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Can Diet Improve Mental Health? Examining the Link Between the Brain and What You Eat

By | January 7th, 2020

Scientists are increasingly certain that Alzheimer’s and other dementias are caused by many factors. Genetics certainly play a major role, but researchers are increasingly focusing on other issues such as inflammation, blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, among others. Even conditions such as untreated depression and anxiety are believed to contribute to the likelihood of developing dementia.

That’s why a new review that confirms that your diet can significantly influence mental health and well-being is drawing attention. Published in the peer-reviewed journal European Neuropsychopharmacology, the review found increasing evidence of a link between a poor diet and the worsening of mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Among the review’s specific findings:

— A high fat and low carbohydrate diet (also known as a ketogenic diet) can help children with epilepsy.

— A vitamin B12 deficiency can contribute to fatigue, poor memory and depression.

— A Mediterranean diet, high in vegetables and olive oil, provides some protection against depression and anxiety.

What Nutritional Psychiatry Tells Us About Diet and Mental Health

But the review’s lead author Suzanne Dickson of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden cautions that studies about specific conditions are often spotty at best.  “With individual conditions, we often found very mixed evidence,” she said in a news release

“There is a general belief that dietary advice for mental health is based on solid scientific evidence,” Dickson continued. “In reality, it is very difficult to prove that specific diets or specific dietary components contribute to mental health.”

One independent scientist who reviewed the study said that despite high-quality research (mostly involving animals), much remains to be discovered about the connection between nutrition and mental health in humans.

“This comprehensive review sheds light on hypes and hopes, facts and fictions in the new field of nutritional psychiatry,” Andreas Reid, a professor at University Hospital, Frankfurt am Main, said in the news release. 

“The potential societal impact of this rapidly developing field is enormous,” Reid cautioned. “We must be scientifically sound in making our recommendations.”

While researchers cannot point to one specific diet as the key to lessening depression, scientists are increasingly certain that getting evaluated and treated for depression can improve or maintain cognitive function in patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which is considered to be the first stage of Alzheimer’s.

In addition, older adults with depression are believed to be twice as likely to develop dementia, and 65 percent more likely to develop Alzheimer’s.

Researchers are also increasingly certain that eating better and reducing weight to address issues such as type 2 diabetes, blood pressure and other so-called lifestyle conditions can make a difference in lowering risk for dementia. Boosting exercise is also seen as key.

The World Health Organization published a report on ways to prevent dementia, including undertaking 150 minutes a week of aerobic exercise, eating a balanced diet and drinking in moderation (or not at all).

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