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:
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Today I started my car and the radio came on. It just happened to be the beginning of a song called Mad World by Gary Jules. I first heard this song in the movie Donnie Darko, but I have never really paid attention to the lyrics, although I found the song quite depressing. For some reason today I paid attention. While I believe most music isn’t so much about what is put in, but more about what the listener gets out of it. A song's meaning might be very different depending on the person, and that’s ok, it’s a personal thing.
I felt this song has a very strong message, and it’s probably a similar message many people get. The Gary Jules version is a cover of the Tears For Fears original, however I find the Tears For Fears version doesn’t have the same impact as the newer version. I feel like this song explains perfectly what I try to put into my own writing. For example:
All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places, worn out faces
Bright and early for their daily races
Going nowhere, going nowhere
Their tears are filling up their glasses
No expression, no expression
Hide my head, I want to drown my sorrow
No tomorrow, no tomorrow
To me this verse describes the typical life of those stuck in the “rat race”. “All around me are familiar faces, worn out places, worn out faces”, seeing the same crowd every day, worn out, depressed, doing the same thing every day, and “going nowhere”. Not following their heart, but doing what the think the must do. Or even what the have to do to get by, even though it’s not what they want to be doing. The next part really got to me, “no expression”. How many times have you sat on public transport during peak hour and looked around? Really looked at the faces around you? So many people look like blank zombies, where’s their happiness gone and how can I help them?
Here are two short films below that I find very inspirational:
I feel like this verse also touches on the loss of connection between humans. We see many people every day, but we aren’t connected anymore. Usually because we are looking at our phones. When did we become so afraid of strangers? Of course you have to be careful, but the majority of people are good and you will find that out when you connect. Smile at a stranger, you never know what that might mean to them, or how it will change their day.
The next verse is probably the most saddest part of the song for me:
Children waiting for the day, they feel good
Happy birthday, happy birthday
Made to feel the way that every child should
Sit and listen, sit and listen
Went to school and I was very nervous
No one knew me, no one knew me
Hello teacher, tell me what's my lesson
Look right through me, look right through me
I put the first two lines in bold because this really kicks you in the guts. And I think this applies to adults more than it does to kids. As an adult we believe that happiness will come at some point in the future, usually from something we are trying to “get”. This training starts young. Children know how to be happy, they know how to follow their passions and live in the present. Unfortunately we adults beat this out of them (not literally).
They learn that happiness comes from things, you will be happy when you get “this and that” on your birthday, or at some future point. But right now you must be serious and get your work done. There is a time to be serious and work, but where's the balance gone? Kids want to be creative, they learn from expressing themselves in their own individual way. While many schools are starting to recognise this, they are still placed into boxes and expected to all be the same. And when you’re different, you are bullied at school, or the “weirdo” as an adult.
So why can't we find happiness in the present? We are always looking towards the future, but life isn't there, it's here. "There" doesn't exist yet. And unfortunately it's often the latest "thing" we can buy that we think will bring us happiness. Quite often buying the latest "in thing" will bring some amount of happiness, but it won’t last. So we move on to the next phone, or TV, or whatever is “in” at that moment.
Minimalism is a great movement to get in to. However I personally wouldn’t take it as far as some people do, ending up with one lonely chair in a bare room. I like my home to be cosy and filled with enough, but not too much furniture. I found it very empowering to go through all of my stuff over time (probably about a year), and sell or donate everything that I either didn’t need, serve a practical purpose, or didn’t love. It was a slow process because I found it hard to give up some items, even though they didn’t serve a purpose for me, I guess I was scared that one day I might “need” this item. But I got braver and I haven’t missed anything I have gotten rid of.
I now carefully think about purchases before I make them and decide if I really need the item, or if I will love this item and not get sick of it after a few weeks. One thing I have notice (apart from saving money), is that I now buy better quality things, or secondhand things that will last and bring joy to me over the long term. Instead of cheap rubbish that breaks after a month, or is so mass produced that it has no originality. Quality, not quantity as they say! There’s something beautiful about secondhand furniture. It has a history and quality that you don't get from new furniture.
Now I’ve gotten a little of track here, so lastly I will cover the chorus of the song:
And I find it kinda funny, I find it kinda sad
The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had
I find it hard to tell you, I find it hard to take
When people run in circles it's a very very
Mad world, mad world
I found the verses spoke to me more than the chorus. But the chorus tells me that to some people, dying is more exciting than living in this mad world. A world where we run in circles. In other words getting nowhere. But not nowhere in a physical sense. Nowhere in a spiritual sense. We ignore our spiritual side, and whether we like it or not we are physical, mental and spiritual beings. We must nurture all of these parts to live in harmony with ourselves and others.
At the moment, at least in the Western world, we pay the most attention to the physical and the mental sides. We need to learn how to listen to our hearts more and follow our intuition and passions; which could actually be working in an office. But it could also be singing, or art, or writing, or a doctor, or a scientist; I could go on. Whatever it is, at the very least try. You might fail, but at least you tried.
“It's better to regret what you have done than what you haven't.” ~ Paul Arden.
You don’t need to go crazy and quit your job to follow your heart. It could be something as simple as doing what brings you joy in your spare time instead of watching TV or browsing Facebook. Doing what society tells you to do may make you rich, but will it make you happy?
"Everyone you meet always ask if you have a career, are married or own a house as if life was some kind of grocery list. But no one ever asks you if you are happy" ~ Heath Ledger.