In these challenging times, your social media feed may be full of people attempting sourdough starters or generally allowing their inner chef out to play as a means of coping with sheltering in place. As countries are in different stages of opening up or reverting to lockdown, looking at how food impacts our mood is growing. Stress, anxiety, and insomnia are hallmarks of coping in the era of COVID-19. Could what you eat also contribute to your mood?
A new paper by Joseph Firth from the University of Manchester published in the British Medical Journal examines how diet and nutrition may impact mental wellbeing. In recent years looking at the relationship between food and mood has garnered increased interest. Since depression is a leading cause of disability in most countries could dietary patterns contribute? Some data suggest following a Mediterranean nutritional pattern is associated with a reduced risk of depression. Diet is difficult to study, and a standard measure is using food recall questionnaires, as humans, we often are notoriously bad at recalling what we ate accurately.
Further complexity lies in moments when we “stress eat” to cope with how we are feeling, causality is challenging to attribute, does food lead to mood? Or does mood lead to the consumption of certain foods? It is also challenging to study the impacts of dietary patterns and mental illness as often those most impacted will also have to deal with financial aspects of mental illness like unemployment and underemployment, which impedes the ability to fund healthier dietary patterns.
The author points to studies that look at macronutrients and mood- refined carbohydrates, for example, can increase the risk for obesity and diabetes. Clinical studies have shown that diets high in refined carbs increase depressive symptoms in healthy volunteers studied in lab settings. Manipulating the glycemic load in meals suggests compensatory mechanisms kick in to help the body restore balance. This process can also involve our stress response hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and glucagon. Research also points to the pro-inflammatory nature of diets high in refined carbs, which negatively impacts the immune system. More research is needed, but early signs point to connections and, as we consider our lockdown diets, the longer-term impacts are troubling for mental and physical health.
Firth posits mechanisms that may be at play regarding food and mood – in the diagram below; we can see a complex interplay between how a good quality diet impacts the immune system, the microbiome, and physical health. The microbiome is a newer and fascinating research area that will help us better understand how the gut-brain axis communicates. Early studies in rodents show emotion like behavior changes as the gut microbiome changes. In humans, people with major depressive disorder demonstrate alterations in the microbiome. The trillions of bacteria that live in our guts will have more to say about food and its connection to mental and physical health in the years to come.
As we continue to navigate and illuminate the complex pathways by which food impacts health, I am reminded of the quote, “let food be thy medicine” by Hippocrates, which remains as relevant as ever for our physical and mental health. Also worth thinking about your food intake patterns in the time of COVID-19, is there anything to alter to support your own mental and physical health?
Thanks for reading – Trina
(Opinions are my own)
Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing? BMJ 2020; 369 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m2382 (Published 29 June 2020) BMJ 2020;369:m2382