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Exploring the Rise in Nutritional Psychiatry

New evidence suggests a deeper connection between diet and mental health

The Need for a New Approach

These days, Americans are more stressed, anxious, and depressed than ever. Depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide, and each year, up to 800,000 people die from suicide (World Health Organization, 2018). Anxiety rates are soaring, and up to 40 million adults in the United States experience clinically significant anxiety each year (ADAA, 2020). Mental health problems reflect serious public health issues—and unfortunately, this epidemic doesn't seem to be getting much better.

Medications certainly have a place for serious conditions, but if we indeed "are what we eat," it's no wonder Americans struggle with anxiety and depression at such alarming rates. Have you considered the "standard" American diet lately? Ultra-processed foods run rampant throughout the grocery aisles, fast-food menus, and convenience stores. When consumed in large amounts, highly processed foods have the potential to negatively affect one's mental health, placing individuals at an increased risk for anxiety and depression (Caporuscio, 2019).

Introducing Nutritional Psychiatry

JillWellington, Pixabay
Source: JillWellington, Pixabay

The moment of Nutritional Psychiatry seems to be gaining momentum in the midst of this processed food epidemic. Simply put, "Nutritional Psychiatry" refers to the treatment and prevention of mental disorders through dietary modifications and nutrient-based supplementation. (Sarris, 2019). Adan et al. (2019) discuss the association between nutrition and mental health in a recent review titled “Nutritional psychiatry: Towards improving mental health by what you eat.” Researchers acknowledge the complexity of mental illness, highlighting the environmental, genetic, and interpersonal factors at play, but also discuss the role of one's diet in contributing to or hindering optimal mental health. While there is limited scientific evidence on the exact correlation between specific dietary practices and mental health, the existing literature in this area appears compelling.

For example, research indicates that the foods we consume significantly influence our brain function and gut health, which in turn shape our mental health and behavior. Individuals with serious mental health problems tend to consume higher concentrations of processed foods and fewer nutrients, which may contribute to higher levels of inflammation throughout the body (Firth et al. 2019). Multiple studies confirm the association between dietary inflammation and mental ill-health, especially depression.

In addition, Adan et al. (2019) highlight the brain's dependence on specific nutrients, including lipids, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Certain nutrient deficiencies, including vitamin B12, thiamine, folic acid, and zinc, may impair cognition and contribute to mental health problems (Adan et al., 2019; Petrilli et al. 2017). Nutritional interventions aim to correct these deficits by altering one's diet and supplementing with vitamins and minerals as needed.

There is also an emerging link between gut microbita and depression and anxiety (Adan et al. 2019; Strandwitz, 2018). Our gut contains trillions of bacteria (known as the gut microbiota) which has been shown to influence neurotransmitter levels. Studies suggest that the gut microbiota may influence the regulation of serotonin (O'Mahony, 2015). In response, nutritional interventions targeting the gut microbiota may help treat certain mental health related disorders.

To summarize, our diet has the potential to impact our mental health by influencing our brain function, gut microbiota, and levels of inflammation throughout the body. Nutritional psychiatry largely targets chronic inflammation, nutritional deficits, and gut health in treating neuropsychiatric conditions.

Now, don't expect all your problems to subside with this approach. In addition, serious mental health conditions require serious interventions, and nutritional approaches alone may not provide adequate relief. It is important to speak with a qualified provider to determine the best treatment for specific conditions. Ask questions, seek real answers, and do your research wisely. A good place to start, however, might be to assess the amount of processed foods you consume, how they make you feel, and whether or not your overall diet supports or hinders your mental health. Listen to your body, discern your cravings, and focus on eating whole foods.

While recent evidence supports this new approach, researchers plead for additional studies and clinical trials to establish more definite connections between diet and mood, encourage specific dietary recommendations, and inform new public health policies. Regardless, in the years to come we will likely see an increase in the use of integrative, holistic approaches targeting nutrition and diet in treating mental health challenges.

©2020 Elizabeth Dixon, LISW-CP. All rights reserved.


Adan, R.A.H., van der Beek, E.M., Buitelaar, J.K., Cryan, J.F., Hebebrand, J., Higgs, S., Schellekens, H., Dickson, S.L. (2019). Nutritional Psychiatry: Towards improving mental health by what you eat. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 29 (12), 1321-1332.

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