So you might already know that the way you eat can affect your gut or even help change your skin health. However, nutritional psychiatry shows that food not only helps the body feel its best, but may help the mind feel its best too. That’s right: there’s a connection between food and mood beyond getting hangry if you haven’t eaten in a while or craving Ben & Jerry’s after a breakup. While it sounds like two very different worlds colliding (nutrition? And psychiatry?), the concept makes perfect sense to me. As a holistic nutrition coach, I always work to connect the dots between diet and emotions.
Think about it: the brain works 24/7 to keep the body running optimally. Food is fuel for the body, but the brain is the wheels that keep the car driving. Premium fuel is not only better for the car, but helps the wheels run smoother. Confused? Since I’ve never been a car person, I’ll just let science explain: an emerging field in psychology known as nutritional psychiatry supports the connection between what we eat and how we feel, which means a direct correlation between diet and mental health. You are what you eat, but you may feel what you eat too.
What is nutritional psychiatry?
The field of nutritional psychiatry has been growing rapidly after emerging over a decade ago. In 2010, a study found that women whose diets were higher in vegetables, fruit, fish, and whole grains, were less likely to have depression or anxiety than women who consumed a diet high in refined carbohydrates, added sugars, and other processed foods. Since then, multiple studies (like the “SMILES” trial or identifying “antidepressant foods“) have made way for an emerging field that combines nutrition with psychology and the body with the brain. In fact, google “nutritional psychiatry study” and the results alone are pretty impressive. “Nutritional psychiatry means using food, supplements, vitamins, exercise, meditation, etc., in conjunction with standard psychiatric medications to optimize the potential of all treatments,” explained Dr. Sheldon Zablow MD, a nutritional psychiatrist and author based in San Diego.
What makes the field unique is that it acknowledges and works with the gut-brain connection (more on that below). While nutritional psychiatry traditionally looks at how nutrients that go into the gut (i.e. through food and supplements) affect mental health, many nutritional psychiatrists are also acknowledging the role that everything from exercise to meditation plays in mental health for a more holistic view. “It’s important to address mental health through diet and lifestyle, because the body has nutritional needs,” agreed Dr. Ellen Vora MD, a board-certified psychiatrist. “When we’re malnourished physically or psychospiritually, our mental health suffers.” Nutritional psychiatry is not intended to replace prescription medication, but rather to support a treatment plan and help patients heal using every route possible.
How does the gut-brain connection work?
While we typically consider the mind and body to be two separate entities, nutritional psychology acknowledges that they’re intrinsically connected. “The gut directly connects to the brain through the vagus nerve, and the brain is also indirectly impacted by the gut microbiome,” explained Dr. Gonzalo Laje, MD, MHSc, FAPA, a clinical professor of psychiatry based in Washington. “Think of the vagus nerve like a two-way highway connecting the brain and gut,” agreed Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist and author of This Is Your Brain on Food. “Chemical messages from the food we digest are communicated along the highway. Following a healthy meal, the ‘communicators’ are also healthy and help the gut and brain to function at their best.”
The “two-way highway” is also known as the gut-brain connection, or the link between gut health and mental health. Besides just the communication between the two, our moods can be affected by chemicals in the gut microbiome, showing that the brain and gut might be one and the same. For example, gut bacteria manufacture about 95 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin (AKA the happy hormone). Is anyone else’s mind blown (pardon the pun)!? Besides just the benefits that come with a good gut, the gut-brain connection also means there might be a price to pay when you’re not feeding your gut with the good stuff.
“Inflammation triggered by certain foods (like highly processed foods, added sugar, etc.) has a direct impact on brain functioning,” Dr. Laje said. “Nutrition is the source for building blocks that the brain needs to function, so if there are any deficits, the brain can’t function optimally.” You’ve probably heard of the word “inflammation” and might know that fried food or a couple of daily sodas might be to blame, but do you know what inflammation means? “Inflammation in the gut leads to inflammation in the brain over time, which is a major underlying cause of mental health issues like depression, anxiety, cognitive problems, and more,” Dr. Naidoo explained. “A poor diet, therefore, can worsen mood.”
So what does a nutritional psychiatrist “prescribe?”
So you get that what you eat matters, but is it as simple as just eating more fruits and veggies and less processed foods? The short answer: kind of. When it comes to a nutritional psychiatrist’s role, they work with each patient individually to come up with a treatment plan for specific needs, using both prescription medications as well as diet and lifestyle changes, as needed. For example, Dr. Laje includes diet as one of the essential elements in treatment plans for every patient, explaining he incorporates nutrition in his practice through food education (i.e. learning how to make better choices and understanding what those choices do to the brain).
As for what exactly to eat? Holly Klamer, MS, RDN, recommends clients follow a similar eating style to the Mediterranean diet, which is high in omega-3 foods and plants, and supports brain health. She also encourages clients to eat probiotic-rich foods (like sauerkraut, kimchi, and other fermented foods) for optimal gut health. Meanwhile, Dr. Naidoo recommended a wide variety of plants. “A basic pillar of nutritional psychiatry is eating the colors of the rainbow, which brings rich antioxidants from plant foods to supply the gut microbes with fiber to help reduce gut inflammation,” she said. Bottom line: fill your plate with a variety of fruits and veggies, eat your omega-3s (like salmon, walnuts, chia seeds, etc.), and prioritize gut health to make your diet more brain-friendly.
Interested in nutritional psychiatry? Here’s how to try for yourself.
IMO, nutritional psychology is cool because it proves that nutrition is way more powerful than just being about calories or weight loss/gain (duh!). This article is not intended to stop you from eating all of your favorite foods or to think food is the only type of “cure” you need when feeling down, anxious, or stressed. A spicy margarita or a bag of movie theater popcorn here and there likely won’t do any damage, just like one salad among an entire diet of processed foods won’t make a difference. Also, when dealing with anxiety, depression, chronic stress, or any other mental health condition, talk to your doctor about the role that food or gut health could play in your healing plan, knowing it is usually meant to support treatment, not to be the treatment.
If you are interested in learning more about nutritional psychiatry for an overall mood boost, Dr. Naidoo suggested starting small and simple, since consistency is most important when it comes to mental health. “Start with just one eating habit you want to change or take on,” she suggested. For example, try adding leafy greens to each meal, or replace your go-to frozen pizza with a cauliflower crust option. “Another easy win is focusing on whole foods and limiting processed foods. However, remember that it’s about finding the right formula for you, so speak to your doctor before making any changes.”
Please consult a doctor before beginning any treatments. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a mental health condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.