The relationship between food and our mental health
May is Mental Health Awareness month, so we’d like to share some important information to help you stay mentally healthy. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental disorder, but there are things you can do to help yourself if you are one of them! In addition to visiting their website for resources and support information, one thing you can do now to maintain and improve your mental well-being is to start with the foods you eat!
Nutritionists say the gut is our second brain. There have been many studies that prove there’s a strong connection between the two. As our diet affects mental health, our mental health also affects what we eat, how we eat, and how we digest our food. It’s all connected! Therefore, maintaining the health of both is extremely important. And for people over the age of 50, there are special considerations when it comes to diet and mental health. Let’s take a closer look.
Needs change as we age
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Older adults generally have lower calorie needs, but similar or even increased nutrient needs compared to younger adults.” Reasons for this include changes in metabolism and body composition. Chronic health conditions and the use of multiple medicines can also affect nutrient needs. This is why it is especially important as we grow older to eat nutrient-rich foods.
“Nutrients” is a term used to describe everything we need in our diet: carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and water.
As we age, it’s easier to become dehydrated as we begin to lose the sensation of thirst. Dehydration can have a significant effect on our brains. It can lead to brain fog, confusion, irritability, inability to focus, depression and anxiety. According to Dr. Fayaz, 1% dehydration causes a 5% decrease in cognitive function. That's a major impact slight dehydration has on our brains! Prolonged dehydration can even cause brain cells to shrink, so it’s essential to set reminders throughout the day to drink water. Water also aids in digestion and is calorie-free.
Additionally, our sensation of hunger decreases as we age. This is another reason why it is important to follow a nutrient-rich diet.
Vitamin B12 is a nutrient whose absorption can decrease with age. Therefore, older adults are more prone to a vitamin B12 deficiency, which drastically affects mental health. Harvard Medical School notes that a vitamin B12 deficiency can cause:
- memory loss
- paranoia and delusions
Healthline reports other common deficiencies as we age: calcium, vitamin D, iron, and magnesium. These are all important nutrients to get from foods. Supplements, if advised by a healthcare professional, may be needed as well.
The emotional component of digestion
While eating nourishes the body, it can also feed our emotional needs. Meals can be more enjoyable when there are people to share them with, which can be difficult for those who live alone or can’t go out. The National Library of Medicine has some great suggestions such as organizing a potluck, cooking with a friend, or joining a community of people you can connect with over a meal. Enjoying a meal can not only improve our mental health, but it can also aid in digestion.
Anxiety can play a role in poor digestion. If we are anxious while we eat, our bodies are less likely to digest food well. The opposite of fight-or-flight is rest-and-digest. If our body thinks it’s in danger, real or not, our nervous system will shut down processes like digestion as a form of self-preservation. This is why it’s so important to relax and enjoy our mealtime.
Using food to control our brains
Most people aren’t aware that diet can be used as a tool to change your brain’s wiring.
Foods that may improve brain health include:
- brown rice
- starchy vegetables
- sweet potatoes
- nuts and seeds
The worst foods for your brain are unhealthy fats, processed foods, and refined carbohydrates like sugar.
In fact, our brains can become addicted to unhealthy foods due to the dopamine rush we get from eating them. This can lead to a toxic cycle. Eating unhealthy foods that bring us immediate pleasure are the same foods that can negatively impact our mental health once the dopamine rush ends. This leads us to continually crave those unhealthy foods. Replacing them with a healthier alternative can change this cycle.
Where to go from here
The good news is that we crave whatever we feed ourselves. So if we eliminate problematic foods from our diet and focus on vital nutrients found in whole foods, our bodies begin to crave salad or fruit rather than a bag of potato chips or candy.
According to Mindful Magazine, mindfulness is the most effective method in breaking a habit. Being aware of our eating habits and emotions is key to changing them. How do you feel when you eat? What are you eating and why? A food journal can help you keep track of eating habits if you’re having trouble breaking the cycle.
You’re not alone
Starting is often the hardest part, and you aren’t alone in this! Healthrageous is here to support you in your journey toward healthy eating and optimal health. Our Made Easy Meals are especially convenient on those days when you just don’t feel like cooking a healthy meal. They contain the top 3 nutrients for any mental health diet: complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and fatty acids. We also provide customized digital support to assist you on your journey to a healthier you – physically and mentally.
Visit “Order Meals'' in the menu at the top of the page to order our nutritious and delicious meals. Your gut and brain deserve it!