Choose your own adventure: Which scenario do you identify with?
- You wake up crabby and groggy each morning, reluctantly rolling out of bed after hitting ‘snooze’ three times at a minimum. You curse the morning as you shock your system with a splash of cold water- a cruel, yet necessary ritual. You grab strong coffee and a slightly stale bear claw pastry as an afterthought on the way out the door. This caffeine/sugar combination gives you life for a few hours until you succumb to intense hunger pangs at 11:30am. Take-out lunch quenches the stomach rumbling and dulls your throbbing temples, and you turbulently sail until the 3 o’clock hour, after which point productivity squeals to a halt. More coffee, a fistful of candy from the office jar (and some nuts and carrots in a half-hearted attempt to be healthy) offer a temporary solution. 5pm rolls around, and you leave work in a ravenous, foggy state of mind. You planned to hit the gym, but a date with microwave dinner and Vino are the way to your heart tonight. Once home, you sigh a great, empty sigh as you kick your gym bag to the corner of your room and fall face-first on the couch in one fell swoop.
- You wake up as early morning light streams through the cracks in your blinds, pleasantly surprised your alarm clock is set to ring in two minutes. You lie still for a moment, calmly preparing for the day ahead. You move through your morning routine that leaves ample time for breakfast, coffee, and reading the paper. Your philosophy hasn’t failed you yet: ‘Make it fast, eat it slow’: Today’s breakfast is a chopped apple, Greek yogurt, cinnamon, and steel-cut oatmeal topped with honey and slivered almonds. You grab your lunch from the fridge (a colorful salmon, farro, roasted veggie and garbanzo bean salad prepped the night before) on the way out the door. Around 11:30am, you hear a chorus of yawns around your open-layout office; Although wide awake, your stomach gently requests more fuel. Lunch powers you through a productive afternoon with a walking meeting (your preference) and impressive brainstorm session for an exciting new research study that integrates Nutrition, Psychology, and Neuroscience. At 4pm, you re-fuel body and mind with walnuts and blueberries for your planned strength training workout. Energized once more, you grab dinner out with friends- your favorite way to socialize! Roasted herb chicken, bread with olive oil, kalamata olives, and caramelized seasonal vegetables are the way to your heart tonight. Although it’s been a full day, you feel mentally and physically strong.
The above scenarios differ like night and day; Although each is dramatized for effect, be honest- most of us can identify with one situation more strongly than the other. Go ahead and select the category that resonates most with you, and let’s dive deeper with a brief brainstorm. What factors make the above scenarios glaringly different?
- Person A failed to plan, and Person B practically has a degree in Life-Skills 101
- Person A’s job is a drain, while Person B is energized by his/her work
- Person A might suffer from depression, while Person B likely does not
So far, so good: Each observation is a deeper reflection of the individuals’ moods. Person A is lethargic, fatigued, unmotivated, and ‘empty,’ while Person B is energized, mentally sharp, mindfully present, and fulfilled.
Excellent, let’s pursue this lead! Consider this: What deeper, underlying factor might account for these distinct moods? Consider one more glaring difference between scenario A and B, this time considering trends in the foods consumed:
- Simple carbohydrates, high sodium, and high saturated fat, with a modest sprinkling of vitamins, minerals, and fiber from primarily packaged-foods
- Whole grains, lean protein, ample produce, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, lots of fiber, probiotics, vitamins and minerals, and all primarily from whole-food sources
Person A and B both know that their food choices influence their outward appearances- after all, you are what you eat! Digging deeper, however, we see that Person B still has an advantage: This person also understands that one’s food choices influence mental state and behavior! Whether intuitively or intentionally, this person knows a thing or two about an emerging research area called ‘Nutritional Psychiatry.’
Let’s briefly turn to the research to get the low-down on Nutritional Psychiatry:
If you begin your knowledge quest with a Google search of the term, you’ll find a variety of media reports and research foundations devoted to the topic. Case in point:
The Harvard Health blog published an article called “Food and Mood-Is there a connection?” This article articulates how certain dietary patterns may protect mental health. More specifically, a Mediterranean diet pattern rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, whole grains, and lean protein such as chicken and fish, and low in red meat and unhealthy fats may provide promising benefits. Important to note, however, is that one single dietary factor or lifestyle factor is unlikely to affect mental health independently.
The Conversation explains that although research is in early stages, “it is now known that many mental health conditions are caused by inflammation in the brain. This inflammatory response [may be] associated with a lack of nutrients…Recent research has shown that food supplements such as zinc, magnesium, omega 3, and vitamins B and D3 can help improve people’s mood, relieve anxiety and depression and improve the mental capacity of people with Alzheimer’s.
(Psst…see that hyperlink on ‘recent research?’ That’s a link to an original study! Click it, friends!)
-A research foundation called the International Society of Nutritional Psychiatry Research will direct you towards “high quality evidence for nutritional approaches to the prevention and treatment of mental disorders.”
Both sources are good places to start, but our search has just begun! You can either scour each article for links to official research studies written by the research teams themselves, and read such study (Rule of thumb: Media reports are for entertainment first, and comprehensive education second or third or fourth). Alternatively, you may turn to Pubmed and pull up a review article on ‘Nutritional Psychiatry.’ (What’s a review article? Aside from being my preferred, reader-friendly way to learn about science, here’s a description)
The fourth result in our original Google search is conveniently a link to a 2017 review paper called “Nutritional Psychiatry-Where to Next?” This article explains that “A consistent evidence base from the observational literature confirms that the quality of individuals’ diets is related to their risk for common mental disorders, such as depression.”
While promising so far, comprehensive research is still needed in this area, as articulately stated by the same authors: “Key challenges for the field are to…replicate, refine and scale up promising clinical and population level dietary strategies; identify a clear set of biological pathways and targets that mediate the identified associations; conduct scientifically rigorous nutraceutical and ‘psychobiotic’ interventions that also examine predictors of treatment response; conduct observational and experimental studies in psychosis focused on dietary and related risk factors and treatments; and continue to advocate for policy change to improve the food environment at the population level.”