When it comes to mental health issues, there are many things that influence your wellbeing. For instance, genetics play a role in predetermining what disorder you may develop as an adult, your upbringing shapes how you react to certain stressors, and trauma influences future behaviors like how you interact in a relationship.
However, most people fail to cite the most important, daily thing that contributes to your overall wellbeing. And that’s diet and nutrition.
Now, don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying that fixing your eating habits to include a wide variety of healthy food is going to make your mental illness go away. But I am saying that a healthy meal plan can make a significant difference in how your brain functions and it may improve your general mood.
It’s not unreasonable to think that eating a wide variety of nutritious food can have a positive effect on your body. Oftentimes, eating patterns are developed in childhood and sustained throughout adulthood, which makes changing eating patterns really difficult for some people. But by taking control of what we eat, we can strengthen our bodies’ functions and set the stage for recovery – especially for my peers struggling with depression and drug and alcohol addiction.
In the following article, I’ll describe what the current research says about nutrition and mental health, how you can use food to improve your mood, and how that ties into overcoming substance use disorders (SUD).
People with Mental Health Disorders Are Often Deficient in These Nutrients
It is easy for people to understand how nutrition and your physical health are related. Junk food causes you to put on some extra pounds and acidic foods eat away at your tooth enamel. However, it can be more difficult to understand the relationship between food and mental health since these things aren’t as tangible to see.
A paper published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry states, “The most common nutritional deficiencies seen in patients with mental disorders are of omega–3 fatty acids, B vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that are precursors to neurotransmitters.”
The benefit of introducing these nutrients into your diet are as follows:
- Omega-3 fatty acids, similar to the ones found in fish oils, produce antidepressant effects for individuals. Because of that, dietary supplements of omega-3 fatty acids have been prescribed to patients with chronic depression because the stimulating properties tend to elevate one’s mood.
- B vitamins, like B12, thiamin and niacin, should be an important part of your diet as they have been seen to elevate mood and decrease symptoms experienced by alcoholics. People who abuse alcohol are usually deficient in key vitamins because of the toxic effects of the substance. And animal studies have shown that certain B vitamins may improve liver health and overcome some effects of alcohol cravings.
- Minerals, like calcium and iodine, should also be supplemented in your daily nutrition plan. That’s because SSRIs, which are often prescribed to treat depression, may inhibit absorption of calcium in the bones. That puts people with depression at risk of bone fractures. As well, a mineral like iodine helps ensure a healthy thyroid, which plays a key role in maintaining good mental cognition.
- Amino acids have been proven to treat symptoms of depression as well as enhance production of serotonin levels, which help people get an ample amount of sleep at night. Without a good night’s rest, your alertness can suffer, and you can be subject to enhanced levels of stress, which is never fun.
Mental health disorders like bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia can somehow be tied to deficiencies in these nutrients. And based on U.S. consumption patterns, many Americans may benefit from supplementing their meals with a few of these.
Can a Healthy Diet Cure Depression?
According to the American Psychological Association, scientists suggest that diet has an huge impact on your mental health. Just take a look at some of the clinical data of depressed patients. When you dive deeper and look at the eating habits of people suffering from depression, there’s often a pattern of nutritional deficiency.
People with depression don’t tend to eat well or at regular intervals. For instance, some people tend to overeat; whereas, others don’t eat enough. Whatever the case, this inconsistent eating pattern can often enhance depressive symptoms in patients especially when paired with unhealthy foods.
Overeaters tend to use food as a way to comfort themselves. They typically ingest large amounts of food very quickly and often feel guilty, irritable, or disgusting afterwards. Although food provides eaters with short-term feelings of satisfaction, the long-term effects of overeating may leave you worse off than before.
Yet, for many people struggling with depression, undereating is even more common. Appetite suppression can be explained by the body’s stress-depression connection. When you experience stress, your body enters fight-or-flight mode and increases the level of cortisol in your body. By doing so, your body tries to conserve energy by reducing activity in the gut. This leads to reduced serotonin levels and other important neurotransmitters, which when reduced can lead to even more depressive symptoms.
And with over 16% of the global population struggling with major depressive disorder (MDD), researchers are now turning to diet to help combat the problem.
Why? Well, symptoms of depression like lethargy, sadness, and lack of motivation are often seen in individuals with nutritional and vitamin deficits. These same symptoms are found in people with eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia, which makes researchers think there’s a connection between the two.
Understanding which comes first is the more difficult question. Regardless, its important to note that improving your diet may alleviate some of those uncomfortable feelings associated with depression.
For instance, based on a meta-analysis published in Psychiatry Research, patients lowered their risk of developing depression by adding fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fish to their diet. But individuals who avoided these food groups and instead ate red meat, sweets, and butter, tended to increase their probability of developing depression.
This shows that dietary interventions do improve mood. Although the mechanism by which this happens is still under debate, the general reason has to do with how certain foods reduce inflammation in your body.
Inflammation is how the body’s immune system response to injury. Remember when you fell off your bike and scraped your knee as a kid? Once that happened your body increased blood flow to the area, causing your knee to get puffy and red, as well as produce certain chemicals to fight infection. In small amounts, this reaction is good and prevents anything toxic from entering your body.
However, too much inflammation can be a bad thing.
When inflammation persists over time, blood vessels can be damaged and dangerous plaque can build up, which puts an unwanted amounted of stress on the heart. This exhaustion of your body’s immune system has been shown to cause obesity, autoimmune disorders, cancer and – yes, you called it – even clinical depression.
So, if you’re feeling depressed, I’d suggest introducing some anti-inflammatory foods into your body as this may help relieve you of some of your stress. 7 foods that fight inflammation and also depression include the following:
- Fatty fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel)
- Leafy vegetables
- Olive oil
Food groups to avoid include processed or fast food, fried foods like donuts, sugary treats or beverages, and refined carbohydrates or trans fats.
But nutrition isn’t just linked to depression – it’s also found to help those struggling with ADHD. For example, research done by Maria Izquierdo-Pulido, PharmD, PhD, of the University of Barcelona, asserts the idea that a diet high in sugar contributed to the incidence of ADHD in children.
How Can I Use Food and Nutrition to Improve My Mood?
When you think about neurotransmitters, some of which probably come to mind are serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and GABA. All of these are associated with depression, and if your body struggles to produce them, you could end up feeling down.
The thing is, each of these neurotransmitters have a precursor – or a substance from which another is formed – which can be found in in the things we eat. So, let’s go through the neurotransmitters, what they do, their precursors, and what foods contain those amino acids. And mind you, the list for the foods isn’t going to be all inclusive!
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which is produced mainly in the intestines and some in the brain. This neurotransmitter helps regulate mood, digestion, nausea, blood clotting, done density, and sexual function.
A precursor of this neurotransmitter is the amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid and is important for in your health. Some foods which are high in tryptophan include: Chicken, eggs, cheese, fish, peanuts, milk, turkey, tofu, soy, and sesame seeds.
Dopamine is chemical messenger which is used to send messages between your nerves and plays an important part in how you feel. This neurotransmitter is involved in helping regulate learning, motivation, sleep, mood, attention, heart rate, movement, etc.
Norepinephrine, on the other hand, is a neurotransmitter produced by the adrenal glands. This neurotransmitter is involved in the regulation of the sleep/wake cycle, attention and focus, heart rate, blood pressure, dreaming, etc.
I put these two neurotransmitters together because they have the same precursors – phenylalanine and tyrosine. Some foods which are high in both of these amino acids include: beef, chicken, pork, tofu, fish, beans, milk, nuts, seeds, pasta, whole grains, and sweet potatoes. CAUTION: Foods high in phenylalanine can be dangerous for those suffering from phenylketonuria (PKU).
The full name of GABA is gamma-aminobutyric acid, and this amino acid is mainly made in the brain, where its biggest role is to reduce the activity of neurons. Because of this, its effects include relaxation, lessened stress, better sleep, and overall general calmness.
The precursor for GABA is glutamate, and some food which are high in glutamate include: whole grains, soy, lentils, nuts, fish, citrus, spinach, broccoli, berries, potatoes, cheese, and milk.
Omega-3 fatty acids (Honorable Mention)
Omega-3 fatty acids are critical to brain development and functioning and come from the diet that we eat. Current research into the effect of Omega-3 fatty acids indicate that having a deficiency in these fatty acids is associated with mental health problems.
In fact, several studies show that a combination of psychotherapy and a supplement of Omega-3 fatty acids can lead to remission in depression symptoms.
How Diet is a Pivotal in Helping Individuals With Substance Use Disorders (SUD)
Drug and alcohol addiction can take a huge toll on your body. Substances like (a) alcohol, (b) opiates, and (c) methamphetamine deplete the body of key nutrients, leaving users feeling the ill effects. That’s why healthcare facilities like Stonegate Center, a gender-separate and faith-based addiction treatment center just west of Fort Worth, are incorporating nutrition programs into their daily schedule.
For instance, alcoholics often have trouble digesting, storing, and utilizing the nutrients in food. That’s because alcohol damages your stomach lining and intestines, which prevent it from properly digesting and transporting nutrients throughout the body. Alcoholics find it difficult to absorb water, which leaves them dehydrated; their damaged livers struggle to store vitamins like vitamin A; and they soon find themselves feeling lethargic or with a lack of energy.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse of Alcoholism, some alcoholics ingest more than 50% of their daily calories from alcohol. Unfortunately, the body can’t convert efficiently convert these calories to energy and users experience blood sugar issues, glucose deprivation, and obesity due since it causes your body to stop burning fat.
Recovering alcoholics should include thiamin, vitamin B12, folic acid, and zinc into their food regimens. These nutrients help the body metabolize proteins and fats and build endurance. By doing so, patients could start seeing results like weight loss, better cognition, and improved REM sleep cycles.
Additionally, people with opioid use disorder (OUD) or opioid addiction often face a number of nutritional deficiencies. Drugs like hydrocodone, morphine, and fentanyl deplete the body of vitamins and minerals and disrupt the body’s ability to digest carbohydrates. As well, insulin levels were found to be 4x higher in heroin addicts than their abstinent peers, which can be linked to health issues like obesity, heart disease, and cancer.
Although nutritional supplements haven’t removed the need for opiate addicts to admit to detox programs, researchers in Iran suggest that these users should consume more fruits and vegetables, protein, and vitamin D in addition to limiting their consumption of simple carbohydrates. Proper diet, when paired with an effective detox program, may be pivotal in helping to reduce withdrawal symptoms and speed the recovery process.
Likewise, methamphetamine abuse, too, can impair the body’s ability to utilize food, and users often experience malnutrition. That’s because methamphetamine is an illicit stimulant, which suppresses appetite in users. By changing food intake, the body can experience a range of behavioral and neurochemical effects of the drug.
However, some research suggests that high-fat foods should be avoided at all costs for those struggling with methamphetamine addiction. The reasoning is that high-fat foods may effect the body’s ability to use dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is abused in methamphetamine addiction. When people use stimulants, their body becomes more sensitized to the effects. In other words, people tend to increase their movement or talk more as they continually use the drug.
High-fat foods, at least in rats, have been shown to increase the locomotor effects of methamphetamine. Although this research needs to be looked at a bit further, scientists are looking at food groups that are actively involved in the dopamine reward pathway in order to help people addicted to stimulants recovery effectively.
As shown, different drugs like alcohol, opioids, and methamphetamines effect the body in a variety of ways. They often deplete the body of key nutrients and leave the user feeling the ill effects, which only compound with repeated use. In order to combat this, researchers are starting to look at one’s diet and nutrition in order to speed the recovery process and help users overcome their chemical dependencies in a safe manner.
Scientists Suggest Trying This Diet if You’re Feeling Down or Depressed
When it comes to nutrition, you may have heard about a lot of different diets. I’m not going to try to convince you to do paleo, or no-carb, gluten-free, plant-based, etc. Why? Because research indicates that the diets tied most closely to a reduction of depression symptoms are “traditional” diets like the Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean diet primarily consists of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, olive oil, minimal red meat, eggs, whole grains, and a moderate amount of unprocessed grains. This diet also avoids processed and refined foods and sugars.
But that’s pretty vague, right? There’s nothing there about how many calories one needs for their sex, age, and height. There’s nothing there for quantities or breakdowns of the aspects of this diet. This lack of specificity is partly why it can be hard for people to start changing their behavior
The good thing is that the USDA has your back. Please follow this USDA link to get a lot more information about diet, calorie, supporting healthy eating patterns, and a breakdown of food groups depending on your calorie needs.
In sum, I’m not here to tell you how to live your life or tell you what to eat. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t significant research supporting specific eating styles and diet. I encourage you to look at the research and make up your own mind.
If you’re struggling with a substance use disorder and can’t seem to put the drugs down, I’d encourage you to reach out to me or my team at Stonegate Center Creekside for men or Stonegate Center Hilltop for women. Our Admissions Specialists are in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction themselves and are happy to answer any questions you have about the rehab process!
Give them a call at (817) 993-9733 or shoot them an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or if you’re not yet ready to reach out or don’t know which questions to ask, check out our FAQ page for some of the most popular inquiries. We’re located on a 125+ acre campus in Azle, Texas, which is just west of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and are happy to help get you started in your sobriety.
Until then, stay safe and start eating healthy 😊.
Jonathan Mendoza is a Therapist for Stonegate Center. With a Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy from Texas Wesleyan University, he has an interest in adolescent and adult substance abuse disorders and comorbidities. He hopes to use his training as both an MFT-A and an LPC-I to integrate and enhance the therapeutic effect of personal relationships for those in recovery. He is currently pursuing further training to become an AASECT-Certified Sex Therapist.