Medication and therapy are often needed to improve and maintain mental health, but this is only one part of the picture for most people. Often, I hear people talk about mental health as if it is detached and totally separate from physical health. This may be because the human mind is astonishingly complex compared to other organs or systems in our bodies. However, the brain is a part of the body and needs specific nutrients to function properly. In addition, foods that cause inflammation can worsen mental health conditions. When thinking about mental health as being connected physical health, is not surprising that anti-inflammatory high nutrient diets show abundant evidence for improving mental health conditions.
There are several diets recommended for mental health, including the Mediterranean diet. The MIND diet is also well studied and has a lot of similarities to the Mediterranean diet. The MIND diet was developed to reduce the risk of dementia, and studies also show an improvement in many other mental health disorders. The Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet are healthy for most people and can be modified for specific health conditions or allergies.
One way these diets are helpful is by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain due to high amounts of specific nutrients found in these foods. This leads to improved cognitive function and an increase in our ability to adapt to stressors. Foods high in sugar and white flour cause inflammation and increases hormones that lead to stress in the brain and often increased body weight as a result. Sometimes there is also a vitamin deficiency that needs to be addressed with specific supplements.
The Mediterranean and MIND diets consist of lots of vegetables, especially the leafy green kind, fruits, nuts, whole grains, lean meats, beans, fish, and healthy fats. They also avoid or limit processed foods, added sugars, and foods made from white flour.
Tips for making diet changes:
• Eat foods you love! Meals should be enjoyable, and it will be easier to stick to new habits if you like what you are eating.
• Small changes over time are the easiest to sustain, add one to two changes at a time.
• Do not think of it as a diet, think of it as a new way of enjoying food that can benefit your mental and physical health.
• There are many online resources and cookbooks available for ideas and inspiration.
By Ruth Bibeau, PMHNP