Millions of Americans are affected by mental illness . From Depression and Anxiety Disorders to Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia, it's very likely that either you or someone you know is affected. Unfortunately treatment for these conditions often rely solely on pharmaceuticals and rarely take into account perhaps one of the most significant factors in prevention and treatment of mental illness: Nutrition. Mental illness and Nutrition are linked by many different routes including genetics, changes in societies and typical diets, food insecurity, antioxidant effects on damage to brain tissues, long term nutritional deficiencies, and nutrition during pregnancy and early childhood . Ongoing research is providing strong evidence that nutrition has a huge impact on the prevention and treatment of many of the most prolific mental illnesses. Let's take a closer look at a few of the most well understood connections between nutrition and mental illness.
Depression: One of the most common mental illnesses worldwide, Depression affects more than 350 million people . Depression is typically characterized by loss of interest and productivity, increased sadness and anxiety, poor appetite, and depressed mood [2-4]. Multiple studies have shown that the diets of individuals diagnosed with Depression are typically deficient in many important nutrients including: essential vitamins, minerals, certain amino acids, and omega 3 Fatty acids. In addition, individuals with Depression frequently favor foods high in added sugars and fats which increase oxidative stress and damage to neurons and other brain tissues [2-4]. Interestingly, many of the common nutritional deficiencies seen in Depression are important elements in the healthy production and maintenance of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine [2-4]. Supplementation with these essential nutrients has been shown to significantly decrease symptoms and in many cases result in compete recovery [2-4]. In addition, diets high in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and fish have been shown to reduce the risk of Depression [3-4].
Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia: Another set of mental illnesses that affect millions of people worldwide are Alzheimer's Disease and other forms of Dementia. Frequently affecting older adults, Dementia impairs memory, the ability to complete daily tasks, thinking, and emotions. Most Dementias are progressive in nature. Middle-aged obesity has been shown to increase an individual's risk of Dementia as they age [2-4]. It is thought that poor diet choices high in added sugars and fats increase the oxidative stress and damage to brain tissues. In addition, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases can cause damage to the blood vessels of the brain and thus increase the risk of Dementia. Research in long term nutritional deficiencies indicates that Dementia in later life is frequently linked to a lifelong history of poor nutrition [2-4]. However, some Dementias are reversible and are the result of specific nutritional deficiencies such as Vitamin B 12 . Elderly individuals are at increased risk for poor nutrition due to decreased appetite, inadequate access to food, and other risk factors. Therefore, it is important to rule out specific nutrient deficiencies during the diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease and other Dementias.
Schizophrenia and Schiozoaffective Disorders: Studying the victims of famines worldwide has long linked Schizophrenia and related mental diseases to poor nutrition and low caloric intake during pregnancy . Now, new research is showing certain nutritional interventions may result in decreased symptoms for people diagnosed with Schizophrenia and related conditions . Treatment is individualized but seeks to correct blood sugar problems caused by traditional pharmaceutical treatments, improving levels of essential fats, providing essential vitamins and minerals especially B6, B12, and zinc, increasing antioxidants, and diagnosing and treating any food allergies .
Many other areas of mental health are also being investigated for their connections with nutrition including: Attention Deficit Disorders, Hyperactivity, Bipolar, Seizure disorders, and many more. What we eat really does have a BIG effect on our bodies, and our minds!
What can you do? The evidence is clear, eating a balanced healthy diet over a lifetime can help prevent the risk of some mental illnesses. Focus on eating whole foods whenever possible, avoid added fats and sugars, and get those fruits and vegetables! Maintaining a healthy weight is also important. Working with a Registered Dietitian is a great way to ensure you are meeting all your estimated nutritional needs and get help overcoming any challenges you may be facing with your weight.
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