by Elizabeth Millard, Oct. 13, 2020
Oxytocin, a hormone related to feelings of love and bonding, may play a major role in regulating gastrointestinal functions, especially as it pertains to stress, according to the preview of a new study to be published in The Journal of Physiology.
Looking at rats in a controlled laboratory setting, researchers introduced stress through several scenarios, such as by restraining them or forcing them to swim in a container where they couldn't touch the bottom. They then tested the rats' gastric emptying rate—how quickly food leaves the stomach—of a solid meal, along with assessing their hormone levels.
Thirty minutes before the stress tests, researchers injected the rats with a saline solution (control) or a drug designed to trigger the release of oxytocin. They found that oxytocin had a significant effect on gastric emptying. The rats that had been under the most stress had the slowest emptying rate, but when oxytocin was triggered, it increased muscle contractions in the stomach and shortened the delay.
While the results of the study only provide preliminary evidence, they do hold promise for further investigation. The information could lead to new targets for digestive drug development in the future, especially since oxytocin hasn't been investigated as a stress-response hormone in the past.
Reevaluating the Role of Oxytocin
In terms of stress response and gut health, oxytocin has not been thought to be a major player compared to other hormones like cortisol, dopamine, and serotonin.
Serotonin in particular has garnered the most attention. Since it's so strongly connected to mental health, it's often a target in antidepressant medications. About 90% of serotonin is produced in the digestive tract, which then sends signals up to the brain, according to Elaine Hsiao, PhD, research assistant professor of biology and biological engineering at Caltech.
Oxytocin, sometimes called the "love hormone" or the "cuddle hormone" because it's released when people bond socially or physically touch each other, is often highlighted not for its potential role in gut health, but for the birth process. The hormone causes uterine contractions, helps shrink the uterus after delivery, aids in breastfeeding, and promotes mother-child bonding.
A 2007 study in Psychological Science concluded that the higher a woman's oxytocin levels in the first trimester of pregnancy, the more likely she would be to initiate bonding behaviors with a baby, such as singing to the infant.
What This Means for You
You’ve likely experienced the negative effects of stress on your digestion—it can cause all kinds of symptoms like stomach aches, bloating, and nausea.4 Understanding the role of oxytocin on stress and digestion should encourage you to seek out activities that promote the production of this hormone, like working out or spending time with people you love, which in turn could help alleviate the associated gastrointestinal symptoms.
Gut and Brain Health
Highlighting oxytocin's potential role in digestive health adds to evidence about the importance of the gut-brain axis, says Lisa Mosconi, PhD, author of Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power.
"The value of maintaining good gut health for better emotional regulation can't be overstated, because they're so connected," she says, adding that if one is thrown off, the other can be affected, sometimes dramatically. "It's a delicate balance because they're sending messages to each other all the time. But that's also the good news because if you work to improve one, you'll likely see benefits for the other."
The value of maintaining good gut health for better emotional regulation can't be overstated, because they're so connected.
— LISA MOSCONI, PHD
That means taking steps for better brain health—like eating healthy foods and pursuing de-stress strategies—can also be beneficial for your digestion.
Focusing on foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can be useful for better hormone regulation, but another solid strategy is simply to move more. Potentially a lot more.
“Your brain is wired to respond positively to exercise,” says Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD, author of Habits of a Happy Brain. “When you exercise consistently, your brain gets even more efficient at making and releasing the natural chemicals that keep you upbeat, like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin.”
Although the recent study focused on oxytocin specifically, hormones like these don't work independently, says Breuning. Rather, they are released in combinations that are thought to improve functioning—creating streamlined processes related to everything from blood sugar control to stress relief to digestion.
When you exercise consistently, your brain gets even more efficient at making and releasing the natural chemicals that keep you upbeat, like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin.
— LORETTA GRAZIANO, PHD
Exercise can provide a major boost. Other strategies that could help with oxytocin include:
Fact checked by
March 31, 2021
A new study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences has found that the presence of a stress hormone may aggravate nasal allergies.2 The findings may eventually open the door to new treatments for seasonal allergies in the future.
Here’s what to know about the latest research on the relationship between stress and allergies.
In a study published earlier this month, a team of researchers led by scientists in Osaka, Japan, ran a series of experiments to explore the link between increased allergic reactions and the corticotropin-releasing stress hormone (CRH). Stress causes the body to release CRH, which then helps release cortisol, the primary stress hormone that puts the body in fight-or-flight mode. When people are stressed out, it worsens all allergic conditions. Sinus allergies get worse, and if a person is prone to hives or rashes, that gets worse, too.
— PURVI PARIKH, MD
When the researchers added CRH to a nasal polyp organ culture, they noticed that the number of mast cells, which drive allergic reactions, increased substantially in human nasal mucosa (the lining of the nasal cavity). The reaction also stimulated activity in mast cells, which leads to the release of chemicals that trigger allergic reactions.
“Mast cells have receptors where allergens and antibodies can interact. When the allergen and antibodies get connected to the mast cell, the mast cell extrudes chemicals responsible for itchiness, mucus production, or coughing that can go along with allergy symptoms,” explains Dr. Tiffany Owens, an allergist and immunologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Everyone has mast cells, but not everyone’s mast cells interact with antibodies because the allergy antibodies are made by the individual person.”
The researchers also explored the potential of antalarmin, an experimental drug that blocks CRH receptors, as a treatment for allergies. They found that antalarmin helped prevent stress hormones from increasing the number of mast cells and their activity in the nasal mucosa of mice. Still, more research is needed to determine the effect of the drug on humans.
“We don’t have antalarmin as a treatment we use now, but if it helps prevent stress-related inflammation, it could be a potential treatment option far down the road in the future,” says Dr. Owens.
The findings offer confirmation of what some allergists like Dr. Purvi Parikh, spokesperson for the Allergy & Asthma Network, have seen when treating patients with allergies and high levels of stress.
“When people are stressed out, it worsens all allergic conditions. Sinus allergies get worse, and if a person is prone to hives or rashes, that gets worse, too,” she says. “We also notice that people have anaphylactic reactions even more so when they are under stress, either physical or mental.”
Earlier Research on Stress and Allergies
This new research builds upon earlier studies on the relationship between stress and allergies.
A 2013 study published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology found that people who had persistent emotional stress tended to have a higher frequency of allergy flares. However, it did not find that cortisol was associated with allergy symptoms.
It’s hopeful that’s this is not just a pharmaceutical study focused on what drug we can sell you to make this better.
— TIFFANY OWENS, MD
And a randomized controlled trial from 2009 showed that stress and anxiety could worsen and prolong symptoms of allergic rhinitis, a group of nasal symptoms (like sneezing and itchy, watery eyes) that occur when you inhale something you’re allergic to. The latest study helps advance scientific understanding of how a particular stress hormone can lead to an allergic reaction.
“This continues to intrigue us as physicians and as patients, to think about our bodies as this complex machinery interacting with our internal and external environments, and there are many factors involved,” says Dr. Owens. “It’s hopeful that’s this is not just a pharmaceutical study focused on what drug we can sell you to make this better.”
Coping With Allergies
If allergies make you miserable in the spring (or any time of year), consider working with an allergist to control your symptoms. They may recommend medications to ease your symptoms and/or allergy shots (immunotherapy) to build your tolerance to certain allergens, such as pollen. While the research on stress and allergies is promising, experts say that reducing stress probably isn’t enough to provide relief from allergy symptoms.
“I want to stress that this is not a replacement for traditional therapies,” says Dr. Parikh. “Managing stress should be done together with other treatments. Sometimes people think, ‘I’ll do yoga and not take my medications,’ but you should do both if you need them.“
I want to stress that this is not a replacement for traditional therapies. Managing stress should be done together with other treatments.
— PURVI PARIKH, MD
The findings on the latest study are just further evidence that stress reduction should be incorporated into a broader healthy lifestyle routine — not only for people with allergies, but for everyone, says Dr. Owens.
“I do recommend stress reduction, not so much if someone came in and said they have itchy eyes and a runny nose, but more in terms of general health and wellness,” she says. “This is just another encouragement to take care of ourselves, pay attention to what our bodies are telling us, and do the least amount of detriment. We can do some really good things for ourselves by taking time to rest and pay attention to healthy habits.”
What This Means For You
High stress levels can damage your physical and mental health. Now, new research shows that it may also aggravate symptoms of seasonal allergies, which affect up to 60 million people in the U.S. each year.
While experts say that stress reduction is not a substitute for traditional allergy treatment, it can be beneficial to incorporate it into an overall healthy lifestyle routine that may, in turn, improve your symptoms. If your allergies are acting up, get in touch with an allergist to see if medications or immunotherapy can help.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a favorite mindfulness technique to improve body awareness and help tackle feelings of anxiety and depression. Use this guide to try it out!
If you’re stressed out, anxious or feeling lonely, you are not alone.
From: Katie Anderson
By Alex Smith, KCUR JUNE 24, 2020
The Trevor Project’s 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health paints a stark picture of pervasive mental distress among America’s queer youth.
July 15, 2020, 11:44 AM CDT
By Tim Fitzsimons
Two in 5 LGBTQ youth in the United States have "seriously considered" suicide in the past year, a sobering survey released Wednesday said, showing what one expert called the "devastating mental health consequences" of society's failure to create a safer and more affirming environment for America's queer youth.
The 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health by The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth crisis intervention and suicide prevention organization, paints a stark picture of pervasive mental distress among America’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth, with a majority reporting symptoms consistent with generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder.
The survey, the largest of its kind, polled 40,000 LGBTQ people between ages 13 and 24 and found that 68 percent of the respondents reported symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, 55 percent reported symptoms of major depressive disorder and 48 percent reported engaging in self-harm. In addition, 40 percent say they have “seriously considered” attempting suicide in the past year.
In a clinical mental health setting, survey responses like these would lead to follow-up screenings, according to Amy Green, the study lead and director of research at The Trevor Project.
“Our physicians, pediatricians and mental health providers need to be screening youth,” she said, urging professionals to take a closer look at sexuality and gender issues in youth mental health settings.
Dr. Jack Turban, a fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine, where he researches the mental health of transgender youth, said the findings "highlight that our society has a long way to go to create a safer and more affirming environment for LGBTQ youth.”
“We once again see the devastating mental health consequences of our failures," he said in an email.
As the survey’s own data show, many LGBTQ youth are not getting screened for the mental health issues they report. About half of the respondents say they want but could not get mental health care in the past year, with affordability the “strongest barrier to receiving mental health care."
The risks associated with unmet mental health care needs are stark. Overall, suicide is the second leading cause of death for American adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and LGBTQ youth are at a higher risk of suicide than straight and cisgender youth. Fifteen percent of the respondents attempted suicide in the past year, the survey found.
“If we take a step back and look at minority stress model, that says that experiences of rejection, discrimination and victimization are the primary causal mechanisms that cause that ideation,” Green said, adding that it’s not who they are, “but how they are treated.”
In the survey, LGBTQ youth who reported facing greater rejection, violence and discrimination also reported higher rates of suicide attempts.
For transgender and nonbinary youth, having their identity and pronouns respected by “all or most” people was associated with a greatly reduced risk of a suicide attempt.
Even so, respect is still rare: Just 20 percent of trans and nonbinary youth said their gender identity is respected by “all or most” people in their lives.
LGBTQ youth in the survey identified with more than 100 different combinations of terms to describe their gender identity.
Turban said rejection “takes an insidious toll and plants the seed for mental health problems.”
“We can’t underestimate the broad adverse health effects caused by societal discrimination against LGBTQ people, and youth in particular,” he said. “Things like rejection from family and conversion therapy lead to a range of adverse mental health problems by telling these young people that something they can’t change about themselves makes them ‘bad’ or ‘wrong.’”
Green said understanding that rejection can lead to worse mental health outcomes can also illuminate a path forward.
While many LGBTQ youth face discrimination, the vast majority (86 percent) reported having a rock — at least one person who strongly supports them as an LGBTQ person — and those who have a rock also report lower rates of suicide attempts overall.
“The simple act of acceptance and letting kids express their identity can be incredibly powerful,” Green said.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
If you are an LGBTQ young person in crisis, feeling suicidal or in need of a safe and judgment-free place to talk, call the Trevor Lifeline now at 1-866-488-7386.
Mental Health America Releases May 2020 Screening Data; 88,000 Have Anxiety Or Depression, And Results Point To Possible Epidemic Of Suicidal Ideation
TUESDAY, JUNE 2, 2020
Alexandria, VA - More than 88,000 additional people have developed anxiety or depression as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new data released today by Mental Health America (MHA) from its online screening program.
In addition, more than 21,000 depression screeners reported thinking of suicide or self-harm on more than half the days – a number that suggests a coming wave of mental impacts that could be of epidemic proportions.
In May 2020, more than 211,000 people took a free, anonymous online mental health screen at www.mhascreening.org. The results from those screenings continued the upward trends in mental health conditions observed by MHA – and confirmed by recent analysis from the U.S. Census Bureau – since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our May screening numbers were unprecedented,” commented MHA President and CEO Paul Gionfriddo. “And what is most troubling,” he added, “is that the numbers – consistent with the numbers from the U.S. Government’s Census Bureau - demonstrate not only that there is not yet any relief from the mental health impacts of the pandemic, but that the impacts actually seem to be spreading and accelerating.”
Gionfriddo also emphasized on the suicidal/self-harm ideation numbers. “These numbers are just so striking. When you consider that a total 45,000 to 50,000 Americans die by suicide every year and nearly half that number reported suicidal or self-harm thinking in just May alone, this has to be a wake-up call to policymakers to act now to prevent this,” he said.
“There are three options immediately available to federal policymakers – pass the 988 legislation already approved by the Senate, pass the funding for the mental health block grants and other safety net mental health providers and services already approved by the House, and work together to make mental health screening the norm for the entire population to find new cases of mental illnesses as soon as they emerge.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic:
· There have been at least 88,405 additional positive depression and anxiety screening results over what had been expected (using November 2019-January 2020 average as a baseline).
· There have been 54,093 additional moderate to severe depression and more than 34,312 additional moderate to severe anxiety screening results from late February through the end of May.
· The per day number of anxiety screenings completed in May was 370% higher than in January, before coronavirus stress began. The per day number of depression screens was 394% higher in May than in January.
· These impacts on mental health are more pronounced in young people (<25): roughly 9 in 10 are screening with moderate-to-severe depression, and 8 in 10 are screening with moderate-to-severe anxiety.
· “Loneliness and isolation” is cited by the greatest percent of moderate to severe depression (73%) and anxiety (62%) screeners as contributing to mental health problems “right now.”
· In May 2020, 21,165 depression screeners reported thinking of suicide or self-harm on more than half of days to nearly every day, with 11,894 reporting these thoughts nearly every day.
· Special populations are also experiencing high anxiety and depression, including LGBTQ, caregivers, students, veterans/active duty, and people with chronic health conditions.
· This isn’t just affecting people with anxiety and depression, but other mental health conditions, too. Among all psychosis screeners in May, more than 16,000 were at risk of psychosis, and the percentage at risk (73%) also increased.
MHA has had an online screening program since 2014. People who come to the website can screen anonymously and for free, using the same evidence-based mental health screening tools that are used by most clinicians. Over five million people have taken a mental health screen in the last 5 years. More than 300,000 took an anxiety screening in 2018 and 2019 alone. Most people who take a screen have never been diagnosed with a mental health condition.
MHA will continue to monitor its screening data and report out details in the coming weeks and months. To take a mental health screen, visit www.mhascreening.org. MHA offers customized resources to everyone who takes a mental health screen, based on the screen taken, severity of the result, age of the individual, and other factors.
COVID-19 and Mental Health: What We Are Learning from www.mhascreening.org
Dr. Giuseppe (Bepi) Raviola, director of mental health at Partners In Health, put together a list of key practices to maintain good mental and emotional health for those asked to stay at home in efforts to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.
As we enter this new and unprecedented phase of the pandemic, we are inundated with guidelines about how to keep ourselves and our families healthy and virus-free. Yet a key item on the list—social distancing—poses unprecedented challenges to our mental and emotional well being, and requires consideration. The risk may be especially high for our children, who are suddenly cut off from school and friends.
How do we as individuals and parents cope without driving ourselves and each other crazy?
It’s a question that mental health professionals such as myself are being asked multiple times a day and that urgently needs addressing. This introduction and list was written with the help of people with whom I work, trying to gain steady emotional footing in this strange new scenario we together are in:
Top 10 Practices:
1) Social distancing does not mean emotional distancing; use technology to connect widely;
2) Clear routines and schedule, seven days a week, at home—don’t go overboard;
3) Exercise and physical activity, daily if possible;
4) Learning and intellectual engagement—books, reading, limited internet;
5) Positive family time—working to counter negativity;
6) Alone time, outside if possible, but inside too; but remember, don’t isolate;
7) Focused meditation and relaxation;
8) Remember the things that you really enjoy doing, that you can do in this situation, and find a way to do them;
9) Limit exposure to TV and internet news; choose small windows and then find ways to cleanse yourself of it;
10) Bathe daily, if possible, to reinforce the feeling of cleanliness.
*Things will get better eventually, and back to normal; the world is not collapsing (don’t go “catastrophic”).
*Most people are good, and people are going to persevere and help each other.
*You’re tough, you’ve overcome challenges before; this is a new one.
*This is a particularly strange and unprecedented situation; humor helps once in a while.
*If having obsessive or compulsive thoughts related to the virus, or the broader uncertainty, wash your hands once, and then remind yourself that anxiety is normal in this scenario. But the mind also can also play tricks on us. Try to breathe and move the internal discussion on.
*Live in the moment, think about today, less about the next three days, even less about next week; limit thinking about the next few months or years, for now.
What Is the Best Diet for Mental Health?
New research is exploring the connection between the foods we eat and our feelings of depression, anxiety, and happiness.
BY KIRA M. NEWMAN | SEPTEMBER 18, 2019
Should you eat an apple—or a bag of Oreos? Go to McDonald’s—or the vegetarian restaurant on the corner?
When we make these everyday food choices, many of us think first of our physical health and appearance. But there’s another factor we may want to consider in picking foods: their impact on our mental health.
A growing body of research is discovering that food doesn’t just affect our waistline but also our moods, emotions, and even longer-term conditions like depression. Which makes sense, after all. Our brains are physical entities, running on the energy that we put into our bodies, affected by shifts in our hormones, blood sugar levels, and many other biological processes.
Although there are many unanswered questions, the research to date can give us some guidance when we’re hunting for an afternoon snack. What we know so far can be summed up, more or less, as this: Whole-food diets heavy on the fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed protein can lift our moods and protect us from depression, while too much junk food and sugar may put our mental health at risk.
One-third of adults in America eat fast food on a given day. Many of us see French fries and chocolate cake as treats to cheer us up when we’re feeling down. But perhaps our perspective on food needs an update. With a few simple dietary changes, you might be able to improve both your mind and your mood.
Can your diet protect you from depression?
A paper published this year in Psychosomatic Medicine offers one of the most up-to-date snapshots of diet and mental health—specifically, how diet might play a role in depression.
The research team scoured academic journals for experiments that had asked people to change their diets and had measured the effects. In all, they found 16 studies with nearly 46,000 participants from the United States, Australia, and Europe, ranging from ages 21 to 85.
The experiments were quite diverse, prescribing a variety of diets to boost nutrient intake, reduce fat intake, or encourage weight loss. One group went on a vegan diet, while others restricted calories; many people loaded up on fruits and vegetables while avoiding meat and processed foods. Some people attended nutrition classes together, while others got personalized counseling or simply took home a set of guidelines. They followed the diet for anywhere from a couple weeks to a few years.
The results? Overall, adopting a healthier diet did lead to reduced symptoms of depression—less hopelessness, trouble sleeping, and disconnection from others—compared to engaging in other self-improvement activities or going about life as usual.
“Including more non-processed foods, more whole foods—fruits, vegetables—is very beneficial in terms of your psychological well-being, particularly mood,” says Joseph Firth, the lead author of the paper and a research fellow at Western Sydney University.
But the results got more interesting when the researchers started to dig into the details, to see for whom and under what conditions our diet might keep the bad feelings at bay.
Who benefits most from a healthy diet?
First off, diet programs tended to work better for women. Why? Besides differences in hormones and metabolism, Firth conjectured, women seem to be in a better position to benefit. They’re more likely to be depressed, and, he says, they might have more discipline at following diets than men.
Also, the diet programs worked better if a dietary professional administered them—probably because the recommendations were sounder and the participants (believing in the dietitian’s authority) were more apt to follow them, Firth says. An earlier review of diet studies came to a similar conclusion.
One of the strongest studies in the collection suggested that diet could help people who were right in the midst of a major depressive episode. Researchers recruited 67 depressed people with poor diets, half of whom were instructed to follow a healthy, Mediterranean-style diet favoring whole grains, fruit and vegetables, legumes, low-fat dairy, nuts, fish, lean red meat, chicken, eggs, and olive oil while reducing sweets, refined grains, fried and fast food, processed meats, and sugary drinks. Across 12 weeks, they attended seven sessions with a dietitian who helped them set diet goals and stay motivated; they also received recipes, meal plans, and a hamper of food.
The other half attended sessions on a similar schedule. But rather than getting diet advice, they simply spent time with a research assistant who was trained to be supportive of them—talking about topics they were interested in, like sports and hobbies, or playing games with them for an hour.
Despite how beneficial social interaction is, the diet group fared better than the social support group. After 12 weeks, they had reduced their depression and anxiety more—and they were about four times more likely to experience a remission from their depression. The more they improved their diet, the more their depression lifted.
What about anxiety? In that particular study, anxiety did go down—but on average, across all 16 studies, healthier diets didn’t seem to make people less anxious. That actually strengthens the case that diet can directly affect depression, says Firth. If the results were simply due to people feeling proud and accomplished with their new healthy habits, you would expect them to feel better all around, including less anxious. The fact that only their symptoms of depression shifted means that something deeper may be going on.
What could that be? We don’t know for sure yet, but there are a variety of biological processes that seem to be both influenced by diet and involved in mental health. It’s possible that certain diets may increase inflammation and oxidative stress, and disrupt our mitochondrial function and neuron production, in ways that could put us at risk for psychological problems. Our gut microbiome—the colony of microorganisms in our intestines that is increasingly being studied as a contributor to mental health—may interact with many of these processes.
Also, says Firth, following a diet can bring us a sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy, as well as potential weight loss—which can influence our minds, too.
But there are still a lot of unknowns. As Professor Almudena Sanchez-Villegas of the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria points out, the findings from diet experiments are not consistent. Many of the diet programs in Firth’s review didn’t help alleviate depression, nor did a newer one that also included multivitamins. Researchers have much more to explore.
Can your diet make you happy?
It’s one thing to say that our diet might protect us from depression and other mental health issues. But could the foods we eat actually move the needle toward more positive emotions and happiness?
In a 2017 experiment published in PLoS ONE, researchers recruited 171 young adults with a diet low in fruits and vegetables, which meant three or fewer servings per day. These 18 to 25 year olds were split into groups: One got a basket of carrots, apples, and kiwi or oranges and was told to eat an extra serving of fruit and an extra serving of vegetables per day; another didn’t change what they ate.
Every day for two weeks, they answered questions about their feelings, mood, and happiness. At the beginning and the end of the experiment, they also filled out surveys about their anxiety and depression.
The diet group only managed to add one extra serving of fruit and vegetables to their daily diet. But that made a difference: Compared to everyone else, they had more energy, curiosity, creativity, and motivation; and they felt more engaged and purposeful in their lives overall—a greater sense of flourishing.
Surprisingly, though, the diet didn’t seem to change their mood or their feelings of depression and anxiety. That might be because the experiment was so short, the authors believe; while diet can give us a positive boost pretty quickly, it’s possible that mental health problems take longer to show up.
“The accumulation of factors such as low vitality, reduced motivation, and poorer socio-emotional flourishing may precipitate the development of psychological ill-being over time,” write researcher Tamlin S. Conner and her colleagues.
Similarly, in a short pilot study from 2011, a Mediterranean diet seemed to boost people’s feelings of contentment—but didn’t improve their depression or anxiety.
Twenty-five women were surveyed on their feelings of depression, anxiety, anger, calm, and contentment. Some continued eating as usual for 10 days, while the rest adopted a Mediterranean diet (this time with no red meat). After another round of surveys, the researchers found that the women on the Mediterranean diet felt more content. “The nutrients consumed in everyday diets are important for individuals’ mood,” write Laura McMillan and her colleagues.
Of course, this was a very small study—and the women may have simply felt satisfied about doing something good for their health. Indeed, in a few other studies, a healthy diet didn’t make people happier. For example, following a Mediterranean diet for 12 weeks didn’t seem to boost people’s mood, well-being, or sense of self-efficacy compared to receiving social support.
Despite how catchy it sounds, it might be too early to say that any particular diet is going to bring us happiness.
Eating for well-being
So, how should all this research inform our grocery list?
Most researchers are only willing to say that diet does seem to influence our mental health in some way, although they’re not sure exactly how. “There’s no real evidence to suggest that one diet works better than another,” says Firth.
However, the big picture is reasonably clear: Try to get enough fruits and vegetables—and avoid junk food.
Supporting that perspective, one paper reviewed the results of another 16 studies and found no differences between two relatively healthy diets. People who were eating a typical Western diet of fast food, salty snacks, desserts, and soft drinks became more depressed over time. But eating a classic healthy diet high in fruit and vegetables, seafood, and whole grains or a more Mediterranean diet—which includes lots of olive oil and more legumes, meat, dairy, and alcohol—both seemed to protect against depression.
Since many of the research findings are stronger for women, Firth does have one further tip. “If you’re female, then you will benefit from adopting a healthier diet in general and you don’t need to worry about what type of specific diet you’re adopting,” he says. “If you’re a man and you’re not overweight, probably don’t bother.”
In other words, at least as far as our mental health goes, we can stop obsessing about having a perfectly consistent diet—or whether we should go paleo or keto—and instead focus on cultivating healthy but sustainable eating habits.
That’s the area where Firth wants to see more research, too, to figure out how to help people make lifestyle changes that last.
“It’s more important to actually stick to any healthy diet than it is to try and go for some aspirational perfect one that’s ultimately unfeasible or disgusting for you to stick to,” he says.
Mind Matters is a private practice dedicated to providing the best mental health, counseling, and wellness services to those in Lincoln and its surrounding communities.
Proudly part of the Blue Cross Blue Shield network
Varies by Provider
Call, email or text to schedule.