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.
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“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!
Most of us have heard about the placebo effect, however less is known about the nocebo effect. The placebo effect shows the positive correlation between our mind-body connection, our body’s ability to heal itself. However, what we are started to understand is that the opposite is also true, it’s called the nocebo effect.
The nocebo effect shows us the negative side of our mind-body connection. Essentially, it’s the connection between negative thought patterns and beliefs which manifest themselves mentally and physically.
The nocebo effect is due to psychological or psychosomatic factors which produce detrimental effects to your health, such as a negative prognosis or negative treatment expectations.
What is the Mind-Body Connection?
We all know that the mind is very powerful, although we probably don’t fully understand just how powerful it is. Science is starting to accept the mind-body connection, and there are already numerous studies about how stress, anxiety and negative thinking can affect your health. However, there’s still a long way before the mind-body connection is fully accepted and no longer termed “woo woo” or “pseudoscience”.
One study done shows how the nocebo effect can occur. Researchers compared two different placebos using two groups of people for treating their arm pain. The first group unknowingly received a sugar pill and the second group unknowingly received a fake acupuncture treatment using retractable needles.
The results from the fake acupuncture group demonstrated the placebo effect well, with the group reporting less arm pain. However, what was fascinating was how both groups demonstrated the nocebo effect. Both treatments were fake, however both groups reported negative side effects from their treatments.
The fake acupuncture group reported pain, swelling and redness after their treatment and the sugar pill group reported feeling sluggish, with some feeling so tired that they couldn’t get out of bed.
What is more fascinating about these “side effects” is that the groups experienced what they were TOLD they might experience after treatment. Oh, the power of suggestion!
Currently researchers have mostly been focusing on the mind’s ability to heal the body, the placebo effect. All clinical trials randomly assign patients to either a treatment group (with the real drug or treatment), or a placebo group (a fake drug or treatment). The patients do not know which group they are assigned to, and those in the placebo group often show improvement even though their treatment is fake. Simply because they believe they are taking the real drug.
However, along with this, people who take the placebo also report side effects such as nausea, pain or headaches. This is due to the warnings they receive. Both groups (placebo and drug group) receive the same information and the same warnings about possible side effects. This causes even the people in the placebo group to experience negative side effects simply because they expected it. This demonstrates the nocebo effect.
So how can this apply to ever day life? Do you have constant and ongoing negative thoughts patterns or beliefs such as;
I have read many books on this subject and have learned an important lesson that many people don’t realise at first. It’s not so much the occasional negative thought that will suddenly make you ill, it’s more about something your truly believe. Those self-help books which make people believe that they should never have a negative though are ridiculous. You’re going to have negative thoughts, but you don’t have to believe them.
The nocebo effect is as real as the placebo effect, but it’s not something to fear. By being aware of which thoughts you choose to get caught up in, and truly believe, can change your perspective and may even change your health; hopefully for the better!
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.
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.