November 11, 2015

Mental Health, Nutrition and Diet – Eat to Feel Well

healthy diet by Maeve Halpin, Registered Counselling Psychologist

Medical research has discovered that lack of nutrition plays a central part in many mental health problems. We are familiar with connections between poor diet and physical conditions such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes.  But inadequate nutrition also contributes to depression, anxiety, low moods and sleep problems. Medication such as a short course of anti-depressants can be useful for many people. But long-lasting improvement in mental health can be sustained by a high-quality diet and appropriate nutritional supplements. An article in World Psychiatry (Sept 2015), by 19 psychiatrists, recommends dietary changes “back towards a traditional w
holefood diet (dependent on the culture)”.

The Depletion of Modern Food

The development of industrialised food production in the 20th century was initially hailed as the answer to food poverty and malnutrition. The invention of additives and preservatives facilitated long-term storage and transport of food, making it cheaper and more available. What was not foreseen was the loss of essential nutrients in food that was not consumed fresh. The level of salt, sugar and fat added to our food has increased greatly. These stimulate the brain to give an artificial “high”, leading to food addictions.

The Importance of Nutrition for the Brain

Vital nutrients for brain and nervous system functioning include omega 3 fatty acids (found in fish oil and flaxseed oil) and the B vitamins (e.g. in wholegrains, lentils, beans and yeast). Processed food is seriously deficient in these elements, causing increased incidences of mood disorders. Research studies worldwide have shown fish oil to be effective in treating anxiety and depression in adolescents, university students, mothers with post-natal depression, menopausal women, older peopleand people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Consuming trans-fats, found in processed food and industrially-produced cakes and biscuits, is associated with higher incidences of depression. Soaring rates of mental health problems among young people have been linked to the common teenage diet of fast food, fizzy drinks, crisps and chocolate, which is almost totally devoid of nutrients.

Nutritional Intervention with Different Groups

Schoolchildren who eat a healthy breakfast show better concentration, less disruptive behaviour and lower anxiety. Childhood conditions such as ADHD, autism and dyspraxia can respond to diet supplementation, if treated early, with improvements in behaviour and sleep patterns. Removing synthetic food colourings from the diet of children with hyperactivity has been shown to have a positive effect. Even serious psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia, psychosis and bi-polar disorder can be related to significant nutritional deficiencies in some sufferers. Studies from the Netherlands and China demonstrate that those exposed to nutrient deficiencies during famine have an increased risk of schizophrenia.

Numerous studies in prisons have shown that antisocial behaviours, including violence, are reduced by the addition of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids to the inmates diet. Alcohol and drug addiction can result in malnutrition, especially if the addict’s diet is poor. Correcting nutritional imbalances can dramatically reduce cravings, assisting recovery. Sugar and caffeine can cause mood swings, and should be avoided in the early stages of recovery.

Eat Well for Emotional Balance

Over many millennia, humans have adapted to radically different diets in varying climates. Only the modern Western diet, consisting of artificial processed ingredients, is linked directly to mental and physical deterioration. Changing to natural, fresh foods can reduce the risk not only of heart disease and strokes, but of anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.

Drs Edmond and Andrew O’Flaherty, Mount Merrion, Dublin, Ireland (00353-1-2881425) specialise in the nutritional treatment of psychiatric illness. See

Dr Edmond O’Flaherty contributed the chapter “An Introduction to Nutrient Therapy in the Treatment of Mental Illness” in our compilation “How to Be Happy and Healthy – the Seven Natural Elements of Mental Health” published by Ashfield Press.

For more information on how counselling can help you feel better using a natural holistic approach, call me on 087-2877837 or mail