Can you eat your way to better mental health?
The Australian bureau of statistics reports that almost 1 in 2 of us will experience a mental health condition during the course of our lifetime. Take a moment to let that sink in.
There is more and more emerging scientific evidence that inflammation within the body is, in some cases, directly associated with mood disorders such as depression and bi polar disorder. It is also now coming to light that some mood-stabilising and anti-psychotic medications may act to reduce inflammation, which is not necessarily the understanding with which they have been prescribed to this point. Finally, it has also been shown that the additional use of specific anti-inflammatory therapeutics can improve the efficacy of mood-stabilising and anti-depressant medication.
Three million Australians are currently living with depression and/or anxiety. That’s a huge number in itself, but does not include other mood disorders such as bi polar or schizophrenia, and it also doesn’t include those that remain undiagnosed or unaware that there is perhaps a label for the way they’re feeling.
So if we know that for at least some people, inflammation is at play in these brain disorders, and we know that certain dietary and lifestyle elements are inflammatory (i.e. sugar, smoking, alcohol use, inactivity, high intake of trans-fatty acids etc – basically all the components of the standard issue Western lifestyle), could it stand to reason that we could eat our way to a better mood?
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is a bit of a buzz word in the media and literature at the moment. In a nutshell, it refers to a process that the body undergoes in order to protect itself from invasion or infection by foreign organisms. Inflammation is a natural response moderated by the immune system and is beneficial for the body in the short term. It might result in one or more of the following symptoms:
Pain, heat and stiffness in joints or particular areas of the body;
Fever or chills;
Loss of appetite;
You’ll note that these are pretty common symptoms – inflammation, in one way or another, is a pretty common occurrence. No, it doesn’t always result in a mood disorder; but sustained inflammation within the body is likely to cause more damage than the original invasion that triggered an immune response.
Research to support dietary changes
I wrote recently about how following a Mediterranean-style diet can be beneficial in the prevention of cardiovascular disease (more about this here). It turns out, the same goes for depression. Combining a limited intake of meat and sweets with an abundance of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, legumes and raw olive oil seems to hit the nail on the head for improving measures of many chronic diseases, and depression seems to be no exception.
In contrast, it seems that diets high in refined grains (i.e. white flour, white pasta, white bread), and processed products (i.e. food that you have to unwrap and require a chemistry degree to understand the nutritional label); are associated with an increased risk of developing disease, including depression.
Like I said at the very beginning, your standard issue Western diet is choc-full (no pun intended) of refined, processed, and largely nutrient-devoid food. The type of food that drives inflammation and illness. The type of food that we can now prove contributes to mood disorders such as depression. Couple this with the fact that many of us sit at a desk for 8 hours a day, do little exercise, and have highly stressful lives, and it's a recipe for disaster.
If you do nothing else, there are some incredibly straight forward and simple strategies you can implement into your life today:
Increase the frequency with which you consume fruit and vegetables. Grate an apple into your porridge, cut up some carrot and celery sticks to munch on during the week, try out new recipes featuring veggies you’ve been unsure of how to prepare.
Replace white rice with brown rice. Similarly, replace white bread with wholegrain, wholemeal bread. You don't have to remove, but you definitely should consider replacement with a more nutrient-dense option.
Replace bottled drinks with water. If you’re unsure why you should do this, Google image search ‘sugar content in bottled drinks’. Please don’t make the mistake of replacing these drinks with ‘low-sugar’ options; these are full of chemical sweeteners that have their own set of problems.
Add a couple of tablespoons of nuts and seeds to your meals. Sunflower and pumpkin seeds are especially affordable and a great addition to increase the content of fibre, protein, healthy fats, and a myriad of various vitamins and minerals.
Make your own salad dressings. The dressings lining the supermarket shelves are one of the biggest sources of hidden sugars in the supermarket, especially those that are ‘low-fat’. This really couldn’t be easier: 3 parts raw, cold-pressed olive oil to 1 part vinegar or lemon juice.
What more can Naturopathy do?
My role as a qualified naturopath is to identify the drivers of my patients’ illness on a personal, case-by-case basis.
In this case, in-depth discussions are required to determine what may be contributing to inflammation and, as a result, poor health. As a starting point, inflammation may be attributed to the diet, possibly the workplace, maybe other illness or disease processes within the body, or perhaps a direct result of stress. Wherever it’s stemming from, it’s my job to figure it out and treat this, not just arm you with various dietary tips to reduce inflammation (although those are important too).
Herbal medicines shine in the treatment of anxiety and low mood. A certain class of herbs known as adaptogens work through various biochemical channels to help the body manage stress. This can result in better-quality sleep, improved mood and coping, and a stronger immune system – just as a starting point. And yes, these herbs stack up when tested in clinical trials.
For some, dietary changes may not be enough. Due to various malabsorption issues (e.g. Crohn’s disease) or increased demands (e.g. periods of increased growth or stress like pregnancy or adolescence), a more structured nutritional medicine approach may be required. Further, there are specific nutrients that are critical to reduce inflammation, such as the omega-3 fatty acids, which may be hard for some people to obtain through the diet alone, i.e. vegans or vegetarians.
If you or someone you know is intrigued by the role that inflammation plays in mood disorders or want to learn more about how you can improve your own health, please get in touch.
As with any information you read on this website, this article is intended for general use and should not take the place of appropriate medical care or medication. If you or someone you love is struggling with mental health issues, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
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