According to Roger Walsh in the October 2011 issue of The American Psychologist, there is now a sizable body of evidence indicating the importance of nutrition for mental health. A review of over 160 studies suggested that diet and nutrition can impact the mental health of nations (Gomez-Pinella, 2008).
In recent posts I discussed how unhealthy lifestyles and lack of exercise can contribute to an array of physical problems and can play can an equally important role your mental health and maintaining a sense of well-being.
This week, I will review nutrition specifically. I summarize, below, some of Walsh’s findings in his review of the literature exploring how nutrition impacts mental health.
Principles of Nutrition that Improve Well-Being
There is a vast and complex quantity of literature on the topic of nutrition. For the purposes of his review, Walsh identified 3 key principles of a diet that improves mental health and well-being.
- A diet that consists of predominantly multicolored fruits and vegetables.
- A diet that contains some fish, specifically those that are high in omega-3 fish oils, such as salmon.
- A diet that reduces excessive calories.
Two diets have received that most study in relation to mental health. The pesco-vegetarian diet- the regular intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, beans, eggs, dairy and fish, but no other meats—has been linked with the prevention of some psychopathologies, improvements in academic performance and the reduction of age-related cognitive decline.
In several studies, the Mediterranean diet—generally understood as a diet that emphasizes abundant consumption of plant foods, beans, unrefined cereals and fish, eating fruits for dessert, using olive oil in cooking, moderate consumption of dairy products and wine and low consumption of other meats—has been found to reduce incidence of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
These two diets are similar in their emphasis on fish, vegetables and fruits and low consumption of other meats. Although these diets have received some study, they are likely not the only two that can improve mental well-being.
Supplements and Mental Health
A growing body of research suggests that the absence of certain supplements can lead to mental health problems. Fish and fish oil supply omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential to neural function. Omega-3’s are also anti-inflammatory and protective of multiple body systems. Some studies between countries suggest that lower consumption of omega-3’s in the general population is linked to greater symptom severity of schizophrenia and mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder.
Other deficiencies, such as a deficiency in vitamin D (a widespread problem in the US) can impact mental health. Studies suggest associations between vitamin D deficiency and cognitive impairments, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
The research on nutritional supplements and improvements in mental health is complex and best explored with the help of a medical professional. However, it is an important aspect of treatment to consider.
The wealth of information on nutrition and diet as it relates to physical and mental health can be overwhelming. However, given the low risk of side effects and the substantial positive effects, attending to nutrition is an important factor to consider when you are looking to improve your mental well-being.
You can find more strategies to improve how you feel in my new book, The Stress Response.
Mixed fruit photo available from Shutterstock.