aware of the health effects and pay attention to a balanced and varied diet, in which even convenience food is okay now and then – as long as you are aware of the positive effects of healthy foods and integrate them sufficiently into your meals.

But what exactly are healthy foods and which ones contain the important nutrients in sufficient concentration?

What does a healthy diet look like?

A healthy diet is characterized by its variety and balance and thus covers all the nutrients necessary for the body in sufficient measure. In addition to the basic nutrients – carbohydrates, protein, and fat – the body should above all be supplied with sufficient vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Observations that there are significantly fewer mental disorders in the Mediterranean region than in the north prompted scientists to take a closer look at the situation and get to the bottom of the cause. And indeed, it turned out that a Mediterranean diet can be an effective protective factor, especially for depression. Since various studies have found some positive effects of a Mediterranean diet, we will provide you with a list of foods that comprise a Mediterranean diet below:

  • a lot of vegetable oil, less animal fat
  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • legumes
  • fresh fish 
  • little and lean meat

However, it is believed that it is not individual foods that act as a protective factor for mental illnesses such as depression. Instead, scientists suspect that it is the combination of different foods that has such an effective effect. Since the Mediterranean diet includes many foods that are sources of omega-3 fatty acids (as well as other unsaturated fatty acids), B vitamins, and minerals, the positive effect of this diet can be well explained. 

As a simple rule of thumb, we can give you the following advice: sugar, trans fats, and saturated fatty acids are rather unfavorable and you should therefore enjoy them in moderation. A Mediterranean diet with sufficient unsaturated fatty acids and vitamins, on the other hand, is good for you, your body, and your brain!

Why is a healthy diet so important?

"You are what you eat". Ludwig Feuerbach – a German philosopher – was already aware of the importance of a healthy diet and he is more than right with his statement – in view of the numerous scientific results. A healthy and balanced diet can not only have a protective function but also positively influence existing mental illnesses.

Stress

Stress poses a risk in two ways. On the one hand, stress leads to the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which can have negative effects on your body and brain, especially in the long term. This effect is additionally intensified by an unbalanced and unhealthy diet. This is fatal since it is precisely the stressful life situations and phases in which you do not have time to pay attention to your diet and often reach for nerve food. You will surely find yourself in this situation when you think about your stressful phases or everyday situations. But maybe now that you are aware of the negative and reinforcing effects of an unhealthy diet, you will manage to reach for the apple in the next stressful situation.

Bad mood

As already explained above, the so-called neurotransmitters have an essential meaning for your well-being and your mood. A serotonin deficiency can lead to sleep disorders and depressive and irritable moods. Some foods such as fennel, spinach, tomatoes and figs contain precursors of the neurotransmitter and can therefore help against the deficiency symptoms. A norepinephrine deficiency can also be the cause of listlessness and bad mood. Important building blocks of this messenger substance are found in almonds, green vegetables, oats and bananas, among others. In addition, the healthy unsaturated fatty acids are a very important building block for healthy brain and nerve cells. A deficiency is therefore also associated with depressive moods. You can counteract this by eating olives and nuts.

Fear

If you suffer from inner turmoil and find it difficult to relax and calm down, your body may lack the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid. For some, a deficiency can manifest as anxiety disorders and restlessness. Wheat bran and fish are two sources of this neurotransmitter and can therefore promote inner calm and relaxation.

What are dietary supplements?

Dietary supplements are, as the name suggests, substances that complement the diet in a positive way. They can be taken in various forms such as tablets, powders, or liquids and contain in concentrated and dosed form certain nutrients such as vitamins and minerals that supply the human metabolism and thus support all bodily functions.

As already mentioned, the number one rule for a healthy brain is that there are no deficiencies in nutrients. The prerequisite for this is a varied, healthy, and conscious diet, which above all avoids finished products and processed foods, which often contain excess sugar and fat. In our often stressful everyday lives, however, it is not so easy to find the necessary time and also capacity to cook healthy and balanced.

This is exactly where nutritional supplements can help you.

Often, one may not even have an overview of which nutrients one has consumed and to what extent. Likewise, one has little desire to track exact nutritional information and study the ingredient lists of food products. Therefore, despite a good awareness of healthy eating, it can fail at concrete implementation. This is exactly where nutritional supplements can help you. By taking them, even without tracking, you ensure that you supply your body with all the important nutrients in the right amount and thus avoid deficiencies with problematic consequences.

On the one hand, the causal relationships between individual foods and their concrete effects on our health and our brain cannot yet be proven. And on the other hand, a healthy and balanced diet cannot cure a mental illness on its own in most cases. It can support treatment in a positive way but often cannot replace it. Therefore, if negative feelings or moods remain despite adequate nutritional intake, it is important to seek someone to talk to and get help from early on.

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