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The food you eat can affect your mood, your sleep patterns, and your mental well-being.

Have you ever thought of your brain as a machine? It is the most complex piece of technology on the planet and it never rests. Your brain controls every function of life, communication, sensory experience, and cognition. About 20% of your resting metabolic rate of energy use is allocated for your brain, which is about 300 to 400 calories per day.

That is a bargain when you consider how hard our brains work. But have you ever thought about the kind of energy your brain and body need to keep functioning? Many people experience a mood shift when they are hungry. We call it “getting hangry” and it’s kind of a joke.  But when you start to learn about the complex chemical changes that happen when your body is malnourished, the link between nutritional and mental health becomes apparent.

It’s not enough for us to eat food to satiate our hunger. The machinery of the human brain, the millions of chemical messages and reactions happening in your body every day, depend on a balance of nutrients. The body is resilient, and it has the ability to adapt to a lack of certain nutrients, but not without reducing essential activities and functions to compensate.

So, while skipping meals or eating low-nutrient food won’t stop you in your tracks, there is a cost to your health. Researchers are learning that a poor diet can significantly impact our mood. Lack of a balanced diet may be one of the most prevalent contributing factors to depression and other mood disorders.

Your Body Keeps a Daily Inventory of Nutrients Received

Physicians know that malnutrition or ongoing nutrient deficiency has many health effects, from reducing the immune system defenses to changes in hair, skin, and nails.  Studies have also demonstrated that our ability to problem solve is significantly reduced when we are hungry.  Long-term nutrient deficiencies can predispose us to develop certain autoimmune disorders and chronic diseases.

What impact does poor nutrition have on our mental health, or on the amount of energy that we have to navigate each day? Mental health professionals have been looking at the correlation between poor nutrition and increased mental health disorders, like depression and clinical anxiety. What they have learned may help provide another way to address mental health concerns with nutrition instead of prescription medications that can present other health risks.

Some people who have poor nutritional habits also have insomnia. That is not a coincidence. You see, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates a lot of different functions in your body.  Serotonin is the hormone that signals hunger and nudges you toward the kitchen or the nearest snack. It is also responsible for regulating moods and for processing the sense of pain or discomfort. The hormone also regulates your sleep cycle.

Serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. The good bacteria in your digestive system (microbiome) help absorb nutrients from food. Think of those nutrients and microscopic bacteria as a rudimentary inventory system. They have a checklist of the number of nutrients and vitamins the body needs daily, then communicate those messages from the digestive tract to the brain.

Serotonin Communicates the “Feast or Famine” Mode

When we don’t meet our essential recommended daily value of nutrients, the body moves into compensation mode. It’s important to note that the body is vigilant for ‘feast or famine’ modes. 

When there are too many nutrients and too much food, your body tries to process it quickly. And store it into fat cells to use as energy at a later time. But when your body doesn’t get enough nutrients, it assumes a famine mode. Your body doesn’t know what the problem is; all it knows is that there is less nutrient intake. A built-in monitor, called the vagus nerve, sends a report on food levels directly to the brain.

In famine mode, many different physiological changes start to occur. The body reacts to conserve energy for survival, by reducing activities. The levels of glucose, essential fatty acids, and amino acids are lowest when you are experiencing feelings of hunger. Surprisingly, you may not be hungry but you can still be nutritionally deficient in key minerals and vitamins your body needs.

Signs of Nutrient Deficiencies or Long-Term Malnutrition

It is hard to imagine that malnutrition is a big problem in the United States, but food security is a growing health risk for Americans. For some, healthy food costs exceed what they can afford to purchase at a grocery store. 

Cheap foods may be tasty and satisfying but have a low nutritional value. Some convenience foods report 0% nutrient values but are still affordable and popular selling products.  Even people who can afford healthier foods often still choose convenience pre-packaged and low-nutrient options because they are fast and easy to prepare if you have a busy lifestyle.

What happens when the human body is low on nutrients or running on empty?

  • Critical thinking skills are impaired and impulsive decision-making happens instead. (There is a reason why you should never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach!)
  • Hair loss and dried skin are common symptoms.
  • Constipation is more likely.
  • Pale skin and gums are prevalent.
  • Concentration and focus abilities are impaired.
  • Food cravings are common—your body’s way of trying to entice you into eating something.
  • Feelings of light-headedness.
  • Tingling or numbness of the joints or extremities like toes or fingers.
  • Problems with menstrual cycles. 
  • Symptoms of depression and anxiety.

According to the federal agency “Food Research & Action Center” more than 35 million Americans live in households that struggle daily with hunger.  One in ten American households experiences food insecurity.  Families with young children and seniors are most prone to daily nutrition problems and food insecurity in the United States.

New Study Links Symptoms of PTSD With Poor Diet

New data from the “Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA)” revealed some surprising facts about PTSD and nutrition. It found that there was a higher rate of severe PTSD symptoms among people who had long-term nutrient deficits.

Specifically, people who ate two or more fiber sources every day were less likely to have PTSD. While people living in poverty (who may be experiencing food insecurity) demonstrated higher than average post-traumatic stress disorder rates.

One of the interesting findings of the study was a correlation between eating chocolate and PTSD. Researchers did not find that chocolate caused higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. Rather, people prone to depression or anxiety may use chocolate as a mood-lifting food in lieu of eating other more nutritional options.

Nutritional Psychiatry is Emerging as a New Mental Health Treatment

Imagine that you went to your doctor, and they prescribed a balanced diet. While physicians consistently support the importance of daily nutrition, many people don’t fully understand why or how nutritional deficits impact every aspect of our physical and emotional well being.

Western medicine has two conventional approaches for the treatment of mental health disorders; talk-therapy and psychotropic medications. But, before prescription medications are recommended, what if patients were supported to make nutritional and lifestyle changes? This would help determine if malnutrition or nutrient deficits were a probable cause.

The concept is not a new one. In fact, the Center for Nutritional Psychology has been curating global research into the practice since 2005. Global studies reveal that Diet-Mental Health Relationship (DMHR) is proven.  Many people with depression, PTSD, or clinical anxiety may not know that diet may be a primary cause of their mental health challenges.

Today, the science of DMHR is being studied and more psychology practitioners are adding nutritional counseling to their therapeutic services. Independently or in conjunction with the patient’s primary care provider (PCP). The option to undergo DMHR therapy, however, is not well known. However, it could provide a better and more effective recovery option for people with treatment-resistant depression (TRD) and other types of mental health and mood disorders. 

The link between nutrition and our mental health is complex. However, research shows that there is a direct link between what we eat and how we feel. Pay attention to the nutrients you eat every day and track your mood, you may discover there are foods that directly affect your well-being. Monitoring your diet, nutrient intake, and mood is a great way to take charge of your health.

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