Better diet may aid mental health issues

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People often ask me how I decide what to write about each week. The answer is as varied as the subjects that I write about, but I want to tell you about choosing this week’s topic. Robin Hanson, my liaison at Bonner General Health, told me that Audrey Buck, a registered licensed dietitian and certified diabetes educator at BGH, is going to give a talk at a NAMI Far North meeting this month.

NAMI stands for National Alliance on Mental Illness. People suffering from mental illnesses and/or their families come to support one another on the third Wednesday of each month from 5:30 to 8 p.m. The next meeting will be held at the VFW Hall, 1325 Pine St., Sandpoint on Sept. 18, and that’s when Buck will be speaking.

I know Buck from her involvement with diabetes education and the Medicare weight-loss program. But, mental health? I didn’t connect the dots until I did a little online search and found that much is written about mental health and nutrition.

In an article published in Psychiatric Times, they say, “Science is showing us that a healthy diet may have an impact on mental health. The impact that food has on mood and other aspects of mental illness is being researched. Nutritional psychiatry is developing into a real opportunity for clinical intervention for patients who suffer from depression and anxiety.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that half of all Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime.

“Mental illnesses, such as depression, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the United States for those aged 18-33 years old, and adults living with serious mental illness die on average 25 years earlier than others,” CDC says.

“It’s not just a problem for adults,” WebMD says. “Half of all long-term mental disorders start by age 14. Today, childhood mental illness affects more than 17 million kids in the U.S.”

WebMD’s article states that there have been studies that have shown the risk of depression increases about 80 percent in children who have the lowest-quality diet (commonly referred to as Western diet) compared to children who eat a higher-quality, whole foods diet. They say that the risk of attention-deficit disorder doubles.

It has also been documented that there’s a possibility that food allergies may play a role in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Each article that I found was quick to point out that improving diet won’t necessarily replace medications and other treatments.

Good nutrition is crucial for brain development. “When we eat real food that nourishes us, it becomes the protein-building blocks, enzymes, brain tissue, and neurotransmitters that transfer information and signals between various parts of the brain and body,” Web MD says.

There’s a substantial connection between your gut and your brain. A high-quality diet fills your gut with healthy bacteria that in turn rids it of harmful germs and improves your immune system, rendering you able to fend off inflammation.

“Some gut germs even help make brain-powering B vitamins,” WebMD says. “A high-fat or high-sugar diet is bad for gut health and, therefore, your brain. Some research hints that a high-sugar diet worsens schizophrenia symptoms, too.”

The trick is to choose foods that pack a lot of nutrients without adding a lot of calories. Nutrients that might help treat or prevent mental illness include B vitamins, iron, omega-3s, and zinc.

“People with low B12 levels have more brain inflammation and higher rates of depression and dementia. Falling short on folate has long been linked to low moods. Too little iron in the blood has been linked to depression. Omega-3s improve thinking and memory and, possibly mood while zinc helps control the body’s response to stress. Low levels can cause depression,” WebMD explains.

Fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt with live active cultures may reduce anxiety, stress, and depression. Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel provide omega-3s, vitamin B12, zinc selenium, and other brain boosters. And, you’ll like this news, “dark chocolate has antioxidants which increase blood flow to the brain, aiding mood and memory.”

Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at

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