There are not many studies currently available on the Mediterranean diet and its effects on mental health; however, there is some evidence which shows that the nutrients gained from this diet, such as antioxidants, omega 3 fatty acids, fibre and B-vitamins positively effect mood and brain function.
What is missing from many studies is the impact that the Mediterranean lifestyle also has on mental health, which includes diet, lifestyle, social and cultural aspects. Although diet does play a part in treating mental illness, it is not the only aspect which should be considered.
What a person eats directly affects functioning of the brain, and as a result, a person’s mood. The brain can only function at it optimal levels when a good diet rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals is consumed. A poor diet that is high in refined food has been shown in multiple studies to affect brain function and increase symptoms of disorders such as depression.
The Mediterranean diet is associated with reducing the risks of many chronic diseases, however there is currently limited research on the affects it has on mental health. Many components of the Mediterranean diet encourage healthy brain function such as omega 3 fatty acids, antioxidants and B vitamins. As well as this, the Mediterranean diet is rich in vitamins, minerals, polyunsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants which have been shown to have a positive impact on mental health.
How Diet Affects Mood
The gastrointestinal tract is lined with millions of nerve cells, making it more than just a place to digest food, but also a mood regulator. Around 95% of serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. The production of serotonin and the functioning of the neurons in the gastrointestinal tract are highly influenced by the intestinal microbiome which are directly affected by diet.
Studies have shown that traditional diets such as the Mediterranean diet, can lower the risk of depression by 25% to 35% when compared to a Western diet. This is due to the abundance of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and seafood in traditional diets such as the Mediterranean diet, as well as the limited amounts of red meat and dairy consumed.
Recently more evidence has shown that there is a link between diet and mental health. Studies have shown that consuming a healthy diet rich in vegetables, fruits, olive oil, nuts, legumes and fish can provide protection against depressive symptoms. However, a diet high in sugar and processed foods is seen to have a negative impact on mental health, particularly depression.
The Mediterranean diet provides an abundance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes and fish. These foods are rich in antioxidants, fibre and many other nutrients that are positively associated with mental health. The Mediterranean diet provides a much higher proportion of omega 3 fatty acids compare to the high consumption of omega 6 fatty acids seen in a typical Western diet. Research has shown the importance of omega 3 fatty acid in supporting good mental health.
The key concepts of the Mediterranean diet and its effect on mental health are due to the diet being rich in a variety of nutrients which are associated with positive mental health effects. The Mediterranean diet is rich in antioxidants, omega 3 fatty acids, and B vitamins which are shown to positively affect mental health and brain function.
The Mediterranean Lifestyle
The existing theories indicate that the Mediterranean diet and its effects on mental health isn’t just about what food is consumed. It’s also about the lifestyle. The Mediterranean lifestyle is a holistic approach to supporting mental health. Although the diet provides a rich source of nutrients which are shown to positively affect mental health and brain function, the Mediterranean lifestyle also plays an important role. This include the social aspects and physical activity.
The benefits of a meal go far beyond the nutritional aspects in the Mediterranean culture. The social benefits of leisure time, cooking, sharing, and eating together in positive company support good mental health which are all depicted in the Mediterranean diet pyramid as essential aspects. Another important component of the Mediterranean lifestyle is leisure time which provides a social aspect beneficial for mental health.
More studies need to be done which include a whole lifestyle approach. A lack of social connectiveness can contribute to poor mental health including depression. However positive social connections can reduce the risk of poor mental health.
The Mediterranean lifestyle has a very important social aspect which supports overall wellness. The Mediterranean diet pyramid provides a holistic representation of a healthy lifestyle which benefits mental health including not only diet but also the cultural, social and physical aspects of good health. Looking at a single aspect such as diet does provide some benefits, however taking a holistic approach provides more long term positive effects for mental health as well as overall wellbeing.
Take home messages:
Click here for references.
“Overthinking is my best friend. Always fills my brain with delight and sits by my side. It never leaves me alone.”
― Suyasha Subedi
Fellow over-thinkers, only you will understand this post to its full extent. We are a special kind, a strange kind; a type of person who is often misunderstood. I’m not talking about general overthinking, or anxiety; which many people suffer from in the Western culture. I’m talking about those of us who are natural over-thinkers, who love to think a lot, who philosophise and analyse everything to its full extend, and often beyond. Those of us who live in our head and get lost there for hours.
I used to believe that the way my mind worked was abnormal. Other people don’t think, question and analyse every little detail. But of course, I had to analyse and think about this. I had to work out how to stop my overactive mind and chill out. But now I’m overthinking why I overthink, then overthinking why I need to think about why I overthink. Ok I see the problem.
The inner world of an over-thinker can be filled with self-doubt and constant uncertainty. This sounds pretty negative, but it’s not always the case. Psychologists state that there are benefits to the overactive mind, or “Nervous Nellie”. Those of us who are lucky enough to possess this trait often worry and over-analyse issues far more than the average person. This can lead to stress, anxiety and many health issues including digestive problems and hypertension. Taking control is the key. Embrace your monkey mind while giving it bananas when it’s time to shut up!
So, what causes someone to be an over-thinker? One paper published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences states that there is an area in the brain which controls self-created thoughts (thoughts associated with overthinking). This area may be more active in over-thinkers. This may lead to excessive thinking. However this also leads to breakthrough theories, research ideas, creativity and solutions to problems.
When compared to “normal thinkers”, i.e. those who often look on the bright side of life, over-thinkers are more likely to create solutions to the problems that they obsess over. Some research has even indicated that over-thinkers, or anxious people generally have higher IQ's compared to more relaxed individuals.
However, research also shows that over-thinkers are prone to many health problems, lower immunity and chronic health conditions. This shows that overthinking can be both a blessing and a curse. Overthinking to the point of chronic stress is not good for you, and may even cause health problems. However, using your monkey mind to your advantage can be one of your best assets.
Over-thinker isn’t a bad thing unless you let it become a bad thing. Overthinking can lead to stress, anxiety and depression when you allow it to control you. But when you take control, overthinking can be used to your advantage, leading to the most brilliant ideas, insights and breakthroughs. This is the major problem for the overactive mind, trying to take control and use it for good. Over-thinkers are prone to anxiety and it’s very easy for an over-thinker's mind to lose control. Once that happens, getting out isn’t easy. But not impossible.
Some of the common problems over-thinkers face include:
Ok, so there are a lot of problems that come along with having an overactive mind. But have you ever considered how much of a blessing it is to be an over-thinker? Many creative people are over-thinkers. Over-thinkers are never short on ideas. All of those ideas that pop into your head while your monkey mind is chattering have the potential to be amazing. Often, we start questioning whether the idea is good enough, maybe it’s stupid etc. Then we talk ourselves out of even trying.
This is where taking control is important, before that blessing turns into a curse. This is where you need to learn to recognise what you’re doing. Your amazing overthinking mind has given you an idea, so take it. If you allow yourself to analyse this idea your will talk yourself out of it. There’s a fine line between the advantages and disadvantages of the overactive mind, and recognising when that line appears is bloody hard!
This line applies to everything that triggers your monkey mind. The line will appear at different points, but understanding when your mind is working for you and when it’s sabotaging you is something that you have to practice for yourself. I certainly haven’t got it under control yet. Often you will recognise that your mind is taking control, but can’t get yourself out of it. This is when support can save you.
Why is support important? Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. You’re so involved in your thinking situation, which is turning into anxiety and you cannot see the situation as a whole. I don’t know if it’s just me, but as an over-thinker I tend to keep my overthinking to myself. This is a bad idea if you don’t always have control.
Find someone who you trust, someone who won’t judge you, who will always be there. Ask this person if you can turn to them when your mind gets out of control, and tell them what you’re thinking, or overthinking. They will see your situation from a whole new perspective and help you to calm down. This is important for those who struggle often, it will save you a lot of stress and anxiety. Rather than spending hours or days obsessing over something, you could have it resolved in minutes. If you have no one to turn to, consider a counsellor.
Overthinking can definitely be a positive trait, and you should embrace it. However most, if not all over-thinkers are all too familiar with the negative side of this gift. You can learn to take control of your monkey mind and use it to your advantage. However, you will probably slip up on more than one occasion, so make sure you have support if you need it. But don’t forget that the way your mind works is unique and is a blessing. Just think about some of history’s greatest thinkers!
I tend to plan almost everything. I like to know what’s going to happen and how I will get from point A to point B. Yet more often than not, my plans are interrupted and this makes me uneasy. I don’t like not being in control. If I make a plan, no matter how small, I like to stick to it. And when something comes along and changes my plan, and it will, anxiety will jump in and sing ner ner ner your world is crumbling.
A certain smarty pants has managed to bring this to my attention on and off for the last eleven months. Whether this person is aware of this or not, it has helped me to change my way of thinking. You can make as many plans as you like about your future, short or long term, but you also need to realise that something will very likely come along and change what you “thought” was the best outcome for you and usually give you an even better outcome.
Unfortunately, when you’re lost in that freak out, “no no no, it was meant to go THIS way, not that way”, then you fail to see that you're being given something much better. It’s the whole ‘can’t see the forest for the tress’ expression.
Trying to control every aspect of your life only makes life a struggle. Controlling things or people only pushes those things or people away. The tighter you hold onto something, the more it pulls away. However, the thought of letting go of control is a very scary idea, especially for control freaks. It feels like allowing chaos in to run rampant through your "very well-managed life".
I think the root of the problem is down to one word, ‘trust’. Letting go of control means that you need to trust that everything will be ok. You need to trust that life will flow naturally without your constant micromanagement. That’s bloody scary.
Bad things will happen and you will deal with them as they do. Let go rather than trying to control and prevent what you fear. This only makes things worse while creating a lot of stress and worry along the way.
Trusting and letting go doesn’t mean becoming passive. It means flowing with life naturally and doing what you need to do, or can do ONLY when you need to do it. Not thinking about what you could do or should do when you can't do anything at all. That's called worrying. Or did I just confuse you, I think I confused myself.
I’ll always be a planner; I’ll make lists and plan how I will get from A to B. There’s nothing wrong with being organised. How satisfying is it to cross things off a list as they get done, or is that just me?
The problem arises when you can’t embrace change, when you fall apart because your well intentioned plans have fallen apart. Learning to accept and go with the flow of life does take a lot of stress out of the entire process. I probably should be listening to my own advice.
I do know however, that putting this into practice is a lot harder than simply writing it down. But just recognising when your control freakiness rears its ugly head is the first step to changing your attitude for the better.
“Live every day as it comes” – Sir Smarty Pants.
We all experience stress at some point, many on a daily basis. Some researchers suggest that occasional short term stress can be good for the body, however chronic stress causes many health problems.
The stress response, or “fight or flight” response evolved as survival skill which allowed people to immediately react to life threatening situations. This response was valuable during the times when humans were presented with these situations often, such as being attacked by a wild animal. However now the stress response is usually activated by non-life threatening events every day, such as work, relationship and traffic problems.
When someone perceives a stressful situation the amygdala (a part of the brain which processes emotions), instantly sends a danger signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus communicates with the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary functions such as respiratory rate, digestion, heart rate, etc.
Once the distress signal has been sent to the hypothalamus it activates the fight or flight response. As a result the body prepares to either fight the danger, or run away. This is done by diverting blood away from where it’s not needed (such as the digestive system) and towards where it is needed (such as the muscles in the arms and legs). Adrenaline is release causing the heart rate and breathing rate to increase. Digestion slows and the liver releases glucose for energy. These changes happen so fast that we’re barely aware of them.
The fight or flight response is extremely effective when there is an actual threat. Unfortunately many people experience stress daily, and in situations which are not life threatening. Many of us have experienced the effect stress can have on digestion when it causes indigestion or heartburn. Stress can slow the digestive system which may only cause mild problems initially, but when stress becomes ongoing (chronic) it can have more serious effects on your health.
Chronic stress is associated with diabetes, heart problems, digestive issues, hypertension and much more. However it’s not all bad news: recent studies indicate that some acute stress may actually be good for the body. Moderate stress that is overcome can make the body stronger and more able to manage stress in the future. This supports Richard Dienstbier’s theory of mental toughness (1989), which states that acute stress can make you mentally stronger when it’s manageable, and there’s recovery time in between.
Like anything, it’s about moderation. When stress becomes ongoing, it may have negative effects on your health. Stress is unavoidable for most people, but we can do many things to manage stress in a healthier way.
While most of us are aware of the physical side effects from too much screen time, including the impacts on vision, sleep, and weight gain from sitting down constantly, there hasn’t been many studies done to show the effects on mental health in adults.
A 2014 Nielsen report found that on average, adults spend 11 hours a day in front of screens. Is it possible that this may have an affect on mental health as well as physical health?
Studies have shown that too much screen time, especially at night affects sleep quality. One study was done on the effects of technology use on sleep at the University of Gothenburg, led by Dr. Sara Thomee. Thomee stated that the blue light emitted from screens suppresses melatonin production, preventing a restful night’s sleep. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland which regulates sleep and essentially helps you wind down at the end of the day. A lack of good quality sleep is associated with anxiety and depression.
Anxiety can also be caused by the constant influx of information through social media and other forms of media. Too much negative news can become overwhelming, leading to depression or anxiety.
Dr. Graham Davey, a British psychologist stated that constant negative news and violent media exposure contributes to depression, anxiety, stress, and possibly post-traumatic stress disorder. Negative news can significantly change someone’s mood and increase personal worries. This may lead to more negative or aggressive interactions with the world, due to subconsciously focusing on negative and threatening events.
Another issue with overusing technology is addiction. Certain types of screen time can cause dopamine to be released, such as social media. Each time you received a new post reaction, reply or message certain parts of the brain are activated and you receive a hit of dopamine. Over time this may become additive.
From the limited amounts of studies done so far, results have indicated that there is a correlation between screen time and mental health issues in adults. This includes addiction, depression, anxiety and aggression. However, not enough is known yet about the impact of screen time on mental health; and it’s still too early to determine a causation. We can’t be sure whether it’s the screens causing mental health issues, or those already suffering from mental health issues who are drawn to use technology more often.
It’s difficult to determine a “recommended amount of screen time” for adults, as many people need to use technology as part of their jobs. But you can look at how you’re using your screen time, and how it’s effecting your social life, physical fitness and overall health. If it’s negatively impacting other responsibilities and activities in your life, then you may need to take a break.
Like anything it’s all about balance. Take regular breaks and get outside as much as possible.
Recently a person unexpectedly entered my life and completely changed my idea of how my life was going to go. Well at least the short-term life plan I had, which I thought was best for me; now I know it wasn’t.
This person has already taught me a lot about myself and life, and I suspect they have much more wisdom to give. One thing I now understand is that it doesn’t matter what you “think” should happen or how you “plan” how your life will go. More often than not the universe will throw you a curve ball which will be nothing but a blessing in your life; even if that’s not entirely how it appears at first.
So, no matter how scary it may seem initially, or how it makes you face your fears head on. Try to embrace this change and learn everything you can. It will (eventually), help you to grow as a person; and even have a positive impact on those around you.
Often people have no idea what kind of effect they have on others. It may be just a brief encounter, or a lifelong friendship. But by being yourself, you may just inspire others to embrace their own true selves.
A good lesson for me recently is that it’s ok to open up and be who you are, others will like you just for you. Being open attracts those special people who just seem to ‘get’ you, and that’s the kind of people you want in your life. When you close yourself off, it creates an invisible barrier which prevents you from experiencing the love and friendships that you deserve.
You don’t have to do anything drastic. Just be willing and open to new people and new experiences. Pushing people away doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s often fear that makes you push away someone or something which could be just what you need in your life at that moment.
I know that from experience, pushing people away out of fear doesn’t work. As someone once told me “live everyday as it comes”. Looking into the future at what “could” go wrong only creates anxiety. And the scary scenarios that the brain creates almost never happen anyway!
So, what will the next few months bring? Probably a lot of fears and anxieties, but hopefully also a lot of accomplishments. Being open to life is scary, it means actually living and experiencing the world and the amazing people that cross my path. But what is the alternative? Hiding away every day? That’s not life, at least that's not living life.
Good health x
I'm a freelance writer currently writing for an awesome marketing company in Perth. I have a Bachelor of Science in nutrition and human biology, and a Graduate Diploma in Human Nutrition, which both contribute to my writing.