Ryan Sheridan, NP
Nutritional Psychiatry & Mental Health: Feed Your Brain
Updated: Mar 2
Your brain needs food, actually it needs healthy food. So yes, what you eat impacts how you think and how you feel physically and emotionally. Whaaat? Let’s take a dive into nutritional psychiatry to see how food can be used as a tool to improve mental health.
Why is nutrition important for our mental health?
Below we will talk about what good foods are, but first we should talk about why nutrition is important. Here’s one way to think of it: Let’s say you just bought a new fancy BMW that requires premium gasoline, but gas prices are like $5/gallon or more for premium so you decide to use regular instead. Sure the car runs, but you’re compromising fuel economy, performance, and the overall longevity of the vehicle because the engine is designed for higher octane fuel. Maybe for your car you don’t care because you can get a new one. But we only get one body!
Have I lost you yet? Good! Stay with me! The food we eat is like the fuel for a car. What we put in determines how well we function. We now know that what we eat also has a drastic impact on our cognitive function in the short term and long term. In the short term, if we skimp on what we eat, executive functioning is less acute. In the long term, nutritional deficits literally reduce the size, capacity, and life of our brains! Nutrition is not just for our bodies, it is for our brains, too! Less than ideal nutrition can lead to mental health disorders like anxiety and reduce our ability to manage stress!
It boils down to inflammation and gut-health. Certain foods promote inflammatory processes in the body while others prevent inflammatory processes. The brain is not immune to inflammation! Gut-health also plays a role. We know that almost all of our serotonin (one of the happiness neurotransmitters) is found in the GI tract. And without getting too technical, poor diets promote poor gut health by increasing bad bacteria and limiting good gut bacteria. Because the presence of bacteria plays a role in how well we absorb essential nutrition, we can become deficient in what our brain needs to be happy or able to manage stress. Serotonin! Right, I didn’t forget. The bacteria in our gut impacts serotonin, so if our diets are off kilter, our downstream serotonin could be off kilter too.
What is nutritional psychiatry?
Simply stated, nutritional psychiatry is the process of using what we eat and drink to drive changes in our mental health. In other words, in many instances if we change what we eat our mental health can improve. As we have talked about, this works both ways, in that a diet void of quality nutrition can lead to nutritional deficits, inflammation, and a long list of physical health problems (diabetes, heart disease, etc.).
Any good integrative psychiatry plan must include nutrition as a component of the plan. A comprehensive look at an individual’s nutrition is important in order to determine what changes should be made. I always include nutritional psychiatry as part of my treatment plan.
Why nutritional psychiatry is the future of mental health
Science is always growing – the science of nutritional psychiatry is no exception. In the last decade research has accumulated rapidly. And the results are conclusive: what we eat plays a role in our mental health just as much as our physical health. When I say nutritional psychiatry is the future of mental health, what I mean is I believe there will be a significant transition from reactive interventions to proactive lifestyle promotion.
I said a lot, are you still tracking with me? Instead of prescribing medication to fix problems, including mental health, medicine is shifting toward a system that helps to prevents problems. This shift is a fundamental objective of integrative psychiatry and nutritional psychiatry.
Let’s prevent problems or fix the root cause instead of masking them.
In the future we can expect nutritional psychiatry to become more mainstream as the data becomes more widely recognized. Society stands to benefit a ton in terms of reduced illness, reduced costs, and an overall happier population.
Does nutrition impact depression, anxiety, and stress?
When our bodies are deprived of essential nutritional needs, things don’t work as smoothly as they could. Vitamins and minerals play an important role in overall health. As we know, low vitamin D can be linked to depression and anxiety. For a while we might get by without a well-rounded diet, but the effects tend to pile up over time. We already talked about serotonin and how gut bacterial impacts our mental health. Well, without enough or properly regulated serotonin, depression, anxiety, and stress tend to manifest. In fact, most antidepressants work to regulate serotonin.
The relationship we have with food is important to our overall wellness. So before we start here, I want to stress that I believe in moderation. I do not endorse deprivation of any single nutrient group like carbs, fats, or proteins. Life is about balance. I also don’t label foods as bad. There are good foods and there are HAT foods (HAT: stands for here and there).
What are some good foods for your mental health?
A simple way to make sure you’re eating quality food is to ask yourself “Is the food I am eating found in nature?” If the answer is yes, then chances are it’s a good food! So by that I mean veggies, meats, fruits, nuts, unprocessed carbs (like potatoes, quinoa, wild rice). We want our food to be as close to whole and from nature as possible. You also want a large variety of foods – think of a rainbow! Your plate should be several colors, at least. The idea here is that generally different color foods have different nutrient profiles and we need a range of nutrients. So eating well-rounded, colorful meals from foods found in nature is an easy way to determine what’s good.
How about the HATs?
Well, pretty much everything else. The key question here is “was this food processed in any way?” Some processing is okay! (We wouldn’t want the whole fish to arrive on our plate uncooked!) Processed meats, refined sugars, refined grains, all those things that taste soooo good are best to consume in moderation and should not make up more than a small portion of your daily nutritional intake.
Wait, what about dairy and alcohol?
Dairy is unique and tricky because some dairies are HATs. Dairy provides a ton of great nutrients, however, it can be a problem for some people. In general dairy is a great supplement or side nutrient class. Milk and some yogurts are a-okay (but watch out for added sugars). Most cheeses are highly processed and fall in the HAT category.
Ok, alcohol. According to the latest research there is no safe amount of alcohol to consume, meaning even one glass can be an issue – yes even red wine! That being said, we apply the HAT rule here too. Here and there is fine, just don’t overdo it. Alcohol triggers the inflammatory process we talked about earlier that messes with our gut health and brain health.
Supplements? A waste of money?
Ahh yes the world of supplements (this includes even a multivitamin)! In a perfect world we would get everything we
need from the food we eat. We don’t live in a perfect world so sometimes it makes sense to take supplements. So they are not a waste of money, if used conservatively and not as replacements for healthy eating. An example of a good supplement for some is lithium. I wrote a blog post about lithium as a supplement, which is sometimes taken from our diet as a result of processing foods and our drinking water.
Here are a few key points:
- Eat a well-rounded diet and fill in the gaps, if necessary
- If it ain’t broke don’t fix it: if a deficiency isn’t causing a problem it may not make sense to
- You do not need 1000s of percent of anything. Everything extra you just pee out or in some
cases can actually be dangerous
- Talk to your provider about what you’re taking as supplements can interact with medication
and can have side effects
- Keep it simple, don’t overdo it. If you’re eating a well-balanced diet, there is truly no need for more than few supplements
Conclusion: nutritional psychiatry
Your nutrition is a part of your physical and mental health: what you eat can play a huge role in how you think and how you feel. Nutritional psychiatry is an integrative approach to managing mental health through what foods and drinks we consume. Making diet choices that are well-rounded, colorful, and as close to nature as possible is an easy way to practice healthy eating. Again HAT foods are okay, in moderation! And remember, a healthy relationship with food never includes deprivation of any single nutrient class.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this post. Some of it might be confusing. If you have questions, feel free to reach out to me. I can’t stress enough the importance of working with a provider when making health decisions, too.
If you have questions about integrative psychiatry, are interested in seeking care, or are interested in learning about how to practice integrative psychiatry, please reach out to me via email at email@example.com. Feel free to repost this blog, just give me a link back!