The Way We Eat May Be "Making Us Crazy"
Poor diet gets a hunk of the blame for rising rates of mental illness, according to new research from the UK. "Feeding Minds," a report by the British Mental Health Foundation, describes how eating habits have devolved over the past 60 years. The recent report emphasizes the link between diet and mental health, saying "the evidence indicates that food plays an important contributing role in the development, management and prevention of specific mental health problems, such as depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Alzheimer's disease."
Bad habits -- like skipping breakfast, grabbing a fast-food burger for lunch and popping a frozen pizza into the microwave and calling it "dinner" -- have become a way of life, in large part because people are busy. This kind of food may fill the stomach, but not the body's nutritional needs. The "Feeding Minds" report found that British people now eat 34% fewer vegetables and 59% less fish than 60 years ago. Fast and processed foods are almost always low in critical brain-supporting components such as vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, and are loaded with refined carbohydrates, saturated fats and additives -- a recipe for irritability, mood swings and worse. Another factor is that industrial farming has altered our food at the most basic level. Changes in feed have increased body fat composition of certain animals and farmed fish we eat -- as a result we now often take in a far higher ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3s, a shift that has been linked with depression as well as deficits in memory and focus.
Food allergens are yet another contributor to mental health issues, including mood and attention problems. According to Russell B. Marz, ND, an assistant professor of nutrition at the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon, the growing use of genetically modified high fructose corn syrup in many foods and beverages has been suspected not only in increasing rates of obesity and diabetes, but also serious food allergies.
POOR DIET & MENTAL HEALTH
These changes add up to neurological challenges such as slower brain function and chronic inflammation. Poor diet has been linked with mental health in a number of conditions...
- ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Studies show that people with ADHD are low in certain types of omega-3 fatty acids, like DHA.
- Anxiety. Nervousness and anxiety are associated with a lack of folic acid, niacinamide, pyridoxine, magnesium and calcium.
- Dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Research has linked Alzheimer's with an increased level of homocysteine, an amino acid metabolite associated with decreased levels of folate, B-12 and pyridoxine.
- Depression. Depression is linked to low fish consumption, as well as deficiencies in B vitamins, vitamin C, folic acid, magnesium, selenium and zinc.
- Irritability. A lack of vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine), magnesium and selenium is commonly found in people who are irritable.
- Poor memory and concentration. Lapses in memory and concentration may be linked to a lack of B-12 and other B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids and zinc.
- Schizophrenia. Evidence suggests that people with this disorder have low levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids or antioxidant enzymes in the brain... and low levels of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).
EAT YOUR WAY TO MIND-BODY HEALTH
With growing evidence of the link between mental health and diet, it's yet one more compelling reason, if indeed anyone still needs one, to follow a healthy diet. Fortunately the same whole foods that nourish the body also nourish the mind.
- Avoid additives, preservatives and pesticides. Pesticides and other chemicals can aggravate problems like depression by impairing the absorption of vital nutrients such as pyridoxine, cautions Dr. Marz. When possible, buy free-range, antibiotic-free meat and local produce that is in season and organically grown. The fewer chemicals, the better for your health. If you purchase non-organic fruits and vegetables, wash and peel them to reduce chemical residues.
- Include protein in every meal. Protein is the body's source of essential amino acids, required to produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin (which stabilizes mood and promotes sleep) and dopamine (which imparts energy and mental focus). If you lack sufficient amino acids, you cannot manufacture enough of these chemicals. Protein also helps stabilize blood glucose levels and prevent mood swings. Good sources include fish, eggs, skinless chicken and lean meats. Seafood or animal protein is the best source of vitamin B-12, but if you're over 50 you may have trouble absorbing this nutrient and require a supplement.
- Eat fish such as salmon or halibut two or three times a week, as they are excellent sources of the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Seventy percent of the brain is composed of fat (if you exclude the water), making essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6) a must for optimal brain function. Research from the Framingham Heart Study shows that people who ate fish more than two times a week halved their risk of Alzheimer's. Another option is to take a daily fish oil supplement of combined DHA and EPA.
- Go nuts. Eat a handful of nuts and/or seeds daily. Walnuts, cashews, peanuts and sunflower and pumpkin seeds are rich sources of magnesium and zinc. Walnuts, pumpkin seeds, flax and hemp seeds are also good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. One mice study showed that a diet high in almonds may lower the risk of or prevent Alzheimer's disease.
- Eat lots of fresh produce -- five to 13 servings a day, according to US guidelines. Leafy green veggies such as spinach and kale are rich in folic acid, which supports concentration and memory... citrus fruits, peppers and strawberries are excellent sources of vitamin C... broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage are sources of magnesium. In Dr. Marz's opinion, including more nutrient- and fiber-rich foods in your diet is even more important than including protein.
- Stay hydrated. About 50% to 65% of your body weight consists of water, which carries vital nutrients into cells and ushers waste products out. This seemingly simple advice constitutes a cornerstone of health.
- If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation only. A study in the October 2008 issue of the Archives of Neurology notes that alcohol causes shrinkage of the brain. The more you drink, the more your brain shrinks. It's best to drink alcoholic beverages with your meal and choose organic red wines and unprocessed darker beers that contain higher phenolic levels. Experts generally advise against more than one alcoholic beverage a day for women and two for men.
ONE PIECE OF THE PUZZLE
Of course, a good diet is not a panacea for mental problems any more than a bad diet is the sole cause. Serious diseases such as depression and schizophrenia obviously require expert medical treatment. That said, diet is one piece of the puzzle, and a healthful diet is a must for optimal health overall.
Note: You can download a free copy of the "Feeding Minds" report -- complete with recipes and nutritional advice -- at the Web site of the British Mental Health Foundation, www.mentalhealth.org.uk.
Russell B. Marz, ND, LAc, assistant professor of nutrition, National College of Natural Medicine, Portland, Oregon, and medical director of the Tabor Hill Clinic in Portland, Oregon.
Mental Health Foundation, www.mentalhealth.org.uk.