The importance of diet to mental health is profound. A healthy diet is one of the best ways to protect your brain from the changes that happen as a normal part of living.
With our brains tucked away safely and soundly in the walls of our skull, it’s easy to forget that like the rest of our bodies, there are certain things it needs from us to keep giving us the best it has to give. Our brain drives everything we do, so it’s important to understand what we can do to keep it functioning well.
We have a stone-age brain. Our world has changed remarkably and our lifestyles have changed along with it, but our brains have hardly changed at all. They continue to thrive on the same things they thrived on thousands of years ago – sleep, unprocessed food, exercise and social connection.
We know the brain can be affected by all sorts of things that are a normal part of day to day living including stress, toxins, lack of sleep and pollution. Even though we will all experience brain changes over time, there are vast individual differences in the extent of those changes. These individual differences seem to be connected to our overall health.
We can’t change that our brain will be exposed to various sources of stress, but we have enormous potential to strengthen it against those stressors. Stress, exercise and diet have been proven to all have a positive influence on brain health. When it comes to diet, research has found that adherence to a Mediterranean diet can protect against some of the known risk factors for cognitive decline.
The research. Let’s talk.
In an extensive analysis of 18 research articles, it was revealed that a Mediterranean diet can improve memory, attention, and language skills, and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. According to the authors of the study,
‘There is a wealth of literature … indicating that diet can exert profound effects on biological ageing. Diet can also affect other risk factors, such as inflammation and oxidation [which has recently been linked to depression] Diets that are low in energy and that act to reduce oxidative stress may be protective against cognitive decline. Conversely, a diet that is high in energy and acts to increase oxidative stress may be considered a risk factor for impaired cognitive functioning.’
The diet had particularly significant effects on memory. The benefits of a Mediterranean diet on brain health were not confined to older people. Two of the studies that were analysed found that Mediterranean diet has a positive effect on cognitive function in young people.
A Mediterranean Diet? Sooo pizza?
Nope. Not pizza. And not tiramisu either. ‘Mediterranean diet’ consists of a high intake of leafy greens, fresh fruit and vegetables, cereals, beans, seeds, nuts and legumes. It is also high in fish, low in dairy, red meats and sugars and uses olive oil as its major fat source.
‘The most surprising result was that the positive effects were found in countries around the whole world. So regardless of being located outside of what is considered the Mediterranean region, the positive cognitive effects of a higher adherence to a Med Diet [Mediterranean diet] were similar in all evaluated papers.’ – Roy Hardman, lead author of the study, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne.
And just in case you’re not convinced, here’s what previous research has to say …
If turning up the volume on your memory and warding off Alzheimer’s isn’t reason enough to Mediterranean-ise your fridge, research has found that a Mediterranean diet has plenty of other benefits for mental health.
Prevents the onset of depression
In a study of 15,093 people, published in the journal BMC Medicine, a Mediterranean diet was associated with preventing the onset of depression. All participants were free of depression at the beginning of the study. After 10 years, 1550 participants reported having a diagnosis of clinical depression or previous antidepressant use. A Mediterranean diet was associated with the greatest reduction in the risk of depression.
In another study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, it was found that people who followed the Mediterranean diet most closely had a 30% less risk of depression than those who followed it least. This result was the same even when other indications of a healthy life were taken into account, such as marital status and seatbelt usage.
A study published in European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, followed more than 11,000 university students over a period of four years. Those who adhered more to the Mediterranean diet reported a higher quality of life in terms of physical and mental well-being.
Protects the brain from damage that can cause cognitive problems.
A study, presented at the American Academy of Neurology, found that people who adhered most to a Mediterranean diet were 36% less likely to have damage to small areas of the brain that leads to thinking problems. The damage the researchers were interested in were small areas of dead tissue known as brain infarcts. Those who followed the diet moderately were 21% less likely to have the damage. According to the study’s author, ‘In this study, not eating a Mediterranean-like diet had about the same effect on the brain as having high blood pressure.’ – Nicolaos Scarmeas, MD, MSc, Columbia University Medical Center in New York and member of American Academy of Neurology. Previous research by the authors has found that a Mediterranean-like diet is associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s, and may lengthen survival in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Those findings may be explained by fewer brain infarcts.
And finally …
The impact of diet on mental health is profound. Study after study has found that a Mediterranean diet is one way we can push against some of the brain changes that are an unavoidable part of modern life and being human. Brain health is vital to healthy, happy living. We can’t change that the brain will be exposed to certain factors that will compromise brain health, but by following a Mediterranean diet, we can protect and strengthen our brain against those influences.