Just as the junk-food-filled Standard American Diet (aptly referred to by its acronym, SAD) has long been associated with poor physical health, so has a diet loaded with excess sugar, fat, and processed foods been linked in more recent years to poor mental health. And as anyone who suffers from psychological problems knows, a decline in mental health can be just as debilitating as a decline in physical health, if not more so. In fact, there is often an association between the two.

Depression and anxiety can play a role in declining physical health, just as failing physical health can lead to anxiety and depression. While researchers are busy trying to figure out exactly where and how food fits into the equation, there’s one thing health experts now know for sure: it’s all somehow connected. When considering your overall wellness in relationship to how you eat, there is no need to separate physical health from mental health.

Take stress, for instance. When you feel stressed, the types and amount of food you eat may be very different than when you are in a calmer state, when you can think more clearly and mindfully about your diet choices. In a stressful state, you may not even be aware of what and how much you’re eating.  If stress is a routine occurrence in your life, then you may be making poor food choices every day and, that, over time, can result in nutrient deficiencies and conditions like inflammation and obesity that are taking a toll on your general health.

Inflammation, Immunity, and Depression

Current research into the connection between diet, depression, stress, and anxiety focuses much of its attention on inflammation in the brain and the role of the immune system in the development of stress and the disturbances in thinking and behavior that are associated with depression. Abnormal levels of certain chemicals in the blood known as cytokines indicate high levels of inflammation in the body. Researchers have found that people who suffer from major depressive disorders consistently show high levels of cytokines in their blood. 1, 2

The immune systems of men and women are different, menstrual cycles affect cytokine levels, and aging (postmenopausal) women appear to have higher levels of cyctokines than men of the same age, leading researchers to look at how sex differences play a role in the development and treatment of mood disorders. People who suffer from inflammatory medical conditions, such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis commonly have symptoms of depression, though it is unclear whether it is the inflammation or chronic symptoms, such as pain, that contribute to mood disorders. 2

Many people who suffer from mood disorders are not helped by currently available drugs; popular antidepressant medications, for instance, do little or nothing to lift the mood of those who are resistant to treatment. This may have something to do with individual levels of inflammation; the more inflammation, the poorer the response to the medication. And although antidepressants can also have anti-inflammatory properties, each type of medication works differently and has different effects on individual people.2

Research Questions About Nutrition Remain

While some researchers look at specific foods that can cause inflammation, such as sugary beverages and desserts, 3 others study overall eating patterns, such as a Mediterranean-style diet, that may help prevent it. Still others question whether healthy eating is enough to prevent inflammation, or if severe stress or a major depressive disorder is powerful enough to cancel out the benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet. Is it all about inflammation, or do mental health issues deplete your brain and body of important nutrients? Can diet changes help everyone or just some people? 4 And one of the biggest, yet-to-be-resolved questions: Do poor food choices increase the risk of mental health issues or do mental health issues lead to poor food choices? Or both?

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It is difficult to isolate and test the effects of single ingredients in an overall diet or to focus on single nutrients found in foods, because diets are composed of so many different types of foods, and most foods are made up of a combination of many different nutrients. Individual people also have different eating habits and nutritional needs. That’s why it takes years to get definitive answers that, in the end, still may not work for everyone, and why nutrition recommendations often change over time.

How Food Impacts Mental Health

Still, when the results of multiple studies point to the same or similar conclusion, health experts take notice and begin to suspect a strong correlation that can ultimately lead to informed recommendations. For instance, many studies point to the power of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet to improve symptoms of anxiety and depression and even play a role in the prevention of suicide.5,6,7 Also of great interest to researchers, these days are the effects of probiotics—the health-promoting, “good” bacteria found in cultured and fermented foods like yogurt and kimchi—on mental health. Again, multiple studies suggest that probiotics can help improve symptoms of anxiety and mood disorders in people with clinically diagnosed disorders, as well as those who are otherwise healthy but experience some of the symptoms of mental health conditions.8,9.

Knowing that diet is associated with mood, mental health professionals can consider their patients’ food choices and eating patterns when attempting to treat psychological disorders. Through the lens of nutritional psychology, counselors can work with patients who have mood disorders and other common psychological disturbances to determine whether or not routine diet choices play a role in their dysfunction. Dietary counseling might then be included in a treatment plan that takes a more holistic approach to mental health care.

What You Can Do

Understanding that you might be “psychologically malnourished” can help motivate you to look carefully at your diet and see where improvements can be made. Switching up your diet to routinely include more foods that appear to fight inflammation, like salmon and other omega-3 rich fatty fish, and gradually adding more probiotic foods and high-fiber whole grains, legumes, and vegetables to your diet—foods that conform to a generally healthier eating style—will likely improve both your physical and mental health, without doing you any harm.

Keep in mind, too, that healing is never just about food. Managing mental health is much more complicated than simply eating the right foods. There are other lifestyle changes you can make and steps you can take to improve your health and your quality of life. These include learning about stress management, practicing relaxation techniques, getting more exercise, and reaching out for support from family, friends, spiritual counselors, and mental health professionals. Discuss any use of supplements with your health care providers to see if they are right for you; even those that appear to have mental health benefits can have undesirable side effects and could potentially interfere with the action of medications and other supplements you may be taking.

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Last Updated: Feb 26, 2020