Nutrition for Mental Health

by | Aug 7, 2015 | Recovery | 2 comments

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It’s no secret that a nutritious diet is a vital component of healthy living. But while some may focus on the impact that nutrition has on the body, we sometimes forget that it benefits the mind as well. This can be dangerous for addicts, who often suffer from one or more co-occurring disorders that put them in a somewhat more fragile state of mind than most other people. Unfortunately, many addicts will still neglect their nutrition, often eating unhealthily or even simply forgetting to eat at all. Others, as noted in our recent article on Ronda Rousey, may suffer from eating disorders that put both mind and body at great risk.

This is why we would like to focus on nutrition in this article, outlining some of the major benefits of maintaining a diet of positive nutrition while also exploring some of the mental consequences one may suffer when nutrition is neglected. We will then give you some basic nutrition tips that will serve you well in ensuring that your mind is well care for.

Mental Consequences of Poor Nutrition

Those who suffer from depression may sometimes lack appetite, or they may be prone to binge eating. Either way, their nutrition is likely at risk, and their depression will only worsen as a result. (Lee Price)

Those who suffer from depression may sometimes lack appetite, or they may be prone to binge eating. Either way, their nutrition is likely at risk, and their depression will only worsen as a result. (Lee Price)

In 2008, the Indian Journal of Psychiatry published a very comprehensive study on depression and mental illnesses, exploring their links to nutrition. They noted that not only can poor nutrition contribute to a person’s depression, but that positive nutrition increases serotonin, the lack of which can become a contributing factor in suicidal tendencies. Since depression is often comorbid with alcoholism and addiction, it does not take a vast leap of mind to conclude that many addicts are putting their very lives at risk when choosing to eat unhealthily or starve themselves during periods of active addiction.

There is a bit of a problem here. See, the study also notes that one of the key attributes of depression is loss of appetite. The Mayo Clinic corroborates this fact, while also noting that others are prone to overeating and gaining weight. When a person is either starving themselves or resorting to binge eating, they are not as likely to stop and prepare themselves a nice and nutritious meal. This means that those whose depression shares a comorbidity with their addiction are at increased risk, because they are less inclined to ensure proper nutrition. They will therefore suffer from lower serotonin levels, and will be less likely to achieve the happiness needed to fight their depressive state.

The study to which we are referring as our primary source notes that the following nutrients are often deficient in those who suffer from mental disorders: “omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that are precursors to neurotransmitters.” It would appear as if omega-3 fatty acids are the key contributor, since the study continues to say that there is “a link between high fish consumption and low incidence of mental disorders.” The primary mental disorders upon which this study focuses, aside from depression, are bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia. To drive home the point that poor nutrition is a detriment to those who experience these co-occurring disorders along with addiction, we will examine each of these three below.

We will start with bipolar disorder. A study on bipolar disorder indicates that omega-3 fatty acids may actually inhibit the disorder in virtually the exact same manner as medications such as valproate and lithium carbonate. This means that omega-3 fatty acids must be included in the nutrition of any addict suffering from this disorder, as this particular manic-depressive illness is associated with a high rate of mortality. In fact, it is estimated by the National Institute of Mental Health that “as many as one in five patients with bipolar disorder completes suicide.”

As far as OCD is concerned, a study in 2012 indicated that one cause might be certain bacteria ingested as a result of poor nutrition. The answer appears to be fermented foods, cultured vegetables, and probiotic supplements. Of course, OCD is also caused by genetics and hereditary chemical imbalances. Nonetheless, those who already suffer from this disorder will not benefit from the consumption of low-nutrition foods that contain harmful bacteria. Streptococcus bacteria (the same bacteria blamed for both strep throat and possibly OCD) can cultivate itself in food that has not been kept at the proper temperatures. It is especially common in badly kept pasta.

Those who suffer from a deficiency of B vitamins, as well as minerals such as zinc, are at increased risk for schizophrenia. This is one of the more dangerous mental disorders on this list, but the discovery regarding its link to nutrition was actually made during a study conducted as early as 1975. Much as is the case with OCD, nutrition is not even remotely the only potential cause of schizophrenia. Nonetheless, there is no reason to risk developing or simply exacerbating this illness as a result of poor nutrition.

Mental Benefits of a Nutritious Diet

Once you experience the mental health benefits of a nutritious diet, you won’t even want to eat badly. But for the record, that sandwich looks to be made with turkey. So it’s probably fine. (Dreamstime)

Once you experience the mental health benefits of a nutritious diet, you won’t even want to eat badly. But for the record, that sandwich looks to be made with turkey. So it’s probably fine. (Dreamstime)

The above facts make it clear that a high intake of omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and minerals can help to stave off certain mental disorders. But while this is certainly important, the decreased risk of such disorders is not the only benefit of maintaining high nutrition. There are many other mental benefits that nutrition may offer to addicts and alcoholics, regardless of whether or not they suffer from such co-occurring disorders as are listed above. In fact, proper nutrition can yield benefits that one might think are not related to addiction at all.

For instance, alcohol addiction has been linked to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. A 2012 study indicates that any dietary choices which increase cardiovascular risk (such as high intakes of alcohol or saturated fats) may also increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. However, that same study indicates that a high intake of E vitamins (found in several foods such as nuts, tofu, avocados, fish, avocados, and cruciferous vegetables) can help to ward off this particular affliction. On an unrelated note, such nutrition has also been linked to a decreased risk of breast cancer.

We’ve talked about depression, but those who have read our article on co-occurring disorders already know that depression is highly linked to anxiety. As it turns out, one can combat the comorbidity of these two disorders with similar regimens of nutrition. There are some foods that help anxiety and depression, while other foods exacerbate such issues. Tryptophan-rich foods such as dairy (yogurt, milk, etc.) and poultry (chicken, turkey, etc.) may help to raise serotonin levels when consumed in moderation, as will whole grains and foods rich in B vitamins. Salmon and other foods rich in omega-3 acids may also help to combat these disorders. It is also helpful to avoid substances that cause anxiety, such as alcohol, caffeine and candy.

Many of the same nutrients described above as potential combatants against anxiety and depression were also linked to the onset of mental disorders such as bipolar disorder, OCD, and schizophrenia. It is additionally found that proper nutrition during pregnancy and in the early life of a child can help to stave off these disorders at an early age. This is especially important for those who become pregnant during active addiction, since such pregnancies can often be deadly for the children involved.

Not all mental health benefits of proper nutrition are focused on the prevention of mental disorders. For instance, many of the same foods that help to combat such disorders are also linked to an increase in focus on concentration. Some of the foods that help to improve focus include those which are high in omega-3 fatty acids such as walnuts and fish, as well as produce such as spinach, blueberries, tomatoes, pumpkin seeds and goji berries. Eggs are also beneficial, as is green tea. Black coffee is reported to be just as beneficial as green tea, although there is still a matter of debate as to whether or not certain risks may be associated with the accompanying caffeine intake.

To recap, those who maintain a diet of positive nutrition will not only help themselves to prevent the onset of certain mental illnesses that are often comorbid with addiction, but those who are pregnant will also help to combat such illnesses in their unborn children. Genetics and other factors are still at play, but it never hurts to fight these illnesses with every tool at one’s disposal. In the process, those who observe a nutritious lifestyle will also ensure that they are generally happier, more well-adjusted, and able to focus much more easily.

Some Basic Nutrition Tips for the Mind

The above information should provide a fair amount of insight into the type of nutrition that will ultimately promote mental health. Nonetheless, we will recap the primary points of information here. First of all, the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids is vital to a regimen of mentally healthy nutrition. The University of Maryland Medical Center notes that, in addition to the aforementioned mental disorders (as well as several physical ailments), omega-3 fatty acids can help to combat attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. These acids are actually essential to our health, but we unfortunately cannot make them ourselves. This is why foods such as fish and nuts should be consumed on a regular basis.

Fish will also aid in the consumption of vitamin B-12, which is also found in poultry, eggs, and low-fat milk. Those who desire a greater intake of vitamins B-12, B-6, and other B vitamins may also take dietary supplements in order to ensure that this aspect of their nutrition is not neglected. As an added physical bonus, these vitamins also help those with celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and other digestive disorders.

Vitamin E (along with the aforementioned B vitamins) has been linked with greater mental function in general. Vitamin E is an antioxidant, and helps to fight atrophy in the brain. Acceptable sources of vitamin E may double as a source of nutrition for omega-3 acids as well. For instance, nuts and fish (particularly shellfish and rainbow trout) are both high in this particular vitamin. One may also choose to consume cooked broccoli and spinach, as well as pumpkin and butternut squash. Avocados, roasted sunflower seeds, light tofu, and anything cooked in olive oil would also be acceptable.

Several minerals contribute to mental health, and Psychology Today actually goes through the periodic table of elements to break down which are the most important. Zinc and magnesium, an important part of nutrition in general, can help fight stress. A stressful lifestyle, such as that of an addict, tends to diminish these minerals. Therefore supplements or mineral-rich foods such as almonds, cashews, rice bran and quinoa are needed. Lithium helps to speed the brain’s reaction times while also fighting bipolar disorder, and can be found in simple mineral water. Even trace amounts can also dull violent or suicidal tendencies.

The one mineral which should not be consumed with too much frequency is iron, as it can slow brain receptors and lead to dementia. It can also lead to depression and even psychosis. Luckily, iron intake can be regulated by simply donating blood on a regular basis. For those unable to donate blood, simply watch your intake of pork and red meat. Also be sure that other foods listed in this article, such as seafood, spinach, and poultry are consumed in moderation. They should be a part of your diet, but iron-rich foods should not be overconsumed. Iron is still needed, however, so this can be a difficult balance.

It’s really not too difficult to maintain good nutrition. As long as you cover all of the basic food groups without eating too much of any one specific item, you should be fine. Try to eat three decently sized meals per day, or else between five and seven smaller meals. A good rule of thumb for produce is to try and eat produce items of all major colors. If you have half a grapefruit (red) with breakfast and a salad with lettuce (green), carrots (orange) and black olives (blue/purple) for lunch, then you might have cooked squash (yellow) or parsnips (brown) with your dinner. Throw in a banana (white) at some point in the day, and you’ve covered the entire spectrum. The pigmentation in produce is often affected by the nutrients within, so alternating the colors of your fruits and vegetables will allow you to maximize your nutrition.

Follow these basic rules for nutrition maintenance, and you will receive the many mental health benefits that we have discussed while helping to combat some of the mental disorders and illnesses that plague many addicts. Nutrition won’t solve all of your problems on its own, but it certainly won’t hurt.

2 Comments

  1. Monica Colmsjo

    Being a clinical Nutritionist specialising in addiction nutrition I would like to add a few
    comments;
    Our brains need fats Good fats like organic butter, virgin coconut oil, and a little bit of virgin olive oil not in cooking though it does not stand high temperatures. Saturated fats have been our source of fats for millions of years.
    We also know now that our most common grains are very addictive, they contain exorphines an opiate like chemical that fits into our morphine receptors.
    Absolutely NO soy products and supplements that are bio available meaning from natural sources.
    I use free amino acids for my clients they work wonderfully,
    if you want to know more about amino acids and nutrition go to “The mood cure” by Julia Ross “Grain Brain” by David Perlmutter my book “Sugardreams…waking up to the bitter reality

    Reply
    • Kieran Hair

      Thanks a lot for adding all this cool info. The article itself was meant to be a basic overview, but the additional info you’ve provided should prove helpful to people who want to enhance their mental nutrition. It’s always good to receive feedback from professionals who can provide some of the lesser-known details.

      Reply

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