There is a strong connection between nutritional deficiency in the body and in the mind
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” - Hippocrates
Food is important for human survival. It contains nutrients required by the body in order to produce sufficient energy for daily activities. In India, food also has a cultural significance. During some festivals, people gorge on special delicacies, while on the other hand, there are also festivals that promote fasting. The food habits of a person depend on the familial and environmental factors that they have grown up in. Therefore, some opt for a plant-based diet while others prefer a meat-based one.
The body needs a mix of nutrients such as protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and all these are derived from the food that we eat everyday. Proteins help build and maintain muscle, skin and blood; carbohydrates and fats provide the required energy for the body. Vitamins and minerals are required in small quantities by the body for proper functioning of organs and building bone tissue and blood respectively. Some minerals include iron, calcium, iodine and zinc, while vitamin A, B, help prevent infections and repair body tissues. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron, and Vitamin D helps absorb calcium from the food to build healthy bones and muscle.
How food affects the brain
There is a strong connection between nutritional deficiency in the body and in the mind, as per science. Twenty percent of our brain is made up of essential fatty acids and amino acids such as omega 3 and omega 6. Since the body cannot produce these by itself, it is derived from food. Unequal intake of omega 3 fatty acids can result in a number of mental health problems, from lack of concentration and memory problems to depression. Similarly, neurotransmitters are messengers passed back and forth within the brain. They allow neurons to communicate information among themselves. These neurotransmitters are made from amino acids, which must be obtained directly from the food.
But foods such as coffee, alcohol and processed sugar foods trick the brain by triggering an over-release of neurotransmitters and damage the brain by releasing toxins or oxidants that harm healthy brain cells.
A study conducted on adolescents showed that consuming food high in sugar, calories and low in nutrients made them feel tired, sleepless, unhappy, sad, depressed, hopeless, nervous and tense. This is because processed foods and ingredients such as sugar do not contain any nutrients that is required for nourishment, and instead produce free radicals that can cause more damage to the body. These free radicals affect the brain cells too and cause mental health issues.
How food affects mental illness
It is difficult to describe the causal relationship between diet and mental illness, because there can be other factors involved in it. But, since diet has an influence on the physical health and physical health affects mental health, it can be assumed that diet affects mental health too. For instance, this study talks about processed sugar causing Alzheimer's disease, as a diabetic person has increased chances of getting Alzheimer's in their life. Similarly, research has proved eating processed food can contribute to heart disease which in turn puts one at an increased risk of getting depression. The deficiency of Vitamin B12 can cause depression, dementia and mental impairment and has to be derived from supplements and foods such as eggs, meat and dairy products.
Food and diet have always been considered as a way of life in ayurveda and naturopathy, which believe in a wholistic treatment process.
Ayurvedic texts divide the common diet into three kinds – Satvik, Rajasic and Tamasic. Satvik diet has foods that are fresh, organically produced and makes the person lively, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Rajasic diet contains foods that stimulate the person. They are rich in oil and spices, and non-vegetarian foods such as eggs, fish or any kind of meat. On the other hand, Tamasic foods are food items that can make the person dull and lazy. They are usually stale, processed, and do not provide any energy. In Ayurveda, food is considered to influence a person's state of mind and moods.
Dr Achyuthan Eswar, who practices naturopathy, says, “The critical function of antioxidants (received from diet) is to neutralize the oxygen-free radicals while burning glucose in the mitochondria of every cell in the body. When these are not neutralized, they result in cellular damage, DNA damage and cause mutations. From Parkinson's to Alzheimer's diseases, all of these are being linked back to mitochondrial damage, cellular damage and energy imbalance inside the cell, and free radical damage.”
So should a person with mental illness focus on their diet too? “When you are doing everything to maintain your health when you are not ill, you need to be twice as mindful in taking care of health when you are ill,” says Dr Achyuthan.
Dr Achyuthan Eswar, naturopathy practitioner based in Bangalore
Feeding Minds, published by Mental Health Foundation, New Zealand