Is there a Relationship Between Nutrition and Mental Health?
Human beings are great at compartmentalizing. We are naturally prone to creating categories when we try to solve our own problems. And for the most part, it has helped our ancestors survive. But sometimes humanity becomes too stuck in our own need to categorize things. So, when people actively try to find the cause or the effect of something, we sometimes ignore the bigger picture. We focus so hard on individual elements that we forget about connecting factors. This got me to thinking about the role nutrition plays in our physical health. Good nutrition is supposed to give our bodies what it needs to function. Our brains are technically part of our bodies. Which begs the question, if what we eat determines our physical health, what sort of relationship does it have with our mental health?
Let’s talk about it, and explore the nature of our minds, and if there is an existing relationship between nutrition and our mental state.
How we View the Mind vs What our Minds Are
In western culture, especially when we try to explain it in abstract terms, we compartmentalize our minds from our bodies. And in some ways it makes sense. Our consciousness has a working relationship with our physical state but it is not dependant on what our bodies can do. However, in the purposes of diagnosing something like a mental disorder, it presents a huge problem.
Our conscious minds are byproducts of electrical stimulation in our brain. Without our brains conducting and sending out electrical signals that travel through our nervous systems, our bodies will not function and our minds would be in a vegetative state. Our brain, in spite of all romantic abstraction, is still an organ.
An organ that keeps our heart pumping, our blood flowing, and our bodies taking in oxygen. An organ that helps us control where we walk, how we talk, and the regulation of our own body temperature. It is powerful, but it is also able to fail.
A good example of this is the liver, an organ with the main function of filtering out impurities in the body. If you drink or eat too many impurities like alcohol or fast food to the point it goes past your liver’s capacity to filter, you will go through liver failure. Internal toxicity will run through the bloodstream and you will die.
So, if your brain is too overstimulated, or is damaged, it will fail. Sometimes in ways that will lead to death, and in other ways that will leave you to the loss of capacity.
Luckily, for us, the reverse is true.
If any organ in the body receives the right amount of energy with adequate food, rest, and relaxation, it will thrive.
What Causes Mental Health Disorders?
If something like adequate nutrition affects the health of internal organs like the liver and the brain, then adequate nutrition should cure all mental disease, right?
Over the last few decades, scientists have uncovered and utilized different tools to try and understand the nature of mental illnesses. Many have argued whether nature or nurture is responsible for something like autism, schizophrenia, or other kinds of disorders. The truth is that most mental disorders are caused by a combination of both internal and external factors.
There are genetic predispositions to various forms of disabilities, some of which are so drastic that you notice it changes a person as soon as they are developing prenatally. An example of this would be Cerebral Palsy or someone with Downs Syndrome.
Other forms of mental illness can lay dormant for a long time until a sudden event, or environmental condition can trigger a reaction. For instance, someone may not have a schizophrenic break until puberty changed their brain development.
So, what can nutrition do, if it cannot cure everything?
It can give you better odds at reducing symptoms.
Physiology and Psychology
I mentioned before that mental illness is a combination of internal and external factors.
We can’t fix the internal. Never mind the ethical implications of things like gene editing. We have only begun to scratch the surface about genetic code. With DNA being an unlimited self-replicating sequence with variations from strand to strand, there is also no way we would be able to create a perfect human being with no mental or physical weaknesses.
What we can do, however, is give people who are already suffering a chance to make their lives a little easier.
Adequate nutrition cannot substitute for things like medicine and therapy, but it can make your body feel more energetic. In fact, it could even help elevate your mood, no matter what situation you might be in.
This is because our brains depend on serotonin, a chemical in your body responsible for the regulation of moods.
According to an article from Harvard, “Since about 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, and your gastrointestinal tract is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, or neurons, it makes sense that the inner workings of your digestive system don’t just help you digest food, but also guide your emotions.”
I know when I’m tired, hungry, or irritable, I make terrible decisions. I also know that on the days I actually do eat right and take care of myself, I am more likely to handle stressful reactions. It is the same for anybody else.
So, if adequate nutrition does wonders for the average adult, imagine how much of a difference it would make for someone struggling with a mental illness?
Nutrition may not be a cure-all for things like mental illness, but it would be ignorant to discount it entirely either. We need to remember that our bodies are interconnected. That one physiological factor can affect the entire body, as well as our minds. We just need to explore the possibility of a bigger picture. If we look at how nutrition can play in other parts of our lives, we could live healthier lives.