Nutritional Psychiatry: What Is It and How Does It Help?

Nutritional psychiatry studies the relationship between nutrition and mental health. Although it's still a subject of research, the findings are promising for the development of new treatments.
Nutritional Psychiatry: What Is It and How Does It Help?
Maria Patricia Pinero Corredor

Written and verified by the nutritionist Maria Patricia Pinero Corredor.

Last update: 28 December, 2022

We all want to have good mental health, but the factors surrounding it are complex. Among these factors, nutrition is crucial and, in turn, is a very interesting field of study when it comes to psychiatric disorders. A lack of nutrients contributes to poor brain health. This is precisely where the term nutritional psychiatry comes into play.

This is a new field of research that uses food and nutritional supplements in the treatment and prevention of mental illness. While conventional medicine advocates more for the use of drugs and treatments in the case of depression, for example, it has been determined that a lack of appetite, sweet foods, or skipping meals can have an impact on this disorder.

Therefore, nutritional factors that are intertwined with human cognition, behavior, and emotions must be addressed. In this article, we’re going to show you how nutritional psychiatry is being used to help improve mental health problems.

How does diet influence mental health?

According to the magazine Nutrititon Journal magazine, 4 of the 10 leading causes of disability in the United States and other developed countries are mental disorders. In addition, one of their causes may be a lack of certain nutrients.

Some studies comment that many mental health conditions may begin as an inflammatory response of the gut. The responsiveness is associated with a lack of probiotics, micronutrients, and omega-3s.

Another group of experts reinforces these findings. For example, people with anxiety and depression can improve their mood with supplements of zinc, magnesium, omega-3 and B-complex vitamins, and D3.

In the particular case of magnesium, a daily supplement of magnesium citrate has been found to lead to significant improvement in depression and anxiety, at any age, gender, or level of illness.

As for omega-3s, some studies consider them to be critical for brain development and function. Low levels have been linked to low mood, cognitive impairment, and poor comprehension.

The use of probiotics has also been explored in nutritional psychiatry. Research has found that taking healthy live bacteria daily can decrease depression and anxiety . In fact, some specialists have coined the term “psychobiotics” to refer to probiotics with a positive impact on mental health.

nutritional psychiatry
Research has been able to establish that there is a link between nutrition and mental health.

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What is the goal of nutritional psychiatry?

A study on nutritional psychiatry poses certain objectives to address the relationship between nutrition applied to mental disorders. The key challenges for this field of research are the following:

  • To expand dietary intervention in mental disorders, at clinical and population levels.
  • To clearly identify the biological causes that support the nutrition-mental disorder relationship.
  • To develop scientific studies that support the effect of key nutrients and psychobiotics on mental illnesses. In addition, it is required to predict their response to treatment.
  • Conduct observational and experimental studies in psychosis focused on diet and dietary treatments.

What should food look like according to nutritional psychiatry?

Nutritional psychiatry includes a high intake of vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fish, and seeds, with little or no processed foods. Many studies indicate that the best foods for the brain are those that protect the heart and blood vessels. Here are the most emblematic in this regard:

  • Oily fish: Oily fish, such as salmon, sardines, and trout, are a source of omega-3 fatty acids. According to different studies, they can help delay mental deterioration and prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Another study talks about omega-3s and their antidepressant efficacy.
  • Walnuts: According to the journal Hospital Nutrition, the linolenic fatty acid in walnuts helps lower blood pressure and keep arteries clear. This is good for both the heart and the brain.
  • Strawberries and blueberries: The pigments in these fruits are anthocyanins. According to a group of experts, they act as anti-inflammatories and antioxidants that protect against brain aging and neurodegenerative diseases.
  • Broccoli and leafy greens: Green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, kale, and other collard greens are abundant in Vitamin K. Science suggests that the presence of this vitamin may help slow cognitive decline and lead to better memory.
  • Coffee and tea: Studies reveal that caffeine can stimulate the release of serotonin, a feel-good substance. In the long term, coffee consumption may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
  • Turmeric: Curcumin, an active ingredient in turmeric, is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. One review details the benefits it has on memory, and other experts say it helps with depression.

The importance of the intestinal microbiome

The intestinal microbiome refers to the millions of “good” bacteria that live together in the digestive tract and play a fundamental role in health. There are now arguments about the relationship between brain function and the gut microbiota, and the possibility that they influence neuropsychiatric disorders.

The “good” bacteria protect the lining of the intestines and ensure a strong barrier against toxins and “bad” bacteria. In addition, they have a bidirectional role between the digestive tract and the central nervous system, called the gut-brain axis.

Some experts consider this axis as a basis for numerous high-impact neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis.

nutritional psychiatry and the intestinal microbiota
Part of nutritional psychiatry is focused on studying the relationship between the balance of the gut microbiome and mental health.

Nutritional psychiatry: A developing field

Although there is much evidence on diet quality and common mental illnesses, it’s based on observations. Few randomized controlled trials have been conducted, especially in clinical groups.

Most studies have focused on the relationship between diet and depression. However, other more serious mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, have been examined to a limited extent.

Although psychonutrition is a very young area of research, the use of dietary supplements becomes an adjunct to improve mental health in all age groups.

It’s striking that medical education still does not include the area of nutritional knowledge for the treatment of mental disorders as part of professional training. As indicated by a group of experts, medical treatment is still dominated by drugs (such as antidepressants) and psychiatric treatments. However, these prevent less than half of these illnesses.

In this regard, a review suggests compiling the findings of high-quality studies and implementing nutritional psychiatry in clinical practice. This is an important task for the future of this area of knowledge.

An issue published by the Nutrition Society postulates that nutritional interventions can significantly reduce the burden of mental illness. They also recommend reviewing robust evidence and bringing communities together to share their findings.

In particular, research on the immune system, oxidative biology, brain plasticity, and the gut-brain-microbiome are suggested as key targets.

If a more mentally healthy society is to be achieved, physicians and psychiatrists must be clear about the relationship between diet and mental disorders. Psychonutrition should be an alternative or complementary therapy.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.