The Benefits Of Diet And Exercise: Key Factors In Mental Health
Mental health disorders are becoming increasingly prevalent with each passing year. While these disorders are mainly treated using a pharmacological approach, there is increasing evidence to support the role of diet and exercise with better mental health outcomes1. In fact, scientists belonging to the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research group are advocating that diet and nutrition are central determinants for physical and mental health2.
For years, the medical field has not paid much attention to the relationship between food and mood. A patient’s decisions related to their diet often falls outside the scope of what is considered “medicine”. However, there is a growing body of evidence to show that the food we consume has a tremendous impact on our physical and mental health. Diets that are high in refined sugar and processed foods promote inflammation and oxidative stress in the body. It also has a significant effect on our mental state, as evidenced by the loss of mental clarity (“brain fog”) and the afternoon crash experienced by many when blood sugars begin to drop. To support mental health, it is important to eat a balanced diet that includes complex carbohydrates, good quality proteins, healthy fats, and colourful fruits and vegetables. It is important to try to choose organic, locally grown produce as these foods are higher in nutrient quality. By improving our nutritional status, our bodies and brains can then function optimally. Home cooked meals are also a healthier choice compared to eating out as it gives us more control over what we are taking into our bodies. The true test of diet on mental health status (and physical health for that matter) is to eat a clean diet for 2-3 weeks and to notice what changes are felt in the body.
Exercise is also a natural and effective treatment for mental health disorders. Studies have shown that regular physical activity is associated with a significantly decreased prevalence of major depression, panic disorder, agoraphobia and social phobia3. Exercise promotes various changes in the body that can have a profound effect on the mental and physical state of a person. Exercise raises neurotransmitter levels in the brain, including dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin3. This can enhance mental clarity, improve mood and help to create a more positive mindset. The endorphins released during exercise also improves mood and enhances well-being. On a physiological level, increased blood circulation brings more oxygen to the cells to supports cellular function and removes wastes from the body supporting detoxification. Adhering to a regular exercise routine also helps to improve sleep, increase energy and reduce overall stress in the body. But most of all, regular exercise has the capacity to build resilience in the individual to allow one to better cope with the complexities of life. The benefits of exercise are indisputable and require greater emphasis in the treatment of mental health disorders.
A healthy diet and regular exercise can have significant effects in treating mental health conditions. Making appropriate choices in these foundational elements can cause changes in the biochemistry of the body. A healthy diet and exercise can reduce inflammation, detoxify the body and optimize metabolic functions which all contribute to a balanced mood and feelings of well-being. Treating mental health disorders can be complex. However, perhaps it is time to return to the basics and ensure that a clean diet and regular exercise are a fundamental part of the treatment plan for mental health.
1. O’Neil et al., Relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents: A systematic review. American Journal of Public Health. 2014:104(10): e31-e42.
2. Sarris, J, et al., Nutritional medicine as mainstream in psychiatry. The Lancet Psychiatry. 2015:2(3): 271-274.
3. Zschucke E, Gaudlitz K, Ströhle A. Exercise and Physical Activity in Mental Disorders: Clinical and Experimental Evidence. Journal of Preventive Medicine and Public Health. 2013;46(Suppl 1):S12-S21.