Antidepressants in the fridge? Science studies how diet affects mental health


Food is not medicine, but balanced nutrition can reduce the likelihood of suffering from illnesses such as anxiety and depression.

Reclining on the couch, any man describes a feeling of anxiety that grips him every day. He describes her as if she were a hungry guest who does not want to leave, an unwanted visit that forces him to put more and more appetizers on the table, and it is not just a metaphor. He also talks about other topics and reports passing sadness states that he can not easily explain. Suddenly, the psychiatrist removes his glasses, leaves them slowly on the accessory table and asks his patient a strange question … “What’s inside his fridge?” He says. The man’s gaze reveals an understandable strangeness in the direction the interrogation has taken, but the question of the nutritional quality of food seems not to be trivial when it comes to mental health.

Scientists have known for decades the benefits of proper diet and nutrition in the development of cardiovascular, digestive and endocrine diseases. And not only doctors are aware that health enters through the mouth; the information addressed to ordinary mortals to take care of their diet is anything but scarce. The situation is very different in the field of psychiatry, although in recent years an increasing number of research points out that nutrition not only plays a crucial role in our physical health but also in our mental health. If one takes into account that depression is one of the diseases that have been related to the nutritional quality of the diet, the idea that happiness is on the plate is not so outlandish.

Inflammation, a link between diet and disease

It is obvious that emotions and food are related; We have all suffered a strong push to the pantry at times of anxiety, and the therapy to overcome the moments of slump based on ice cream is a classic in films that revolve around the lack of love The evidence is much more elusive from an optical empirical, but the scientific community has begun to wonder why mental illness is not treated also from the nutritional perspective, and experts have found a very interesting paradox.

“Psychiatric diseases, such as depression or schizophrenia, are not very different from diabetes if you look at the changes that occur in the body at a molecular level.” People with diabetes and depression are in a state of inflammation systemic, mild but chronic, “says the professor of psychiatry and medical psychology at the University of Valencia and member of the executive committee of the International Society for Research in Nutritional Psychiatry Vicent Balanzá. “Assuming this, interventions with diet and nutrition could be effective in correcting inflammation also in psychiatric diseases and, in general, to improve the prognosis of the people who suffer them.” After all, the brain-mind division and body has no scientific basis, “adds the researcher of the Center for Biomedical Research in Mental Health Network.

That is why doctors and researchers from all over the world have begun to work synergistically to find out more about the relationships between nutrients and the mind, and have encompassed the knowledge acquired under the term nutritional psychiatry. One of the greatest exponents of the emerging discipline, the farmer and psychiatrist at Columbia University, in New York (USA), Drew Ramsey, defends that a deficient diet is one of the biggest factors that contribute to depression. In this sense, one of the most recent meta-analyzes published on the effects of nutrition on mental health, in which scientists from all over the world participated (including a couple of Spanish research groups), found that “adhering to A healthy diet, particularly a traditional Mediterranean diet, or avoiding a pro-inflammatory diet seems to confer some protection against depression in observational studies.This provides a reasonable evidence base for evaluating the role of dietary interventions in preventing depression, “states the text.

“The growing field of nutritional psychiatry evidences many consequences and correlations between what we eat and the way we feel and how we behave.It is an issue that is gaining strength”, defends the psychiatrist specialist in disorders of addictions and medicine legal Paula Vernimmen. But can we improve our mental health by changing our diet? Is there food that makes us happy and vice versa?

Do not look for a miracle food, the important thing is the diet

Balanzá warns that the relationship between nutrients and depression is very complex, and that it is not as direct as it may seem. Among other things, because in the development of mental illness there are many factors besides this. “For example, genetic differences between individuals make nutritional deficits more or less affect the risk of getting sick, and in recent years we have learned that the most important for mental health is the dietary pattern, diet, more than a food or a specific nutrient What matters to our brain is the diversity and harmony between them, the diet is like an orchestra that can emit beautiful music, health, if we cultivate it “, explains the researcher.

And if the Mediterranean can have therapeutic effects on depression, could an inadequate diet worsen its symptoms? The answer is yes, especially in the case of “hypercaloric diets but poor in nutrients, based on ultraprocessed products and fast food”, confirms Balanzá. A healthy diet, like the Mediterranean one, “provides key nutrients for the brain, such as various minerals, vitamins, essential amino acids and essential fatty acids.” They are important because they have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects, which help to better combat the negative consequences of But the lack of essential nutrients has repercussions for the brain of people in general, so a deficit of some vitamins, such as folate or vitamin B12, has been linked to a depressed mood and also to cognitive deterioration. “, continues the expert.

In fact, in a 2015 paper published in BMC Medicine scientists observed that a lower intake of nutrient-dense foods and a greater intake of unhealthy food is associated with lower left hippocampal volume. “This was the first demonstration in humans that the quality of the diet can affect brain structures,” says Balanza.

Lower the risk of depression by up to 35%

According to Dr. Vernimmen, this field of research is providing promising findings. For example, it is known that “people who follow diets rich in vegetables, fruits, raw grains, fish and shellfish, which contain low amounts of lean meats and dairy products, have a risk of depression of 25% to 35% more In addition, poor hydration, alcohol, caffeine consumption and smoking can precipitate or simulate anxiety symptoms. ” The expert adds that high sugar peaks “can mimic from an anxiety crisis to a panic attack.” Finally, “long periods of fasting, where hypoglycaemic states are generated -characterized by the decrease in blood sugar levels- can simulate symptoms of depression”.

But although all these discoveries are, without doubt, exciting, we must take them with an academic rigor as demonstrated by Balanza, who takes this new trend with moderate optimism. “It is not enough to assume that vitamins or probiotics favor mental health because they are natural and healthy.In clinical trials it is necessary to demand the same methodological rigor that is demanded of drugs.A very important message for citizens is that improving diet by itself it will not cure mental disorders and knowing this is to be vaccinated against the promises of charlatans and pseudosciences. ”

Soon we will know more. Since 2013 a group of about 300 professional psychiatrists, epidemiologists, nutritionists, dieticians, psychologists and basic researchers meet annually to generate and disseminate scientific knowledge. This year they will do it in London to speak, precisely, of nutritional psychiatry. It will be a good opportunity to take the pulse of this discipline that is already occupying spaces and generating a new narrative about mental health.

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