Have you ever thought about how your diet affects your mental health? Of course, eating a donut may make you happy for a few minutes, but the relationship between food and mood goes well beyond how we feel about what we’re eating in the moment. The science of food’s impact on mental health is known as nutritional psychiatry, and new research in the field has revealed some important findings about the long-term relationship between diet and mental health.

The brain and inflammation

Like the rest of our bodies, our brains need the right fuel to function at an optimal level. Eating the right foods could make a noticeable improvement to your mental state and even help prevent neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

The standard Western diet contains a vast array of foods that have been shown to contribute to chronic inflammation, such as wheat, dairy, sugar, low-quality meat, and soda. When inflammation is present throughout the body, it can disrupt and impair normal bodily processes, which results in a variety of symptoms, including digestive issues, joint pain, skin problems, premature aging, and even degenerative diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

Inflammation can also have negative consequences on brain cells. Research has linked inflammation in the brain to a variety of mental conditions and illnesses, including dementia, depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. Just like anywhere else in the body, inflammation can occur in the brain as a response to toxins or irritants, including unhealthy foods. Many studies have found a link between diets high in refined sugar and impaired cognitive function — including higher rates of mood disorders.

A lack of quality nutrition, combined with this damaging inflammation and oxidative stress from free radicals, can result in damaged brain tissue, which can have long-term consequences.

The brain-gut connection

Aside from the physical effects of unhealthy foods on the brain, your diet can also affect your intestinal health, which in turn impacts your mood. Serotonin — a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and mood — is primarily produced in the gastrointestinal tract. This explains why digestive health and mental health go hand in hand. The intestinal tract is lined with millions of neurons that produce serotonin. When the intestinal lining becomes damaged — which can happen as a result of a poor diet and inflammatory foods — it can inhibit serotonin production and lead to a condition known as leaky gut syndrome. In addition to digestive disorders, leaky gut is associated with inflammatory skin conditions and mood disorders, including depression.

Healing brain inflammation and leaky gut

Studies have shown that the risk of depression is 25-35 percent lower in people who eat traditional diets — such as the Mediterranean diet — that are high in fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts, with only moderate amounts of red meat and dairy products. Make sure your diet contains plenty of anti-inflammatory fresh foods, such as berries, leafy greens, olives, olive oil, and green tea. The brain also needs plenty of healthy fats to function properly, but many people tend to shun dietary fats out of fear that they will cause weight gain (they don’t). Healthy fats include olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish.

Omega-3 fatty acids and probiotic supplements can also help reduce inflammation and restore intestinal health.

Avoid or limit foods that cause inflammation, such as refined sugars, processed foods, factory-farmed meat, and dairy products.

Periodic fasting has also been shown to reduce inflammation and promote other positive effects throughout the body. In clinical trials, the ProLon fasting mimicking diet was found to reduce levels of C-reactive protein, a marker associated with inflammation, and also improve cognitive performance when used once a month for three months. Learn more about ProLon and the positive effects of fasting.

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