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How Nutrition Supports Mental Health

How Nutrition Supports Mental Health,

No one would intentionally put inappropriate fuel in their car that would harm its ability to run efficiently, but we routinely put fuel into our bodies that compromises brain function. Not only can what we eat impact our mental health, but our mental health can also impact what we eat. At The Pavilion in Williamsburg, Virginia, we know it can be difficult for people who are struggling with their mental well-being to make the effort to prepare healthy, well-balanced meals for themselves, particularly if they do not see any reason for doing so. That is why we offer nutritional consultation as part of our mental health services. We want to give our patients as many tools as possible to have happy, healthy lives.

The Power of Food

The foods we eat impact our ability to make the chemicals we need to feel good, and some of the disorders most strongly connected to diet are the conditions we most often treat at The Pavilion, including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and anxiety. Studies have repeatedly found that the foods we eat impact how we feel: 

  • Increased fruit and vegetable consumption can reduce symptoms of depression
  • The Mediterranean diet (which is heavy in fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains, and healthy fats) has been shown to greatly improve depressive symptoms, with one study finding a 42 percent decrease in risk for depression among college students who adhered to the diet. Countries where the Mediterranean diet is more common also have lower rates of depression.
  • Norwegian and Japanese diets are also high in the chemicals needed to promote good mental health.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids, which are present in fish, seafood and grass-fed beef, have been found to combat ADHD, depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD.

We can also suffer worse mental health as a result of deficiencies in our diets:

  • Insufficient amounts of zinc, B12, and folic acid can cause depression and dementia symptoms, including low mood, fatigue, irritability, and impaired thinking.
  • Not having enough folic acid can also make it harder for antidepressants to address depression.
  • Low levels of Vitamin D were tied to an increased risk of depression and schizophrenia, but taking a Vitamin D supplement decreased the severity of depression, irritability, fatigue, mood swings, sleep disturbances, and focus issues in teenagers with depression.
  • Diets that are heavy in processed foods are linked to an increased risk of depression, ADHD, and cognitive impairment.
  • The diets followed by many Americans can increase levels of inflammation, which is linked to an increased risk of depression. Some of the foods contributing to this problem are: 
    • Sugary and diet soft drinks
    • Refined grains
    • Margarine
    • Red meat

What Your Gut Tells Your Brain

Not only does food impact our brain by affecting what chemicals it is able to produce, but it also changes our digestion, which also impacts brain functioning. When our gut is in distress, it can communicate with our brain using our nervous system and the vagus nerve. While the vagus nerve helps our bodies to manage everything from digestion to breathing and sweating, it is also important to mood and stress reactions. This is part of the reason why some people who struggle with anxiety and depression also often have physical symptoms like nausea and vomiting.

Making Changes

It can be difficult to make big changes to our diets all at once and even harder to stick to those changes over time. If you want to make changes to what fuel you are giving your body, it might be easiest to start with one or two small changes and gradually introduce more improvements over time. Some of the changes you can make include:

  • Replace soft drinks with water.
  • Ensure you eat a healthy breakfast every day. Some healthy options include a whole-grain granola bar, yogurt, or fruit.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables. If you have a hard time eating fresh produce before it expires, buy frozen options.
  • Add more fish and seafood to your diet.
  • When you’re grocery shopping, focus on the perimeter of the store, where you will find more fresh, unprocessed foods.
  • Take supplements to help boost your levels of omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin D.

At The Pavilion, we take a whole-person approach to treating mental health, recognizing the importance of caring for the mind, body, and spirit of each person we serve. Various therapeutic interventions, nutritional education, physical activity, and medication management are just a few of the ways we offer support to the adults, families, and seniors we treat.

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