BRENDAN CALLAGHAN MCP, RP (Q)
Brendan holds a Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology, a B.A. (Honours) in Psychology, and a Nutritionist Diploma. He specializes in helping those suffering from anxiety, phobias, depression, relationship issues, diversity-related concerns.
The strong connection between dietary behaviour and mental health is an all-too-often overlooked piece of the puzzle that is human wellness. On the molecular level, our macronutrient (carbs, fats, proteins) and micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) consumption play a substantial role in how we think and feel (Godos et al., 2020). This is primarily due to the impact these compounds have on our systems of energetic and hormonal functioning, cognitive functioning, and the regulation of inflammation in the body (Godos et al., 2020). In this article, we’ll walk through a variety of ways dietary habits can impact your mental health and some simple adjustments that can make a world of difference.
Nutrition and Cognitive Functioning
Cognitive functioning is a term that researchers and clinicians use in reference to various mental abilities, including (but not limited to) learning, thinking speed, rational decision-making, memory formation, and the ability to focus attention. Fuelling our brains and bodies with an adequate range of macro and micronutrients can help optimize these abilities and positively impact our personal, professional, and academic lives as an expansive result.
While the macronutrient ratios and energy needs of each individual will be highly variable (based on age, height, body composition, activity level, etc.), there are a handful of nutrients that I would recommend everyone try to mix a little more of into their diets: Carotenoids, whch are colourful, antioxidant pigments in many plants and some algae, improve cognition by neutralizing free radicals (independent, molecular-level species that can cause inflammation in the body), which reduces oxidative stress on the brain. You can find high concentrations of carotenoids in carrots, kale, spinach, and many bright yellow, red, and orange plants. Flavonolsnhance cerebral cortical oxygenation through nitric oxide signalling, which allows your brain to function in a more energy-efficient manner, as nitric oxide improves blood flow in the brain, neural signalling (communication), and even neuron growth (Picon-Pages et al., 2019). You can find these in cocoa, broccoli, and onions. (recommended addition to any diet) also modulate neurogenesis (the creation of brain cells!), neuronal plasticity (the ability to physically and metaphorically ‘change your mind’), and neural activation (Godos et al., 2020). We’ll get back to omega-3 in the inflammation section
B vitamins have also been found to improve cognitive function by reducing homocysteine levels (which is a byproduct of protein breakdown), essentially clearing particles that would otherwise act as resistance to the electrical signals on which our brains operate. Now that we know what might be helpful to mix a little more of into our diets, the question of “what ought to be moderated?” arises.
While I’m not a proponent of strict, stressful elimination diets, which entail avoiding one type of macronutrient or food source at all costs, there are a few consumables that we ought to be mindful of and consume in moderation. For example, eating a diet high in fructose (a simple sugar found naturally in many plants and often added to processed foods) over the long term has been found to negatively alter the brain’s ability to learn and remember information (though, thankfully, omega-3 can mitigate this effect to a certain degree) (Lakhan & Kirchgessner, 2013). Chronically elevated blood sugar (which is spiked by high glycemic, starchy or sugary foods) increases the risk of developing dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases (Harms, 2019).
Regular consumption of hydrogenated or trans fats has been found to negatively impact the cardiovascular system and decrease brain volume (size) (Bowman et al., 2011). Like many things in life ‘the dose makes the poison’ with these compounds. It is certainly possible to live a happy, healthy life while consuming them in moderation, especially if you’re covering your nutritional bases as a whole.
Inflammation is a term used to describe the pathological accumulation of fluids containing catabolic materials (which break down healthy cells) in the body. If left unresolved, this fluid accumulation can amplify as white blood cells join up to take out those catabolic materials in the inflamed area. This process can significantly impede neural functioning on a microscopic scale (Stankov, 2012).
Inflammation can also have macroscopic (observable with the naked eye) effects in the form of edema or the swelling of joints (Stankov, 2012). Higher levels of inflammatory, catabolic materials (harmful bacteria, toxins, chemicals and allergens) are associated with depression when these compounds accumulate in a brain structure that plays a prominent role in learning and memory called the hippocampus. (Stankov, 2012).
Beyond the increased risk of developing depression, each individual may experience different reactions to different materials that are known to be catabolic. For example, some may experience high levels of inflammation when consuming wheat products, and others may not experience such adverse effects.Calling back to the all-star omega-3 fatty acids mentioned earlier, as little as 3 grams a day, which is about a serving of chia seeds, a small handful of walnuts, a piece of salmon, or 3 1000 mg omega supplement capsules can help minimize inflammatory damage. Omega-3 contains highly beneficial polyunsaturated fatty acids: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is responsible for brain cell integrity (structure) and functioning, and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which is a precursor for cytokine production (cytokines are crucial for immune functioning). Beyond this, these acids have been shown to improve neuroendocrine (stress/energy hormones) modulation of the serotonin (the hormone that gives us insight into how happy with ourselves we ought to be as a status indicator) and dopamine (the hormone that allows us to be excited about future experiences) transmission (Grosso et al., 2014).
Other anti-inflammatory compounds worth considering are curcuminoids which are found abundantly in the golden, mild-tasting spice turmeric, which is a cousin of the antioxidant powerhouse ginger. Curcuminoids have also been found to reduce age-related cognitive decline, especially when consumed in a fat-containing meal (Mishra &amp; Palanivelu, 2008). When it comes to minerals and inflammation, zinc, copper, and manganese proactively mitigate oxidative stress (you can find these in shellfish, cruciferous vegetables, and organ meats), as do E vitamins (found in red peppers, almonds, and peanuts).Studies have indicated a connection between the gut microbiome (bacteria in the intestines), depressive states, and responses to chronic stress (e.g. difficulty at home/work/school/socially or worrying about the future) (Dash et al., 2015).
This connection goes so far as to influence serotonin and GABA (a neurotransmitter that can reduce anxiety) through an essential neural pathway called the vagus nerve (which is responsible for ‘resting and digesting’).
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS is a physically uncomfortable, often painful condition of the large intestine characterized (in most cases) by abdominal cramping, bloating, and excretion irregularities (e.g. diarrhea, or constipation). This physically uncomfortable, often frustrating condition is also unfortunately significantly associated with comorbid psychological experiences that decrease quality of life (if left untreated), such as anxiety, depression, and negative self-referential thinking (Fadgyas-Stanculete et al., 2014).
The relationship between these physical and psychological symptoms is bidirectional, meaning the physical stress can inspire mental stress, which, in turn, often worsens the physical symptoms of IBS. (Fadgyas-Stanculete et al., 2014). This is because the hyperactivation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – two key systemic components of our neuroendocrine (nerve and hormone) stress-response system – can produce an increase in cortisol and catecholamine levels while engaging gut motility and visceral sensitivity (Fadgyas-Stanculete et al., 2014).
All of that is to say the physical stress inspires mental stress, which then increases the physical stress, and the cycle likely continues if contributing factors are left unaddressed. Thankfully, psychiatric interventions (pharmacologic or psychotherapy) have been found to improve the overall functioning of individuals living with IBS (Fadgyas-Stanculete et al., 2014).
Psychotherapeutic tools learned in therapy can help you effectively manage psychological stres which helps take away from that half of the aforementioned cycle. Equally thankfully, various potential dietary adjustments can help reduce the magnitude of IBS’ physical symptoms and improve your quality of life. For example, working to find a balanced gut microbiome (an imbalance of which has been found to impact mental and physical health negatively) by increasing consumption via fermented foods like sauerkraut and kombucha or via over the counter lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, supplements can reduce IBS symptoms (Harper, Naghibi, &amp; Garcha, 2018).
Nutritional exploration and education can help each client find a healthy selection of enjoyable, non-inflammatory, probiotic-promoting, non-irritable foods to reduce or eliminate unneeded digestive discomfort.
Diet and Energy
On a quantitative level, the energy we consume and expend is measured in calories. For reference, one calorie contains the amount of energy it would take to heat one gram of water one degree celsius in regular atmospheric pressure. While it is not advised to strictly track each calorie consumed and expended, mindful awareness of the amount of average energy an individual needs for healthy functioning is often valuable. Working to create a healthy relationship with food and finding a reasonable activity level that allows for that energy balance to be maintained can yield positive results. Finding this balance is important because being drastically hypercaloric or hypocaloric (consuming far too many or far too few calories) can greatly impact your mood, energy and sleep, all of which have bidirectional relationships with each other and play a significant role in quality of life (Lundahl & Nelson, 2015; Rantala et al., 2018).
How can the Newmarket Therapy Centre help?
For anyone interested in simultaneously improving their cognitive functioning and dietary behaviours, I am happy to provide a psychotherapeutic frame to explore and enhance interrelated patterns of thoughts, behaviours, feelings, and nutritional habits tailored to your individual experiences, needs and interests. To do this, we can explore psychological experiences, physical experiences, and dietary patterns to inform manageable, healthy adjustments as appropriate for each client.