The effect of diet on mental health

2014-07-02 00:00

JULY is Mental Health Awareness month, and today we take a look at the role that nutrition plays in warding off mental disorders. The type of diet that we follow can have a dramatic influence on brain health and mental function. Eating well and exercising regularly can help to ward off depression, dementia and mood disorders, as well as enhance our memory and learning ability.

Specialised cells called neurons transmit information in the form of signals to and from the brain. They form an intricate network throughout the body and rely on accurately transferring signals to neighbouring neurons. Spaces between the neurons are called synapses and these allow for accurate transfer of signals from one neuron to the next in the chain. Much memory and learning occurs at the synapses, and these need to stay healthy to avoid a “broken telephone” transfer of messages. A number of nutrients are involved in maintaining healthy neurons and synapses, allowing for good mental function and cognitive ability.

Omega-3 fatty acids

These essential fatty acids are found in salmon, trout, pilchards, sardines, walnuts and flaxseed. They are termed “essential” as they cannot be made by the body, and need to be taken in through dietary sources. They provide many benefits, ranging from improving learning and memory to helping ward off mental disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and dementia.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for normal brain function, and help to maintain healthy synapses between neurons. If the dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids is inadequate, a number of mental disorders are more prevalent (including attention-deficit disorder, dyslexia, dementia, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia).

Numerous studies have shown that children who consume increased amounts of omega-3 fatty acids achieve better school performance (particularly in reading and in spelling), and display fewer behavioural problems. In an Australian study, 396 children between the ages of six and 12 were given a nutritional drink containing omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients (iron, zinc, folic acid and vitamins A, B6, B12 and C). When compared with a control group who did not receive the drink, these children showed better verbal intelligence, learning and memory results after six months and one year.

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is the omega-3 fatty acid that is found in greatest abundance in the brain’s cell membranes. It is most abundant in salmon and other dark, fatty fish such as readily available sardines and pilchards. This type of fish should be eaten at least three times per week, otherwise a supplement is required. When choosing a supplement, do not make the decision on apparent cost. Rather choose a good product that has the highest level of DHA and its partner EPA. These are the main active ingredients, and are often found in minuscule (and ineffective) amounts in the cheaper products.

Folic acid

Folic acid is found in various foods, including spinach and dark, leafy vegetables, orange juice and yeast. Adequate levels of folic acid are essential for brain function. Folate deficiency can lead to varied disorders such as depression and cognitive impairment.

Folic-acid supplementation has been shown to be effective in preventing age-related cognitive decline and dementia. It has also been found to enhance the effects of antidepressants. Folic acid may be taken on its own or in combination with a number of B vitamins that also achieve beneficial results.

Providing the body with these and other essential nutrients through the food we eat is always the gold standard. The combined effect of all nutrients and active components in a food is always far superior to supplements.

Cut the junk

and up the vegetables

Junk food and fast food cause the brain’s synapses to weaken and be less effective in transferring information between neurons. Conversely, the increased intake of foods rich in antioxidants, such as brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, plays a protective role in optimising cognitive function and brain health.

Research clearly points out that there is no substitute for a healthy diet, regular exercise and a good night’s sleep in reducing the risk of mental illness and improving treatment outcomes.

• Sharon Hultzer is a consulting dietitian. She can be reached at eat

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