There are now quite a few studies that show eating healthy can reduce your risk of depression and anxiety, two of the most commonly co-occurring mental health issues along with substance use disorders. For example, one meta-analysis looked at 16 studies comprising data from nearly 46,000 participants and found that healthier diets led to fewer depression symptoms–fewer sleep disturbances, less hopelessness, and less disconnection. There are many such studies and meta-analyses and they all support what addiction treatment providers have known for years: eating healthy is an important component of recovery.
How Diet Improves Mental Health
We don’t have a complete picture of why healthier eating leads to better mental health. Human bodies are complicated and everyone is different. We have some pretty good ideas, though. What you eat affects many different biological processes that all interact in complex ways. Hormones, neurotransmitters, brain glucose levels, and neuron signalling are all affected by what you eat. Some foods may increase inflammation and oxidative stress, impair neuron growth, or damage mitochondrial function.
Your Gut Bacteria Appears to Be Increasingly Important
In recent years, more and more research has shown that humans are hugely dependent on a variety of microorganisms, commonly referred to as the microbiome. The microbiome forms its own ecosystem inside our bodies, mostly in our digestive tract. It was once thought these microbes had a limited role in helping us digest food, but it now appears they do a lot more and that the quality of our microbiome affects our mental and physical health in a number of important ways. For example, some microbes in our gut produce serotonin, the “feel good” neurotransmitter. Serotonin actually does a lot for you, including mediating your moods, regulating your sleep and appetite, and moderating pain. While we typically think of serotonin as being produced in the brain and having the greatest effect there, about 95 percent of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, which is lined with hundreds of millions of neurons. As a result, the microbes in your gut have a tremendous impact on your moods.
What to Do for Your Gut
The great diversity of studies on diet and mental health have yet to identify a perfect diet. Rather, they all suggest some common themes. The “Mediterranean diet” seems to fare well. It is characterized by lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, legumes, and bit of fish but little or no red meat. However, any diet composed mainly of whole foods with a diversity of fruits and vegetables seemed to correlate with better mental health. It’s also important to avoid certain foods, especially refined sugar and other heavily processed foods. Fried foods also tend to be high in inflammatory omega-6 fats and are not good for mood. Healthy gut flora seem to like fiber, so you can’t go wrong with adding vegetables to your diet, especially artichokes and asparagus.
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