According to The South African Depression and Anxiety Group, 1 in 3 people will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. With such prevalence, it’s important to have open and honest conversations about our mental health.
“As South Africa observes Mental Health Awareness Month this July, it is pertinent to take a closer look at the connection between diet and mental health,” says Renny Letswalo, Managing Director of Cambridge Weight Plan.
Nutrition and mental health
But is there a link between nutrition and mental health? A meta-analysis that included studies from 10 countries, conducted by researchers at Linyi People’s Hospital in Shandong, China, suggests som with researchers concluding that dietary patterns may contribute to depression.
According to a different study, which included 120 children and adolescents, researchers found that consuming fast food, sugar and soft drinks was associated with a higher prevalence of diagnosed attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Led by Maria Izquierdo-Pulido, PharmD, PhD, of the University of Barcelona’s department of nutrition, food science and gastronomy, the study also found that children who ate fewer vegetables, fruit, fatty fish and other foods associated with the Mediterranean diet were more likely to have ADHD symptoms.
“While these associations don’t prove causality, the findings suggest that diet could play a role in ADHD’s development,” says Letswalo.
Additional evidence shows that food plays an important role in the development, management and prevention of specific mental health problems such as depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Heavy alcohol consumption is associated with anxiety and panic attacks. Excessive drinking also depletes serotonin, which makes people prone to anxiety and depression. Caffeinated beverages also increase the risk for anxiety, depression and poor sleep.
Correcting blood sugar problems may be a relevant nutritional approach. Addressing essential fat imbalances, increasing antioxidants, B12 and folic acid may also assist. Some people with mental health problems are also sensitive to gluten, especially wheat gluten, which is increasing its association with various conditions related to mental illness.
Some food additives have been implicated in behavioural problems, particularly in hyper-active children. Foods rich in protein — lean beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, soy, and low-fat dairy products — can have beneficial effects on ADHD symptoms as proteins are used by the body to make neurotransmitters, the chemicals released by brain cells to communicate with each other. Protein can also prevent surges in blood sugar, which increase hyperactivity.
Alzheimer’s and dementia
Foods that protect against Alzheimer’s include green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine.
“The link between poor mental health and nutritional deficiencies has long been recognised by nutritionists. However, psychiatrists are only now becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of using nutritional approaches to mental health, calling for their peers to support and research this new field of treatment,” concludes Letswalo.