Remember when Remus Lupin gave Harry Potter a bar of chocolate after his terrifying encounter with a dementor for the first time? Has it ever tickled your curious bone as to why? If you are anything like me, it naturally must have. Well, it turns out, chocolate is well-known for its mood-enhancing properties even in the wizarding world.
Chocolate increases the level of endorphins released in our brains, giving credence to the claim that chocolate is indeed, an ultimate comfort food. Endorphins lessen pain and decrease stress. A common neurotransmitter affected by the consumption of chocolate is serotonin. This particular neurotransmitter is responsible for keeping us happy and healthy. One of the amino acids which synthesizes serotonin is tryptophan found in, among other things, chocolate. I would like to think that the reason I usually reach out for my secret stash of chocolate when I am feeling down has something to do with this. Which brings us to this; it is a fascinating thought that food can have such a significant effect on our general mood and mental health.
The importance of certain neurotransmitter-inducing food and supplements has under no circumstances been a secret. In fact, recent studies have come to light which show that diet has a substantial effect on our mood and mental well-being. The positive impacts of a healthy diet on certain aspects of these two components are being researched to a point that some may claim, nutritional psychiatry is the future of mental health treatment. Does this suggest the likelihood of no more pills? Perhaps.
What is nutritional psychiatry? It is a growing discipline that focuses on the usage of food and supplements to typically provide essential nutrients as part of an integrated or alternative treatment for mental health disorders (Marx W, 2017). Nutritional psychiatry is still undergoing a number of research and has not provided a clear basis for it to become a widely acceptable form of treatment, as most guidelines state following types of therapies or medicine. However, this holistic approach might be more suggestible to people who are part of the social stigma associated with the shunning of modern medicine.
Our brain takes care of thoughts and movements, controls our breathing and heartbeat even while we are asleep. The complex organ needs a constant supply of oxygen and fuel, which comes from the food we eat. In fact, it makes all the difference. What we eat affects the structure and function of our brain, and eventually, our mood and mental well-being.
It makes sense; when our brains are deprived of certain nutrients or if free radicals and inflammatory cells are circulating inside, negative consequences are to be expected. Not only are there correlations between what we eat and our brains, but also the kind of bacteria that live in our guts. The good bacteria influences what our guts digest and absorb. They may equally affect the degree of inflammation throughout our bodies.
Mental health conditions may arise due to inflammation in the brain which ultimately causes the death of brain cells. The response starts in the gut and is associated with inadequate nutrition. Research has shown that food supplements like zinc, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins can help improve people’s moods and mental health capacity.
Vitamins and Zinc are supplements that can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Magnesium and probiotics can achieve this too. In fact, Magnesium is one of the most essential minerals required for optimal health. The daily intake of this mineral can lead to a general improvement in mental health. Probiotics are the beneficial live bacteria that live in your digestive system. Psychiatrists and nutritionists have found that daily intake of this has proven to be beneficial. Lack of omega-3 fatty acids can lead to low moods. Omega-3 fatty acids, abundant in fish oil, can help alleviate some of the symptoms of depression; it also helps in the release of serotonin.
Try eating “clean” for a couple of weeks. This essentially means cutting down on processed food and sugar which can have a diverse effect on the inflammation of the brain. Going dairy-free and having fermented food – rich in probiotics – might also make us feel better. Interestingly enough, while vegan based diets are often considered the Holy Grail, going (red) meat free may influence our body and mind undesirably, so try not to cut down on it.
Keep in mind that healing is not just about what we eat; it is much more complicated. But if we have not responded to certain therapies and antidepressants or other prescribed drugs, nutritional intervention can be considered that “glimmer of hope.” There is still ongoing debate over the effectiveness of it, but the potential is high.
The future does look pill-free but hey, we know what works best for us so try a little of this and a little of that and come to terms with what the mind (and body) likes the best. With the existing scientific literature and evidence, what is suggested is a combination of healthy diet and behavioral changes to reduce mental health risks.
Words by Nashwa Saeed