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Links Between Diet and Mental Health


Over the course of the past decade, scientists have begun exploring the correlation between nutrition and mental health. Though much of the findings are limited to observational research and therefore do not explicitly confirm a cause and effect relationship, the results are still consistent and compelling.


One in five Canadians will experience a mental health condition in his or her lifetime, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. Among the other factors that impact mental health, our varying eating habits are thought to play a role. A paper published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology stated that the shift from a traditional whole-foods diet based in nutrient-rich foods to a menu of high-calorie, high- processed fare has been associated with increases in depression and other mental disorders.


Even the changing nutrient content of healthy foods may be playing a role. An analysis conducted by the Biochemical Institute at the University of Texas illuminated findings that during the past approximately 70 years, the mineral content of fruits and vegetables has been declining, most likely due to modern agricultural practices.


Recent studies have linked healthy eating habits to a lower risk of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and suicide in adults. Researchers have turned up similar findings in children and adolescents. A review of studies by researchers at the School of Medicine at Deakin University uncovered a consistent trend between a higher intake of nutrient- dense foods (vegetables, salads, fruits, and fish) and lower rates of mental illness (depression, unstable mood, emotional issues, and anxiety). The analysis also found a steady and positive correlation between unhealthy eating habits and poorer mental health in youth.


Research has found that the link between nutrition and mental health may start as early as in the womb. Studies suggest that unhealthy eating patterns throughout pregnancy and early childhood (characterized by highly processed foods, refined cereals, sugary beverages, and high-calorie snacks) increase the risk of attention problems, aggressive behaviour, and anxious and depressive symptoms in children.


How does diet affect the brain?


Diet is thought to have a direct impact on many biological pathways that reinforce depression and other mental health disorders.


Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and oily fish have anti-inflammatory properties and may influence concentrations of brain chemicals that regulate emotions and cognition.


Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil are essential for the integrity of brain cell membranes. An imbalance of these fats may alter how brain cells communicate with one another.


Antioxidants are thought to reduce free radical damage, or oxidative stress, to brain cells that may influence mental health.

The B vitamin folate is needed for the production of serotonin, a brain chemical responsible for maintaining mood balance. Folate, along with vitamins B12 and B6 are also thought to protect brain function by reducing levels of an amino acid called homocysteine.


A diet based on nutrient-packed whole foods also increases the level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that improves mood, enhances attention, increases learning promotes brain cell growth and lowers brain inflammation.

Certain foods that feed our “good” gut bacteria, known as probiotics, may also be linked to better mental health since gut microbes synthesize most of the body’s serotonin.


To learn more about the mental and physical benefits of eating well or to get yourself started on the path toward healthy eating patterns, call or visit your nearest Imagine Health Centres location to book an appointment with one of our experienced physicians! What’s more important than your health?

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