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The Connection between Diet and Mental Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 1 in every 5 Americans is living with a mental illness. Two of the most common diagnoses of mental illnesses are anxiety and depressive disorders. In recent years, these numbers have just kept climbing. While in general mental health is thought of as separate from physical health, we are starting to learn more and more about the link between the two. Over the past decade, there has been a steady increase in epidemiological studies investigating the relationships between dietary patterns and mental health. A general pattern has seemed to emerge: the more one eats a highly-processed diet, the more one is at risk for developing depression and anxiety. Conversely, eating a balanced and healthy diet seems to have a protective effect against developing a mental disorder.

So, what does a healthy and balanced diet consist of? Generally, a healthy diet consists of many fresh fruits and vegetables and limits processed foods. The more one follows a plant-based diet, the more aligned with this eating pattern that they are. Fruits and vegetables are known to protect against anxiety and depression mainly because they are high in antioxidants. Antioxidants are substances that can prevent or slow damage to cells caused by free radicals, unstable molecules that the body produces as a reaction to environmental and other pressures. Your brain is particularly at risk for damage by these free radicals. Although there's no way to stop free radicals completely, you can be able to lessen their destructive effect by eating foods rich in certain antioxidants.

Another particular substance that is found in fruits and vegetables that may play a role in mental health is fiber. The only source of dietary fiber is in plants, as this carbohydrate consists of the parts of plant foods your body can't digest or absorb. An increase in fiber intake boosts gut bacteria. Having more gut bacteria is key to having a healthy gut microbiome. This connects to mental health because certain species of bacteria present in the gut can help produce chemical neurotransmitters like serotonin. Serotonin is unique because of its antidepressant-like properties. Shockingly, over ninety percent is made in the gut. Another way microbiota contribute to mental health is due to the fact the gut is physically connected to the brain through the vagus nerve. Having a healthy gut microbiome is key to a good brain because it helps control the messages that are sent to the brain through these nerves.

So, next time you sit down to eat, why not load up on some fruit and vegetables. Your body (and your brain) will thank you!


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