By: Rebecca Ramdeholl, CHNC
So now that you know that inflammation has something to do with feeling not great, let's discuss what foods are possibly responsible for bringing on that inflammation and what foods can help you feel balanced and sane.
Foods and moods
Evidence for a link between what we eat and how we feel is fairly new. The first studies to be published on this were as recent as 2009. This new area is called “nutritional psychiatry.”
The relationships between foods and mental health are complex, and we’re just starting to understand them. While many studies show a link, all of them don’t.
As an example, one study concluded:
“Our data support the hypothesis that high dietary quality is associated with good emotional well-being.”(Meegan et. al, 2017)
What foods are associated with worse moods? These not-so-healthy dietary patterns include higher intakes of:
People who eat this way tend to report more mental health symptoms than those who eat a more health-promoting diet. Several recent studies consider poor eating habits to be a risk factor for some mental health issues.
Not surprisingly, these not-so-healthy foods are also linked with higher inflammatory markers like CRP (C-reactive protein). Some studies show that improving the diet can reduce levels of CRP.
In fact, several studies show that the higher the “inflammatory factor” of the diet, the higher the risk for mental health issues.
One dietary pattern that’s been studied a lot is the Mediterranean diet. This diet includes a lot of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, fish, and olive oil. It also contains a lot of nutrients and fibre. Eating a Mediterranean-style diet is associated with lower levels of inflammatory markers and a reduced risk of mental health issues. Imagine if we actually LIVED close to the Mediterranean sea....what mental health issue?
This complex association between food and mental health can also go both ways. Mental health symptoms can also influence appetite and food choices. And it’s likely that other factors such as obesity, exercise, food insecurity, and use of alcohol and tobacco are probably involved as well.
We don’t know exactly how these eating patterns affect mental health - but inflammation is definitely one possibility. Nutrition can impact how our immune system functions, and this can affect levels of inflammation, and mental health issues. It could also be through the effects of the nutrients themselves, and even directly through the digestive system (microbiota-gut-brain axis).
Better foods for better moods
In fact, it’s not just “associations.” A recent clinical study found that when people start eating a healthier diet, they can actually reduce some of their mental health symptoms!
This study is particularly interesting. It’s called the SMILES trial.
The SMILES trial
What makes the results from the SMILES trial strong is that it was an actual experiment. It didn’t just ask people what they ate, measured their inflammatory markers, and what their symptoms were. It was “interventional” - people agreed to actually change the way they ate!
The researchers say:
“...this is the first RCT [randomized control trial] to explicitly seek to answer the question: If I improve my diet, will my mental health improve?”(Jacka et. al, 2017)
The SMILES trial recruited 67 people with with depression and poor dietary quality to a trial for 12-weeks. These were people who reported a high intake of sweets, processed meats, and salty snacks; and a low intake of vegetables, fruits, lean protein, and dietary fibre.
Half of them were asked to:
This half of the participants who upgraded their diet were also given seven professional nutrition counselling sessions.
The other half of the people in the SMILES trial were given social support. They were “befriended” and discussed sports or news, or played cards or board games. There was no nutrition support, nor any dietary recommendations given to people in this group.
The researchers found that in 12-weeks the people who improved their diet actually also improved some mental health symptoms! They said:
“We report significant reductions in depression symptoms as a result of this intervention… The results of this trial suggest that improving one’s diet according to current recommendations targeting depression may be a useful and accessible strategy for addressing depression in both the general population and in clinical settings.”(Jacka et. al, 2017)
It would be great for other, larger trials to confirm these results. In the meantime, eating a more health-promoting diet is helpful for so many conditions, not just mental health conditions!
Better nutrition for better moods
Is there something special in these foods that may help with moods?
We know the brain needs enough of all essential nutrients in order to function properly. And insufficient levels are linked with the stress response and the immune response.
Eating nutrient-dense foods is the best way to get nutrition. Foods are complex combinations of nutrients. Supplementing with individual nutrients is not the same as eating a healthy diet.
Let’s go over a few key nutrients for better moods.
B-vitamins such as B6, B9 (folic acid), and B12
People who tend to be low in B-vitamins are more likely to have mental health issues. Higher intakes of vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) and B12 (cobalamin) may reduce risk.
With folic acid in particular, the connection may be due to its different forms. “Folic acid” is the inactive form of vitamin B9. Our bodies naturally converted it into the active form (called L-methylfolate) by the enzyme methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR).
Once folic acid has been activated, it goes to the brain and is used to make neurotransmitters like serotonin, melatonin, dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.
Interestingly, many people with mental health issues are unable to convert folic acid into its active form.
One study tested supplements with the active form of folic acid (L-methylfolate) on people with mental health issues. While some people had a moderate improvement, the people who also had inflammation (higher levels of CRP) had an even greater improvement.
Vitamin D is well known to help absorb calcium for strong bones, but has many other functions too. In terms of immunity, vitamin D can reduce inflammatory molecules in people with certain infections and inflammatory diseases. Vitamin D has a number of roles within the brain. Vitamin D plays a role in circadian rhythms and sleep, and influences the growth of nerve cells in the developing brain.
There is growing evidence that people who tend to be low in vitamin D also tend to have more mental health symptoms. In fact, some (but not all) studies show that vitamin D supplementation can improve mood scores and reduce mental health symptoms.
Vitamin D is the most commonly deficient nutrient in Western countries. It’s known as the “sunshine vitamin” because our skin makes it when exposed to sunlight. It is also found in a few foods, and as a supplement.
*here's another way to load up on this really essential nutrient - especially during those ridiculously long winters
Minerals (Calcium & Selenium)
Low intake of calcium is associated with mental health symptoms, while high intake is associated with lower rates of mental health symptoms.
Depression has been associated with low blood levels of the essential mineral selenium. Low intake of selenium is also associated with an increased risk for depression.
Omega-3 oils are healthy fats found in many foods such as seafood, nuts, legumes, and leafy greens. They have been shown to reduce inflammation.
Some (but not all) studies suggest that the omega-3 fats, specifically those found in fish and fish oil, have mental health benefits.
Now food has a lot to do with how we feel emotionally and physically, but it's not the only reason why we feel angry (inflamed) and unwell. We must bear responsibility for our own role in feeling like crap. In my next post, we'll talk about how lifestyle choices effect our well-being and how to snap out of a bad routine and feel great again.
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