Food fills us up and nourishes us. It fuels us and provides us with energy and sustenance. But food is even more than that: food can be medicine.
Recently, the Society for Women’s Health (SWHR®) attended a community event in Washington, D.C. titled “Nutrition for Mental Health.” Held at a local community center, the event was meant to educate the public about making healthy food choices - for both physical and mental health.
We know that good nutrition is essential to our overall health. But our overall health includes mental health, and the food we eat can directly impact our mental state. A diet full of processed foods and added sugars is more closely linked to depression, mood swings, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) and even Schizophrenia . Conversely, those who eat fresh fruit and vegetables daily are less likely to experience poor mental health symptoms . Notably, people suffering from depression are more inclined to make the poor food choices that negatively impact mental health, thereby creating a vicious cycle.
Often, nutrient deficiencies cause the chemical imbalances that lead to depression and other mental health issues. Thiamine (vitamin B1), for example, is necessary for maintaining energy supply and coordinating the activity of nerves and muscles. A thiamine deficiency can therefore lead to weakness, irritability, and depression . Folate (vitamin B9) is essential for supporting red blood cell production and cell function, and folate deficiency can result in depression, apathy, fatigue, poor sleep, and poor concentration .
But before you head to the grocery store to stock up folate and thiamine (found in leafy greens, legumes, and fortified grains), note that vitamins alone cannot treat or prevent depression and other serious mental health issues.
It must be noted that access is key. Minority populations, who experience disproportionately high rates of mental illness , often live in “food deserts” - urban areas in which it is difficult to find and purchase fresh, healthy food . Typically, foods available in food deserts are the same foods that cause mental health issues - processed, sugary, fatty options found at fast-food establishments and mini marts. Options associated with better mental health, like whole foods, fruits, and vegetables, are available at grocery stores and farmers’ markets that are inaccessible to low-income communities. The mental health issues in these communities cannot begin to be addressed until the larger issue of access to nutrition is addressed.
Always talk to your healthcare provider about any mental health issues you may be experiencing. Your healthcare provider can help you make the nutritional changes that are right for you. To learn more about nutrition and mental health, visit our website.
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The Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR ®) is a national non-profit based in Washington D.C. that is widely recognized as the thought-leader in promoting research on biological differences in disease and is dedicated to transforming women’s health through science, advocacy, and education.