It’s safe to say that everyone can acknowledge the physical effects of a healthy diet. Our bodies react on the outside to what we use to fuel them on the inside, and balanced diets comprising fresh ingredients tend to have the most noticeable effects on a person’s physique. On the other hand, unhealthy diets can lead to everything from weight gain to diabetes and heart disease.
But physical health isn’t the only reason to invest time and effort into building a balanced diet for yourself. It turns out what we eat can also play a major role in our mental health, which is a big deal considering the country’s ongoing struggle with such issues. Approximately one in four Americans will experience mental illness each year, and mental health issues affect 17 million children in the U.S.
A healthy diet can certainly help assuage that, though. Need specifics? Here are three major ways your diet affects your mental health:
1. Your Hippocampus Might Shrink
The hippocampus is a small organ within your brain, and it is responsible for regulating your emotions as well as learning and memory. Whether or not you’ve suffered from poor mental health, you know just how important the steady regulation of one’s emotions can be.
So, researchers compared adults’ diets with the size of their hippocampi, taking into consideration the impactful side effects of subjects’ socioeconomic status, among other factors. They found that those who ate healthier had larger hippocampi, while those with unhealthy diets had smaller hippocampi. You can probably guess that a larger hippocampus is more desirable, especially in the battle against unbalanced emotions.
2. Your Serotonin Levels Could Drop
Serotonin is a chemical created within your body which, just like the hippocampus, helps to regulate your emotions. More specifically, a lack of serotonin can cause depression.
Interestingly enough, your brain isn’t in charge of the production of serotonin — your gastrointestinal tract is. We mostly think of this part of the body as being responsible for digesting food and nothing else, but the GI tract is actually lined with no fewer than one hundred million nerve cells that play a direct role in your emotional state of mind. The brain and the gut regularly communicate; for instance the nerve cells in the gut signal to the brain when it’s time to produce serotonin.
If you have a poor diet, your GI tract will lack the “good” bacteria required to keep these neurons firing properly. And, as we already know, without the proper levels of serotonin, you might fall victim to depression.
3. You Don’t Have the Vitamins, Minerals or Hydration Needed to Function Right
A poor diet can affect specific parts of the body, as described above. But a lack of proper vitamins, minerals and hydration can lead you to feel bad overall, which is just as a bad of a side effect.
Take, for example, the importance of vitamins B1 (thiamine) and B9 (folate). You can find the former in foods like seeds, legumes and fortified grains, and it is a vital element in maintaining energy and coordinating nerve and muscle activity. Without the right amount of thiamine in your diet, you’ll likely feel irritable, depressed and weak.
Folate is just as important since it helps keep red blood cell production going, which, in turn, keeps nerves functioning. Since nerves play in maintaining serotonin levels, it’s logical that a folate deficiency can lead to depression, too. It can also leave you feeling apathetic, sleepless and unable to concentrate.
Even something as simple as drinking eight glasses of water each day can help improve mental health. Even the slightest hint of dehydration can make you moody, fatigued and distracted. It can also have physical effects like a headache and dizziness. On top of that, caffeine-laden beverages can fuel any underlying anxiety you already have, so avoid them to keep your mental health where it should be.
Ready to Fix It?
A healthy diet affects your mental health in positive ways. However, it isn’t likely to be the perfect, or only fix for any mental health issues you may have. Nonetheless, it’s a great way to begin repairing your state of being. It’s not too difficult, either — a balanced, diet with plenty of fiber, protein, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats will help your body help itself. Give it a try and see just how much better you feel, both inside and out.