Nutrition and mental health Montreal Newspaper

While diet plays an important role in physical health, more and more research is focusing on its role in mental health. In a context where the pandemic has caused a significant increase in anxiety and depression disorders, in addition to the time of year when seasonal depression is prevalent, placing the sun on your plate is more important than ever!

Main points1

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  • One in five adults reported having symptoms consistent with generalized anxiety disorder or major depression in the two weeks prior to the survey.
  • In urban areas, especially Montreal, one in four adults has the same characteristics.

1 Online survey conducted by the firm Léger with 6261 adults from 4 to 14 September 2020.

food and humor

Fresh vegetables on a woman's head that symbolize health food

Several factors affect our mental health, including genetic, biological, and environmental factors. For Dr. Howard Steiger, head of the Continuum of Eating Disorders at the Douglas University Institute of Mental Health, integrating the precursors of several neurotransmitters that regulate mood into our diet could be a game changer. Tryptophan, a precursor to the amino acid serotonin, the neurotransmitter of well-being, would play a particularly important role. “It has been well established that a tryptophan-rich diet improves our mood and social behaviors,” says Dr. Steiger. Tryptophan-rich foods include eggs, fish, poultry and milk.

Also a professor of psychiatry at McGill University, Howard Steiger is interested in epigenetics, or the ability of certain micronutrients to alter the expression of our genes. A specialist in eating disorders, he has particularly shown that anorexia-related malnutrition affects the expression of genes that regulate brain functions, disrupting the mechanisms responsible for regulating mood and social behavior.

sugar and depression

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Consumption of refined sugars increases the risk of obesity and diabetes. Sugar would also affect psychological health. Several epidemiological studies have linked sugar consumption to an increased risk of depression. In one of them (Whitehall Study), men who consumed more than 67 g of sugar per day (more than 16 teaspoons of sugar) were 23% more at risk of developing depression compared to those who consumed less than 40 g (less than 10 tablespoons). While this study does not confirm a causal link, it does raise some interesting hypotheses. In particular, excessive sugar consumption would affect dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with the reward circuit, and cause cellular inflammation, two factors associated with mental health. Other studies have documented the negative impact of high intake of sugar and saturated fats on the symptoms of depression.

Desire for food AND stress

Fresh vegetables on a woman's head that symbolize health food

The craving for carbohydrate-rich foods has been observed in both animal models and people under stress. Consumption of carbohydrate-rich foods (cereals, sweets, etc.) increases the synthesis of serotonin (by increasing the brain uptake of its precursor, tryptophan), which has sedative properties. The desire to eat foods rich in carbohydrates and sugars when you are under stress can be explained by this effect on serotonin. Several polls conducted since last March have also shown that many Quebecers have eaten more and eaten sweeter since closing. Therefore, the stress associated with health crisis seems to affect our eating habits.

Microbiotics and humor

Fresh vegetables on a woman's head that symbolize health food

All the foods we eat affect the composition of our gut microbiota. Our gut microbiota and our brain constantly interact through the gut-brain axis. Depending on the type of food ingested, intestinal microorganisms produce metabolites that affect our mental health. “In people with mental illness, depression, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress, there is a change in the gut microbiota in terms of the composition, diversity and number of bacteria,” explains Dr. Steiger.

Science is evolving rapidly and some researchers are interested in the impact of diet on microbiota. Some nutrition experts recommend a diet rich in dietary fiber, probiotics and prebiotics to favorably modify the composition of our flora. Mediterranean and vegetarian diets are also the subject of study, which tends to demonstrate the beneficial effect on the diversity of flora.

Processed and ultra-processed foods negatively affect our microbiota, creating inflammatory metabolites that can increase the risk of depression.

Eat well for his health mental

Fresh vegetables on a woman's head that symbolize health food

Even if science is still new, we now know that food has the power to affect our mental health. If a diet rich in saturated fats and sugar is bad for physical health, it is also bad for mental health. Population studies have reported that adhering to a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish and legumes is associated with a reduced risk of depression.

Dr. Steiger also emphasizes the importance of variety in our dish. A greater diversity of microorganisms within our microbiota is undoubtedly associated with better mental and physical health. People with obesity, eating disorders and other mental disorders often do not have bacterial diversity in their intestinal flora. Despite the encouraging data, the researcher emeritus urges us to be careful, the effects of food on morale remain modest and the coming years will be able to confirm the results and above all specify the recommendations in terms of clinical intervention aimed at preventing depression or even in alleviating its symptoms.

-Thank you Asma Hassan Abidalameer, diet practitioner, for her valuable cooperation

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