Is Your Diet Making Your Mental Health Worse?

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Written by Rye Barker

You know how after Thanksgiving dinner when everyone’s all sleepy? Or when kids are crazy after eating some candy? These are examples of food affecting your mood. All foods do this, some more noticeable than others, but each thing you eat has an effect on how you feel. While not the sole cure or cause, your diet can affect your mental health! Studying the nutritional influences on mental health is a subset of health psychology, unsurprisingly known as nutritional psychology. This mainly sees which nutrients affect which brain chemicals and how that changes mood and behavior. The main factors in how eating affects mental health are what you eat, how much you eat, and when you eat. Those factors combined affect what chemicals your brain is making, and therefore your mood and behavior. So, which foods make you happier and which are likely to make your mental health worse?

Sugars and Saturated Fats

It’s common knowledge that the diet of the average person is generally not healthy. Fast food, pop tarts, cereal, soda, and other foods that are high in sugars and saturated fats are common staples in most of our diets. While sugars and saturated fats aren’t necessarily a bad thing, in high doses they lead to a variety of illnesses. Especially when you’re deprived of other nutrients. It’s been shown that schizophrenics, who had an increased amount of refined sugar, experienced worse symptoms. Diets that are factors in heart disease and diabetes tend to closely mirror those that can lead to increased chances of schizophrenia and depression.

Another study showed that similarly to drug addictions. Eating foods that are high in energy can, after time, decrease activity in the striatal area of the brain. The striatum is responsible for mediating rewards and motivation, among other things. This means that eating food such as ice cream that originally will feel rewarding will eventually start to decline in satisfaction. As with drug addictions, people will commonly continue eating the food in higher portions in an attempt to get the same “high” that they originally did. By combining this information with the previous study on how sugar affects the mental state,  you can see a decline in happiness due to the sugar followed by greater consumption to try to regain happiness. A downward spiral ensues.

Amino Acids

One of the most notorious causes of depression is the lack of neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Tryptophan is an amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin. If taken on an empty stomach, is often converted into serotonin. The use of tryptophan can result in effects of peace and sleepiness, or in cases where there’s a serotonin deficiency, aid in restoring the healthy levels of neurotransmitters.

Other amino acids, tyrosine and/or phenylalanine, can be converted to dopamine and norepinephrine. Supplements of those amino acids can lead to a heightened sense of alertness, thus also diminishing the symptoms of depression. Currently, more studies need to be conducted to accurately state which amino acids and in which amounts are necessary to achieve the desired antidepressant effects. As excess serotonin is known to be a cause of schizophrenia. There is a genetic link between major depressive disorder and schizophrenia. It is not advisable to overdose on serotonin-inducing substances.

Taurine, another amino acid, is shown to play a part in manic episodes of bipolar disorder. Taurine produces a calming effect in the body due to its ability to bind to the brain’s GABA receptors. When the body has a lack of this, it can lead to the occurrence of manic or hypomanic episodes.

Omega Fatty Acids

Another vital substance that seems to be lacking in most diets today is omega fatty acid. The nutrient that is most commonly found in fish is becoming more scarce. This leads to increased cases of mental illness. The most common illnesses as a result of the deficit of omega acids are mood disorders. These tend to get considerably better once supplements containing omega acids are consumed.

Overeating and Fasting

While obviously eating is important, overeating can be just as detrimental as undereating. It’s common for people to feel sleepy or tired after eating as a reaction to digestive processes. In the process of turning tryptophan into serotonin, melatonin is also produced. Melatonin is a chemical that makes you sleepy. That and the fact that your mind and body feel satisfied as their needs are met may lead to a decrease in alertness and productivity. If someone eats too much or too often, they can end up feeling tired and unmotivated the majority of the day. After a while of low productivity, motivation, and tiredness, a person becomes more vulnerable to mental illnesses and stress. Which, as was stated in the first section, people often try to remedy by eating more.

In moderation, fasting can be beneficial to your brain in many ways. The lack of food can increase your mental sharpness, memory, and cognitive skills. This is because our brains are wired to function quicker in times of need, such as when we need to find food. In stories of World War II, some Japanese prisoners reported increased mental capabilities due to starvation to the point that one learned Norwegian in two weeks. This is only to a certain extent,  once you reach a certain point your body doesn’t have the necessary resources to continue functioning.

How to use this information

Eating regularly yet with plenty of time in between can increase alertness and motivation. This helps to combat and prevent depression. Being sure to get all necessary nutrients and moderate refined sugars, saturated fats, and other non-beneficial substances does more than just make you feel physically healthy, as it also improves mental health drastically. Having a fit body doesn’t hurt either, as that usually gives self-esteem a nice boost. Planning out a healthy, balanced diet and strategically timed meals can be a big step in preventing mental illnesses and improving your mood and overall functioning in life. The most important thing to remember here is variety and moderation.

Eating cake on birthdays isn’t going to cause you to become mentally ill or unhealthy. Eating cake every day increases the chances of you becoming mentally ill or unhealthy. And eating a bit of unhealthy food on a daily basis is okay as long as you’re eating enough healthy foods and doing things that are good for you.