It’s long been known that the consumption of certain nutrients can change the levels of brain chemicals that transmit messages between nerve cells. These neurotransmitters regulate a wide variety of brain activities and can affect both mood and performance. Have you ever heard of nutritional psychology?
Some effects are obvious. For example, when your kids have had a bit too much sugar and are bouncing off the walls, metaphorically speaking. Or if you’re sensitive to caffeine and it triggers a rapid heartbeat or anxiety. But some connections are less obvious, like nutritional deficiencies that affect your ability to focus or to sleep, or foods that promote inflammation or contribute to depression.
And as the connection between the health of our gut micro-biome and our mental health becomes an increasing focus of research, a new field is emerging to put findings into practice: enter nutritional psychology. This examines the relationship between food and our internal experience, illuminating the bio-physiological mechanisms, influenced by our nutrient intakes that underlie mood and behavior.
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In considering this information, we start with the idea that we are all unique, and that there is no one way that applies to everyone. Traditionally doctors have been trained to be experts in highly specific areas. For example, when one’s ear hurts, they go to an ear, nose and throat specialist. Nutritional psychologists are broadening that notion by looking at human health through a systemic lens, as opposed to making diagnoses based on individual parts. With the assistance of nutritional psychologists, health coaches and nutritionists, you can begin to explore the connection between what you eat and how it makes you feel.
A good place to start is to keep a food/mood diary, noting some of the following:
- Make a note of everything you eat during the day and how you felt afterwards;
- Monitor your mood, energy, quality of sleep, your performance (physical and mental). Experiment. Some of the main triggers to watch include alcohol, sugar, coffee and sensitivities to gluten and milk;
- Try adding new types of fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods to your diet. Talk to your health care professional for recommendations regarding supplements.
Dietary supplements a nutritional psychologist might recommend
There are countless nutrients and compounds that new research suggests may support mood. Do some research on the mood-boosting and stress resilient effect of adaptogens like maca, ashwagandha and tulsi along with mushrooms like Reishi, cordyceps, Lion’s Mane and chaga.
Some of the data to research looks at antidepressant nutrients, which include folate, iron, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DHA), magnesium, potassium, selenium, thiamine, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin C, and zinc.
Finally, a great resource for more information about types of foods is AFS, the Antidepressant Food Score, which includes dark leafy vegetables, organ meat, fresh herbs, fish, nuts, seeds and fermented foods.
What is clear is that moving forward, nutritional psychology offers additional resources to traditional psychological treatments and interventions for many mental health issues. For more in-depth information, check out this 2019 story from The Paper Grown’s Britany Rishler Engler.