The Food and Mood Connection

Updated: May 20, 2019

May in New England is always a refreshing time of year. Long winters are officially over, warmer weather, longer days, and colorful landscapes finally arrive. While most love the spring for these reasons, I also enjoy this time because May is mental health awareness month.

A common misconception regarding mental illness is that the holidays are the most difficult time of year. The truth? It is actually the spring time. Who would have guessed? I was also surprised when I learned this while volunteering with the Samaritans Hotline about 10 years ago. Think of all the reasons we love spring and the new blooming that occurs. Now think of how you feel when you are down or depressed-- very misaligned wouldn't you say? Quite a disconnect, which can make a big impact.

I've found that to some, mental health may seem like an abstract concept. To others, mental health hits close to home. The topic is still greatly stigmatized in our society, but in reality impacts us all in one way or another. Not to mention, what we all have in common is that mental health is an important aspect of overall health no matter who we are. We are all whole beings, and no one is immune to all of our body's systems being connected.

So how do we take care of mental health? We know it's important, but doing something with this information is what matters. For many, the first things that may pop in your head are therapy, support groups, yoga, medications, etc. But what would you say if you can get started with something as simple as what's on your fork?

Diet quality and diet interventions have recently been considered potential treatment strategies for depression. Studies have shown that adding dietary interventions with psychotherapy and antidepressants significantly reduced depression symptoms in study subjects, especially for individuals who were not being provided significant relief with antidepressants alone. Implications of research also show consistent associations between diet quality and depressive symptoms across several age groups, through several different types of study designs. The main findings: 1. Whole food diets, traditional diets, anti-inflammatory diets, and healthy diets (all defined within their studies) are suggested to be protective factors of poor mental health outcomes.  2. Characteristics of all of these diets included plentiful fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, seeds, low fat dairy and olive oil. 3. Diets high in processed foods and sweets were found to be significantly positively correlated with depression symptoms.  While more research is always needed, these are powerful findings that can get us thinking about how our diets impact our minds. It is something to be conscious of when we are building our meals, as the dietary patterns listed are high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. The foods associated with protective factors for our minds are also the foods associated with protective factors for our physical bodies against chronic illnesses. Funny how that works, and further confirmation that our minds and bodies are so heavily interconnected. When it comes to health, it is imperative to see the whole person, and make use of the resources than can benefit both the mind and body together. It is important to remember that modifiable lifestyle factors such as dietary choices, smoking, and physical activity can impact depression risk, but do not act independently. Finding your overall lifestyle balance allows the synergy of all of these factors to work their magic.

Here's a gentle reminder that taking care of your mental health impacts how you feel physically, and take care of your body is important for your mental health. Seize opportunities to detox from social media, take that lunch break walk, get that extra hour of sleep, or so whatever makes your mind and soul happy.

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