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What Is The Link Between Diet And Mental Illness?

By Nishkak +2 more


The food we eat plays a major role in our physical health and overall wellbeing. But did you know that it can also affect your mental state and mood? This relationship between diet and mental illness is a complex one and cannot be summarised with a few broad statements.

The interaction between food and mental wellbeing can be as simple as quick relief from hunger leading to a better mood. Or as complex as the gut bacteria affecting the chemicals that your brain produces which has a deeper effect on your psychological state. Therefore, your gut is also called as ‘second brain’.  

What is the link between diet and mental illness?

Although there is no singular food or dish that can conclusively ‘cure’ any mental sickness, your diet still affects how you feel. Some studies suggest that a diet rich in vegetables, seafood, whole grain, garlic, olive oil and fresh herbs may affect reducing depression symptoms. 

Some foods can drastically, but temporarily, affect mood. For example, coffee and chocolate are well-known stimulants. 

  • Caffeine in coffee is a stimulant for the central nervous system, it can help feel charged up and ready for work. Several studies show that people who consume caffeine (mainly through coffee) have a lower risk of mental issues like Alzheimer’s, dementia.
  • Diet rich in essential vitamins and micronutrients also have a positive impact on cognitive function, learning and memory.

This is just a brief overview, let’s find out the many ways in which diet and mental health are closely intertwined. Keep in mind, this relationship is not easy to study or make unquestionable claims about. But scientists have been studying this link for some time now, so we have some general ideas. 

The gut-brain connection

You may know that our food is not only digested by the enzymes our stomach secretes but it is also aided very much by the healthy bacteria in our stomachs. These bacteria are essential for normal digestion. The first way these little organisms help our mood is by allowing us to have smooth digestion, without good bacteria we may experience indigestion or other digestive issues. These can cause us anxiety and stress, especially if they are chronic issues.

The microorganisms across our body are collectively known as the microbiome, each person’s microbiome is unique to them. Under this field of study, we learnt that gut bacteria are also heavily involved in the production of neuro-chemicals more directly.

Did you know that most of the serotonin your body makes comes from the gut and not the brain? You may know serotonin as the ‘happy’ chemical and many people who have depression are required to take medication that boosts their serotonin levels. But it is not just serotonin, gut bacteria also help to manufacture dopamine, GABA, norepinephrine and others. These are neurotransmitters that are essential for mental functions like focus, feeling motivated, feelings of reward and anxiety

On the other hand, excessive, irrational use of antibiotics or medications that destroy this microbiome by killing off the bacteria in our gut can also lead to poor mental health. It has been noted that people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (consequently their microbiome is out of balance) are likely to also have disorders related to mood. 

According to a recent study conducted on people above the age of 50, higher anxiety levels were believed to be linked to diets rich in saturated fat and sweets. In my opinion, one should restrict sugar intake and indulge in some physical activity to keep mental illness at bay.

Dr. Siddharth Gupta, B.A.M.S, M.D (Ayu)

Also Read: What is the BRAT Diet? Breaking Down its Pros and Cons

The basic factors to understand In diet and mental illness 

  • Sharing brings happiness- One aspect of food is that we typically sit down and share our meals with loved ones. This social activity is a routine that provides us with social and psychological benefits.  
  • Disciplined routine- A healthy diet does not only mean nutritious food, people with an unhealthy relationship with food also need to manage their portion size and meal times. There are many eating disorders. In this way, there is a negative impact on physical and mental health due to poor nutrition.
  • Nutrition for good health- Nutritious, healthy food is the surest way to maintain good physical health. With a healthy diet, you are also supporting your immune system, muscles and bone.  
  • Must include- Pre and probiotics, curd, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains
  • Must avoid- Deep-fried, processed food, food and beverages with high sugar content, alcoholic beverages.

A healthy dietary pattern, defined by high intakes of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, fish, low-fat dairy, and antioxidants, as well as low intakes of animal foods, are linked to a lower incidence of depression, according to a recent study. In contrast, a Western-style diet with a high intake of red and processed meats, refined grains, sweets, high-fat dairy products, butter, and potatoes and a low intake of fruits and vegetables has been connected with a higher risk of depression.

Dr. Rajeev Singh, BAMS

Also Read: Military Diet: Research-Based Analysis and Pros & Cons


It may not be the easiest to visibly see the effects of healthy diets on mental illness. That is because both the brain and microbiome are complex systems. But we know that a poor diet is linked to poor mental and physical health, as well as a weaker immune system. Studies have enough evidence to confirm the benefits of good nutrition on mental health and mood. Not to mention, diets that are not balanced, may lead to long-term health issues like diabetes. If you need help then speak with a dietician or even your doctor. They can advise you on diet and mental illness, what foods you should include and things you should avoid.

Also Read: Boosting Your Brain: How to Increase Dopamine Levels Naturally

Disclaimer: The information provided here is for educational/awareness purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for medical treatment by a healthcare professional and should not be relied upon to diagnose or treat any medical condition. The reader should consult a registered medical practitioner to determine the appropriateness of the information and before consuming any medication. PharmEasy does not provide any guarantee or warranty (express or implied) regarding the accuracy, adequacy, completeness, legality, reliability or usefulness of the information; and disclaims any liability arising thereof.

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