Food is broken down into chemicals that can help or harm the physiology of the physical body. Similarly, food can directly and indirectly affect the psychology of our emotional body or our mental health. The chemicals from food can alter our feelings and moods, and impact the development of genetic inclinations, thus affecting our ability to manage or process difficult or uncomfortable emotions that may arise from our physical internal and external environments. Food can therefore play a notable role in the exacerbation or improvement of symptoms associated with mental distress or stress.
- Food, Genes and Our Mental Health
Our mental health is partly determined by our genes, and nutrients from food help to determine what genes are expressed or activated in a person’s body. Some mental and physical illnesses are passed genetically through the generations of a family. The body’s internal environment plays a key role in determining the genes that are activated. For example, if there is a history of a heart condition in your family, there is an increased probability that you are genetically predisposed to the same condition. Keeping the environment in your body adverse to the expression or activation of that gene can help delay or even prevent the gene expression. So, for example, if you were to have junk food three times a day, every day of your life, the environment in your body may become conducive for the activation of the ‘heart condition gene’. Whereas eating a healthy balanced diet may delay or suppress the gene. Mental health works in this same way. Psychological research has shown that some types of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse all possess a genetic component.
2. Prenatal Nutrition
A mere few days into our parents’ pregnancy the quality of our mental health begins to take form. The brain is one of the first things that develops while we are in the womb and is where the chemicals that contribute to a healthy emotional body can be found. Prenatal nutrition directly influences early brain development. It can also impact the development of physical disability and determine intellectual capabilities.
3. Food and Pre-Existing Disorders
For persons with existing mental health disorders, the type of food consumed can directly impact the severity of the symptoms experienced. It is important to understand the specific chemicals that our food breaks down into and the potential effects of these chemicals prior to your consumption. For example, usually, after a hard workweek, some people look forward to an alcoholic drink as a “pick-me up.” However, alcohol actually acts as a depressant once chemically broken down. Additionally, studies have shown a link between a diet of processed and fatty foods and depression and anxiety. For those with anxiety, foods with caffeine and sugar can make symptoms worsen. In some instances, the physiological effect of some foods can trigger psychological symptoms. For example, salt can increase the blood pressure in the body, which makes the heart need to pump harder. When this happens the body releases the stress hormone adrenaline, which can then trigger additional anxiety symptoms.
4. Food as a Coping Mechanism
Sometimes we can use food as an unhealthy coping mechanism to manage overwhelming or difficult emotions. Eating too much or too little can give us a sense of control during the times that we are overwhelmed. At other times snacking or binge eating can take our minds off of difficult emotions. Remember food is for sustenance and good health and not a tool to avoid processing our emotions.
In conclusion, our mental health and food are involved in a dynamic relationship that starts a few days into pregnancy. Brain development, gene activation, healthy coping mechanisms and current symptoms experienced are all important aspects to your mental health that is impacted or determined by the food we eat. We should therefore be mindful of our diet, need for nutrition, and food choices. It is important to consult with your physician and mental health expert on the best diet to support you achieving your best physical and mental health.