The food and mood connection has long been known, but what about the effects of nutrition or lack of it on people who have actual mental disorders? Even otherwise normal people experience the affects of food or the lack of it on their physical health. If the body does not get sufficient nutrition then it can cause many mental problems. On the other hand if a person is obese and overeats, then that causes a different set of problems.
What this means is that there are three different aspect of nutrition on mental health. The first is eating disorders that have a psychological basis, the second is how lack of food causes mental problems and the third is how to use targeted nutritional therapies to help patients with psychiatric problems.
Eating disorders and mental health
Eating disorders are more a disease of the modern world. With the increased exposure to media, people are extremely concerned with their body image and their looks than ever before. If you think about it, people go to great lengths and even undergo plastic surgery or other procedures simply to look good in their pictures posted on Facebook.
When people are insecure about their body image and their perception of their physical looks and they are obsessed with their weight, it can lead to medically validated psychiatric disorders like anorexia, bulimia and even obsessive compulsive disorders and anxiety. Earlier even ADHD was blamed on too much sugar and fast foods, but there is no scientific evidence to bolster this.
Anorexia causes people to stop eating and reduce their eating as they think they are becoming fat. Bulimia is when people eat, but throw up again in an effort to lose weight because they think they are becoming fat. Often anorexia and bulimia may go together – eating little in the first place and throwing up if eating even a little. This becomes compulsive behavior and need long term psychiatric treatment and sometimes even interventional therapy.
Even obesity often becomes a mental health problem as people use food as a crutch for emotional eating or behavior disorders. In such cases, without concurrent psychological support and behavior modification therapies, the person will be unable to lose weight.
Not getting enough food to eat
This is not only a problem in the third world or in countries and continents where there is simply not enough food to eat or too many people or both. It can happen even in the developed world when people are dependency problems, substance abuse, addictions that lead them to ignore their diet in favor of any substance they are addicted. Even in the elderly, for a number of varied reasons, nutrient needs may not be met. This can easily lead to malnourishment and mental problems.
In poorer countries, children and adults can be underdeveloped or face brain damage or developmental disorders due to lack of food. In the developed world lack of the right foods or foods in sufficient quantity can lead to psychosis, anxiety disorder and mental health problems. These kinds of disorders affect the young and the elderly, people who live alone, people without a support system or people with different phobias that contribute to their lack of nutrition.
Research studies on the mental health and nutrition connection
The Tromsø Study conducted by the University of Tromsø, Department of Community Medicine, Norway led by Jan-Magnus Kvamme et al and titled the Risk of malnutrition is associated with mental health symptoms in community living elderly men and women was published in BMC Psychiatry in June 2011. The study involved 1,558 men and 1,553 women aged 65 to 87 years and its aim was to check out the effects of impaired mental health on nutrition and body mass index (BMI). The study was based on a number of surveys and questionnaires.
The conclusions were that elderly patients who had mental health symptoms (or even subthreshold mental health symptoms) ought to be screened for nutritional deficiencies; also mental health symptoms should be included in the assessment of elderly people who are at risk of malnutrition.
In 2012 a research study titled Association of Western and traditional diets with depression and anxiety in women and followed 1,046 women that was conducted by researchers at the Department of Clinical and Biomedical Sciences, University of Melbourne, Australia showed that people who ate a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, meat fish and wholegrains had a decreased risk of developing major depression or anxiety disorders. Others who ate a diet that had more of refined foods, sugar, fried foods and processed foods had a greater risk of developing these problems. This study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, called for more research into these links.
According to statistics released by WHO, by 2020 depression will be the second cause of morbidity globally. A research paper titled Nutrition and depression at the forefront of progress points to the link between unwholesome food and depression. Another study, Fast food and commercial baked goods consumption and the risk of depression analyzed the diet and lifestyle of 12,000 volunteers and came to a similar conclusion.
Apart from depression, studies have linked poor eating habits, eating of processed foods and sugars instead of vegetables, fruits, wholegrains and other healthy foods to schizophrenia, ADHD and Alzheimer’s among other mental disorders.
Vitamins and mineral deficiencies leading to problems
The importance of nutritionally rich food for physical and mental well being should not be underestimated. Some of the nutrients that help in mental health include:
• The B vitamins are important for mental health; reduced intake of these important vitamins can cause weakness, confusion, irritability and short term memory problems.
• Lack of folic acid, too, causes mental confusion, irritability, weakness and headaches.
• Lack of Vitamins C and D can also contribute to hysteria and depression and result in Seasonal Active Disorder.
• Lack of tryptophan can contribute to anxiety disorders.
• Insufficient Omega 3 foods can also cause anxiety problems and lead to depression.
If you are eating enough, but are still deficient in certain nutrients, that means that you are not eating right. Then again, people who have dependency problems and addictions whether to alcohol or drugs (narcotics, psychotropic or even prescription medicines) may not pay attention to their diet at all and suffer from malnutrition or eat too much of the wrong foods, including sugars, refined foods and the like which has a cascading and negative effect on mental health.
At the other end of the scale, genuine poverty or food scarcity can also affect mental development in children and cause mental problems in adults as the brain requires many nutrients in the right proportion to function properly.
Targeted nutritional therapies for mental health
There is growing interest in using targeted nutritional therapies to improve mental health. In an article published in PubMed, Nutritional therapies for mental disorders and written by Shaheen E Lakhan and Karen F Vieira, the authors’ write, ‘Lack of certain dietary nutrients contribute to the development of mental disorders.’ The authors go on to say, ‘Essential vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids are often deficient in the general population in America and other developed countries; and are exceptionally deficient in patients suffering from mental disorders.’
Many studies, mostly related to analysis of available data have shown that that daily supplements of vital nutrients may reduce patients’ symptoms. Nutritional supplements may actually help in reducing symptoms of major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), addiction, and autism. The authors further said: ‘The aim of this manuscript is to emphasize which dietary supplements can aid the treatment of the four most common mental disorders currently affecting America and other developed countries: major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).’