Can Your Food Affect Mental Health?

Food and Mood - how diet affects mental health

Note from Katie: I’ve mentioned GAPS before and how that protocol affected our son’s mood and his allergies and today, Kayla Grossman, R.N. (who blogs at Radiant Life Catalog) is sharing her knowledge about the connection between food and mood . Enter Kayla…

If there is something I wish I understood long ago, it is the deep, integral connection between mood and food. Beyond the happy coincidence that these words rhyme, the two are complexly and biochemically intertwined in a way that is far-too-often minimized in our modern discussion of behavior, emotion and overall health.

Somewhere along the line, we were cunningly persuaded to believe in the body and mind as two very distinct operational entities, and this rigid paradigm has left an unfortunate gap in our understanding of the scientific workings of nutrients as building blocks for the brain and nervous system. In an era where restrictive dieting and low-fat food choices are viewed as glimmering badges of health, mounting evidence displays a dangerous correlation between nutrient deficiencies, poor digestive health and rising mental distress.

Mental Illness on The Rise

Depression, anxiety and related mental health disorders are startlingly complex and pervasive. Involving tangled interactions of biological, psychological and social factors, such complex disorders have long been considered forlorn “outsiders” in the realm of scientific and medical study.

The terms depression and anxiety themselves have even come to carry with them an ominous cloud of stigmatizing beliefs- casting a shadow of shame and secrecy around those who struggle with these “mysterious” conditions. And yet, despite this cold and isolating perspective, such debilitating mental health disorders are startlingly common across our population.

In fact, best estimates reveal that during a lifetime, more than 25% of individuals develop at least one mental or behavioral disorder. (1) The World Health Organization has even projected that by 2020 depression will be the second leading cause of medical disability on earth. (1) Given these shocking predictions, mental health conditions, once written off as “personal failures” or “weaknesses,” are now garnering greater attention as significant public health concerns.

A recent report released at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Primary Care revealed that 70% of visits to primary care physicians in the United States are related to psychosocial issues. (2) With this incredible rate of visits, doctors do with their observations what they were trained to do: prescribe medications based on the symptoms they observe.

This trend has resulted in an extreme surge in the prevalence of antidepressant drugs being used across the population- a 400% increase since 1994. According to a recent government report, about 1 in 10 Americans aged 12 and over use antidepressants. As the third most common prescription across all ages, their use is rampant. (3)

Paradoxically, researchers also found that less than 1/3 of the Americans taking an antidepressant medication had seen a mental health professional in the past year- making medication their sole route of treatment despite the acknowledgment of mental health as a complex realm that requires multiple care approaches.

The Role of Nutrition

These findings are startling and provocative to say the least, bringing into question the underlying cause to such disparities. What is the best way to heal these problems? And why the dramatic increase in anxiety and depression anyway?

These are convoluted questions, with deeply personal implications and answers that are largely varied, muddled and overall unclear. It is likely that there are many factors at play and that you could trace numerous threads in the situation without ever unknotting it completely.

There does however seem to be a changing tide when it comes to mental health. Until this point, there has been a great deal of focus in mental health care on artificially correcting potential biochemical imbalances in the brain.

Yet, emerging neurobiological evidence has revealed that the neurotransmitters and neuropeptides that steer our emotional course are not isolated to the head, but rather reside in each system of the body.

Of the almost three hundred internal communication substances used to carry out daily functions, nearly all are shared throughout the body. (4) Thus it seems to be time to take a look at disruption in mood from a whole body-mind perspective and to include in the discussion the undeniable value of nutrition.

At the very most basic level, all of our systems require the proper balance of nutrients and enzymes to work correctly- a balance that most Americans simply aren’t getting in our fractured modern food system. (4)

Our brain and body systems rely on receiving a substantial amount of raw material to carry out their complex and intricate roles. Without this foundation, no other interventions can be fully effective, optimal or lasting, and their impact in making a sustainable difference is lessened.

This fundamental link between food and mood is not new, and when you really think on it, the concept makes a lot of sense. Many historic figures and modern researchers alike have observed and discussed the connection between nutritional deficiencies and behavior patterns, yet their unprofitable projects have been far too often ignored and stymied by a backdrop of more “exciting” medical research.

Luminary researcher Weston A. Price is best known for his early twentieth century studies on the fundamental components of a healthy diet and the influence of clean, traditional foods in preventing chronic disease. However, what many people don’t realize is that he also observed a great deal about mood and behavior.

According to Sally Fallon-Morrell, president of the Weston A Price Foundation “he often wrote about their cheerfulness, optimism, balance and reverence for life.” One of the mainstays of primitive diets is the intake of wholesome saturated fats and fat-soluble activators including vitamins A, D and K2, which Price believed to all directly influence mood. His early field findings are just now being replicated in sophisticated laboratories- and with shockingly concordant results.

Starting the Conversation

In summary, there are countless overlapping psychological, physiological and sociocultural factors that contribute to our behaviors and moods. There is no single cause to blame nor “magic remedy” that will work to unanimously absolve all mental struggles.

However, accumulating research in the field of neuroscience has confirmed that nutrition can significantly impact mental health. It is unfortunate that this piece of the puzzle has been so severely overlooked until now, yet this insight does offer a new hope for improved mental health care going forward. By looking more deeply at the connection between nutrition and mental health, we will find tools for building happier, healthier families— now and for generations to come.

About the author: Kayla Grossman, R.N. is a registered nurse turned researcher and real food advocate who blogs at Radiant Life Catalog (my source for supplements like Vitamin C, Astaxanthin, Probiotics, & Vitamin D and air filters, water filters, and more).

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Reader Comments

  1. I have had digestive issues all of my life…but, eventually, they turned severe. I was told surgery was the last resort…per gastro idiot…i mean doctor, so I decided to try an MRT test (top, most accurate test for food sensitivites currently available) that tested my blood against 150 items. They found that I had issues with most of the items I was eating/ingesting (i say ingesting, because I did not plan to eat all the sulfites that I am highly sensitive in even seemingly healthy items like dried fruit – food coloring too). I went to visit my chiro…and multiple times he commented on how MELLOW I was. I did not necessary notice a difference at that point…but be really did!!! Then, throughout the next couple of weeks I noticed that I was more calm/less annoyed and irritated with daily actions from those around me who take advantage of wife and mom-dom. Lol. I am more clear headed when I am trying to make a point, or discuss an issue…especially when emotions are in play! My stress level is obviously less as well…as is my anxiety levels, and restless feelings. I wonder if I would have noticed, had it not been brought to my attention! I feel better knowing I can keep my cool, when family angst rears its ugly head! Lol. 😛

    • That Mellowness occurred after removing the items i was sensitive too for 6-8 weeks…and then troubleshooting additional food issues (by eating only very low sensitivity items for that exact time period…then reintoducing other low sensitivity items – one at a time – to define other possible food issues (lettuce being a big one for some reason…what the spray on it to preserve it possibly).

  2. What a fantastic post……. I want to go deeper and read more on this…..where do I look for more information? Thanks so much Kayla and Katie! Xx Kel

    • Kayla will be hopefully writing more posts with additional info soon 🙂

  3. L-glutamine
    What product do you recommend, Katie?

  4. It has been reported that in Italy, in the areas where the soil was too poor to raise traditional crops, corn from the Americas was raised. The peasants who raised the corn were all too happy to have something from which to make a livelihood, however, the results were mixed. The Italians did not know, as did the American Indians, how to treat at least portions of the corn in order to make it more healthy for them (I can’t find my food history book, not that I’ve read it all, but sometimes I flip through it). But I’m sure that is where I heard about this problem: When the corn is not treated (I’m thinking that hominy is treated properly to make the grain more health giving…., but I’m not sure I’m correct about that…)….., and when the untreated corn becomes the staple of the diet in a given home, all too many members of that household go crazy at some point. ….. I just can’t imagine……..

    • they treat it with lime- not the fruit- it is how they make the corn flour for tamales- soaking the corn in lime water removes the hard husk of the kernel making it more digest-able – regular corn meal is not made the same way, it is just ground corn. the corn meal for the tamales is made with the lime treated corn.

  5. I read articles like this and really hope it’s helping others, because my depression wasnt linked to nutrition.

  6. Now that people are starting to wake up & take ownership of their health the medical establishment now has created a new mental disorder.

    In an attempt to curb the mass rush for food change and reform, psychiatry has green lighted a public relations push to spread awareness about their new buzzword orthorexia nervosa, defined as “a pathological obsession for biologically pure and healthy nutrition.” In other words, experts are saying that our demand for nutrient-dense, healthful food is a mental disorder that must be treated.

    This new development is very worrying.

    • Cyndi,
      I’m not sure where you heard that information, but it’s not accurate. I suffer from orthorexia and it is not a false label created to keep people away from healthy food. It is an emotionally and physically dangerous obsession with “purity” of food and obsessive anxiety related to whether you’re eating “right.”
      It is not a free and balanced choice to eat nourishing foods.
      I need to work closely and regularly with a doctor (who, incidentally, is very very supportive of natural living) to make sure that I am nourishing my body without afflicting my mind.
      I understand that it’s very easy to hear about new things and immediately assume the worst – I do the same thing sometimes! But please, make sure you are well educated on the topic before continuing to spread inaccurate information. It can be upsetting and even detrimental to those who do actually deal with these things in their own lives.
      Blessings!

  7. I’m so glad I found this on Pinterest. I had been researching safer, natural alternatives to my psych drugs that I’m taking for postpartum anxiety/OCD that is still around. I stumbled onto a website called The Mood Cure. I’ve already read Wheat Belly and so read up on this. Julia Ross, the author, is amazing. She’s written two books. The Diet Cure (dealing mostly with food and how it affects you, and how to heal yourself) and The Mood Cure (which is like The Diet Cure for people with mental illness). While The Mood Cure states that people with severe mental illness (schizophrenia, etc.) may need prescription medication (work with a holistic psychiatrist or at least one who is open to the idea), I’ve read both and they are mind-blowing! I do believe Ms. Ross mentions Kayla and her website in her books. I’m actually doing the nutrient therapy right now in hopes of getting off my medication (and getting rid of the side effects) and being healthy for life. Great article!

    • Yes, The Mood Cure is wonderful! It has helped me tremendously!

  8. Great Article! What you are referring to regarding the treatment of corn is called nixtalmalzation – its a process where corn is treated with lime mixed with water – not the lime off a tree but the kind out of the earth in order to make all the nutrients available to the body. I live in the southwest where women have been growing corn, treating corn and making tortillas daily.

  9. I have a question relating to grains and phytic acid. I was a vegetarian for a long time, eating only whole grains, beans, fruits, and veggies. I had never felt so fantastic in my whole life (not to mention lean and hot!) but now that I’ve been reading your blog, I’m lost. I gave up the vegetarian diet about a year ago because I travel a lot with my fiancé and it’s incredible how many places to eat lack vegetarian sources of protein (except for eggs from a carton. Yuck!) I’ve been doing a lot of researching on my health, and before I thought people who followed a paleo diet were crazy and didn’t believe in evolution. But now I might be convinced. So here’s my main question- is it okay to eat sourdough bread? A lot of foods can be prepared in a way to reduce the phytic acid- sprouting beans, nuts, and seeds, soaking corn in baking soda, or souring other grains. So would it be okay to follow a paleo diet and eat homemade sourdough made with sprouted flour? Someone please help!

  10. Following a number of links I just this morning stumbled across this page.
    I’ve had bipolar disorder and anxiety for a number of years and been on medication for years. At least twice a year I go into deep deep depression that often includes at least 24 hour hospitalization for suicide attempts. Meds just do not seem to stabilize my moods or affect my anxiety disorder. I spent hours and hours lying in bed complaining of being tired and just not feeling “good”.
    About 200lbs over weight, a little under a year ago I decided to lose weight, go on a “diet”. I started on a regular diet, but started researching online and trying various things. Eventually, thanks to the internet, I stumbled across Paleo, and clean eating. I’d be lying if I said I was 100%, I’m not, but I would say I’m about 90-95% clean eating.
    I’ve lost about 100lbs in about a years time. The weight is not an issue for me at this point, I could care less if I lost another pound or not. What matters to me is my mood. I’m not depressed, I’m happy, I’m stable, and I’m enjoying life for the first time in my adult life. I attest this entirely to the change in my diet and getting off from grains and sugars and processed foods. At this point I am still on all of my psyche meds, but will be talking to my doctors about weaning off from them shortly, it will be a long and slow process with a lot of supervision.
    Food does affect mood. I am a total convert in my belief system.

    • That’s fantastic Heidi! I am going to give this a try!
      I wish you the best of luck. I was on meds, anti-depressants etc… after my son passed away from mental health. I have always been one to cook mostly from scratch, but don’t know much about palleo. I wish I had known about this before, maybe I could have helped him to stay.
      I weaned of all my meds, I felt the fog I was in was not allowing me to really deal with my grieve, but rather hide it. I send you many blessings, love and light.
      While weaning off, try seeing a holistic practitioner who works with reversing allergies, and helping your body accept emotional changes etc… they worked wonders for me. I will try to find the name of the treatment, it was am
      azing

  11. I am 40 credits shy of a Bachelor of Science in Nutrituon Science. I began looking at nutrition and mood when I studied the digestive tract and realized that the majority of seritonin in our systems is produced in the small intestine. I happen to have IBS and I began to wonder if the irritation in my small intestine limits the production of seritonin. Now that does not address any issues with how my brain uses seritonin, but if I produce less serotonin it is extremely important that my brain use what I do produce efficiently. I take Zoloft, a seritonin reuptake inhibitor. The purpose is to help my brain process more of the seritonin available. I know that it does not take much time off my medication for me to be a weepy emotional mess or irrarionally angry. Add to that the fluctuating hormones of perimenopause and I am pretty moody. I know that a balanced diet, as clean and unprocessed as possible, is my best option. However, with my time schedule and insufficient income it is difficult.
    Nutrition is such a key factor. It really takes such subtle changes to our diet to through our biological system out of whack. Most people are unaware of this.

  12. Thanks for posting this important information in a time when mental health issues are so pervasive. However, other than re-stating numerous times that “food and mood” are related, and mentioning that saturated fats and vitamins A, D, and K2 are important, there is little guidance on dietary improvements to help maintain a balanced emotional life. I hope there is more information on this subject forthcoming.

  13. I completely agree that nutrition and mental health go hand in hand. From my experiences, one of the most common problems now is that most people have been on multiple rounds of antibiotics in their lives, and never replaced the good bacteria, therefore, they can’t get the good vitamins out of even very healthy food. I think some people may need extra high doses of vitamins to get their levels up to a normal level as well as food. I have found a non-profit company called True-Hope who which have helped a huge amount of people with anxiety, depression, even drug-induced schizophrenia. I really want to encourage anyone with mental health concerns to take pro-biotics and to try the True-Hope vitamins. They are truly life changing, and I believe even life saving.

  14. This is a great article! I shared it on daocloud.com for you 🙂