Greek physician Hippocrates suggested there is a correlation between our diet, our health, and our ability to heal ourselves based upon our diet. Now, Hippocrates was more than likely referring to our physical bodies in this quote, but does this same philosophy apply also to the healing of our minds? Is there a direct parallel in what we eat and mental health illnesses such as anxiety, chronic depression, PTSD, or bipolar disorder? Can a change in diet change our minds — literally? Some medical professionals believe so, others not so much.
These claims of healing treatment via your diet are a much-discussed topic in the world of nutritional psychiatry. If you’ve never heard of the term nutritional psychiatry, it’s an emerging medical field rooted in centuries old research and findings. Essentially, this field studies the effect food has on the brain.
As we all know, food fuels the brain. Every piece of food you eat provides energy for your brain to function. If you are eating a clean diet, a diet void of refined sugars for instance, it’s thought that you are not only in good physical health but also good mental health. After all, studies show those that have unhealthy diets are in turn obese and, because of their obesity, they are ultimately suffering from some form of depression.
While this may be true in some cases, it may not be true for all cases. But for those who believe a dietary intervention may be a great healer, Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Chris Palmer, has explored several of the controversial dietary interventions that many are claiming to have real effects on chronic illness. Here are three of the most widely debated interventions:
Adding and Removing Foods — “Healthy Diets”
This is otherwise known as eating clean or eating a diet void of refined sugars and processed foods. Dr. Palmer’s research found scientists have cited increased Omega-3 fatty acid consumption can have an anti-inflammatory effect, that folate deficiency has been found in depressive disorders and schizophrenia, Vitamin E is found to be elevated in mood disorders, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease, and low levels of vitamin D were found in patients with a variety of psychiatric disorders, including depressive disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
The Gut Microbiome
There is emerging evidence that the microbes in our guts play a significant role in many illnesses, including mental disorders. What we eat affects these microbes. We can also change our gut microbes by taking prebiotics and probiotics. In “Nutritional Psychiatry: Your Brain on Food,” Dr. Eva Selhub talks about gut health and how those who take probiotics were often less anxious and had an improved mental outlook. She says overarching diets make a difference as well, “Other studies have compared ‘traditional’ diets, like the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet, to a typical ‘Western’ diet and have shown that the risk of depression is 25 to 35 percent lower in those who eat a traditional diet.” She goes on to say, “Scientists account for this difference because these traditional diets tend to be high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and fish and seafood, and to contain only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy. They are also void of processed and refined foods and sugars, which are staples of the Western dietary pattern.”
Fasting and the Ketogenic Diet
These two interventions have a long history in the field of medicine. They change human metabolism. In fact, it’s been shown that fasting or a keto diet is an effective treatment for people with epilepsy.
It’s important to note that scientists have also discovered that refined sugars are a contributor to other issues. Professor Suzanne Dickson, from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, confirms this theory in “Does Diet Influence Mental Health? Assessing the Evidence” (Tim Newman, Medical News Daily, January 8, 2020.): “[W]e can see [that] an increase in the quantity of refined sugar in the diet seems to increase ADHD and hyperactivity, whereas eating more fresh fruit and vegetables seems to protect against these conditions. But there are comparatively few studies, and many of them don’t last long enough to show long-term effects.”
This study is no different than many others in nutritional psychiatry — there is a lot of unfounded information in this relatively new field. However, many are watching to see if the findings have substance and if it could truly help in cases of mental and emotional health. If you are what you eat and food can be a cure to all that ails you, make sure you have a full plate going into a new decade.