Diet, inflammation and mental health
Nutrition expert Sarah Dash explores how eating non-inflammatory foods may ease symptoms of anxiety, stress and anxiety-based depression.
Systemic (or chronic) inflammation is different to the redness and swelling that appears after you cut your finger. We can’t see this low-level autoimmune response, and it’s a prolonged reaction to a persistent problem, like disease or environmental stressors (think pollution or smoking). Instead of a quick response to an obvious intruder, systemic inflammation is a slower, continuous burn, like a cindering fire. Chronic inflammation can damage and disrupt biological systems and tissues, and this increases risk of disorder in both the body and the brain.
There are many foods and nutrients that are particularly good at ‘tidying up’ the inflammation in our bodies – you’ve perhaps heard them advertised as antioxidants or ‘super foods’.
Chronic inflammation is important is because it has been shown to be linked to brain function and mood.
While there’s no quick fix, there are many foods that can, and should be incorporated as part of a healthy overall diet. For example, fish, rich in omega 3s, and vegetables and whole grain cereals, packed with fibre, are known for their anti-inflammatory properties.
On the other hand, unhealthy foods (like ‘fast foods’ or sugar-laden lollies) can increase inflammation, likely through the health of our gut. A junk food diet can contribute to a weakening of the gut barrier that prevents food particles from leaking out into the bloodstream, where, obviously, they do not belong. Because these food particles are out of place in the bloodstream, off go the alarm bells of our inflammatory response. When poor quality foods are a part of our daily diet, the body maintains this low level of alarm, and we know this to be a risk factor for mental health.
Chronic inflammation is important because it has been shown to be linked to brain function and mood. In animals and humans, injection of ‘pro-inflammatory’ molecules has been linked to symptoms and behaviours like fatigue, withdrawal, and depressed mood – also features of common mental disorders. Also, people with higher levels of inflammatory markers in their blood have been shown to be more likely to develop depression in the future.
What goes on in the gut, as well as the inflammatory response that might follow, can disrupt the processes in the brain that help regulate our mood. For the health of your belly, body and brain, aim to avoid heavily processed foods, and instead rely on a range of colourful, fibre rich foods.
Article reproduced with the kind permission of Anxiety UK