Highly processed foods, sugary foods, and junk foods are being linked to a huge range of health issues such as diabetes and heart conditions. But research now also shows, that they are also the cause of the rise in mental illness.
Psychiatric researcher and Associate Professor Felice Jacka of Victoria’s Deaken University Australia, has been at the forefront of studies into the link between mental illness and diet for now on 10 years. Her findings have convinced her that junk food isn’t only wrecking our physical health, but also wrecking our mental health.
In this research, she does not stand alone. Studies from countries as diverse as Norway, Spain, Japan, China, the United Kingdom, and the United States show people whose diets are healthier are less likely to experience depression.
Over the last half century, the global food industry has profoundly changed the way we eat. While we understand how these dietary changes have impacted our physical health, their effect on mental well-being is only now being realized.
Big business has successfully developed and marketed food products that appeal to our taste buds and also have addictive properties.
Highly-processed snack and takeaway food products, rich in tasty fat and sugar, have now replaced many of the fruit, vegetables and other nutritious, unprocessed foods in our diets.
Largely as a result of these changes, there has been a staggering increase in the proportion of overweight and obese people across many countries. Common non-infectious illnesses, many driven by poor diets, are now the leading cause of death worldwide.
The body of evidence linking diet and mental health is growing at a rapid pace. As well as its impact on short and long-term mental health, the evidence indicates that food plays an important contributing role in the development, management, and prevention of specific mental health problems such as depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease.
We now know that high cholesterol, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, elevated blood sugar and a high BMI, are all risk factors for dementia. And these are clearly influenced by dietary habits.
On the other hand, healthy dietary patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet, seem to protect against dementia and cognitive decline. A randomized European study showed people who adopted a Mediterranean-style diet as part of the study experienced better cognition than those in the control condition.
Evidence suggests changes in global dietary habits may be influencing rates of depression and dementia. Importantly, given detrimental changes to diet are particularly obvious in younger people, the impact on the burden of these mental disorders may not yet be fully manifest. Obesity increases the risk for depression and dementia, while depression prompts obesity.
Heart disease is associated with depression, while worse outcomes face those with heart disease if they are also depressed. Risk factors for heart disease are also the risk factors for dementia.
In this sense, the mind-body dichotomy that has informed much of psychiatric practice throughout history is beginning to appear artificial and redundant.
What all of this means for general well-being, is that measures taken to improve physical health should have positive benefits for the prevention and treatment of mental disorders. It also reinforces the need for governments and policy makers to urgently address our “obesogenic” food environment, which encourages people to eat bad food and remain sedentary. And that means tackling the activities and predominance of the food industry.
Monique a clinical psychologist, writer of The Nourished Psychologist Blog wrote an essay on the role of gluten and casein (a milk protein) in mental illness. The following are some of her findings;
“Dr Natasha Campell-McBride, author of GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) describes how researchers have found both gluten and casein peptides (a product of protein digestion) in the urine of individuals with schizophrenia, autism, ADHD, and depression. She explains how these disorders originate in the gut (due to poor gut health and intestinal permeability) and that the gluten and casein proteins do not get digested properly and turn into substances with similar chemical properties to opiates such as morphine and heroin. These opiate-like substances from grains and milk are thought to cross the blood-brain barrier and block certain areas of the brain, just as heroin and morphine do. This theory also explains why people with sensitivity to these substances crave them and are often very fussy eaters, mainly eating foods containing grains or dairy.
There have been many studies that have looked at the effects of gluten and casein free diets in schizophrenia, autism, anxiety disorders, depression, and ADHD. Most of the latter disorders have been studied in the context of coeliac disease, however, several studies show a significant improvement in symptoms after following a gluten-free diet. There are also many case studies documenting outstanding results and remission of symptoms after following a gluten and casein free diet in individuals with schizophrenia and autism.
There are several theories as to why gluten or casein cause or trigger these mental health issues in susceptible people. These theories include food allergies, immune responses, interference in brain processes, exorphins being absorbed into the bloodstream from the gut and then passing through the blood-brain barrier to affect the central nervous system (note the link to poor gut health here), links to serotonergic functioning, and autoimmune responses.
A balanced mood and feelings of wellbeing can be protected by ensuring that our diet provides adequate amounts of complex carbohydrates found in vegetables and legumes, essential fats, amino acids, enzymatic foods containing probiotics and prebiotics, vitamins and minerals and purified water.”
More and more research is showing a diet high in pre and probiotics will not only improve your wellbeing and mental health but will also extend your life.
There are a string of Islands called Ryukyu Islands, one of the largest is Okinawa. These people have one of the longest, healthiest, most vigorous life spans in the world. Their diets are high in a certain type of sweet potato and vegetables. They eat no sugars or processed foods. Unfortunately many of their young are now leaving the islands and
Unfortunately many of their young are now leaving the islands and travelling to the mainland of Japan where they are eating ‘modern foods’. Their children are not living as long as their parents, and suffering diseases unknown to their ancestors.
A long mentally bright life is everyone’s ultimate goal. Would it not be great that by everyone changing their diet, we could empty the world of old people’s homes filled with mental health patients. Would it not be wonderful for teachers to have children in the classroom who can concentrate!
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