New Delhi: Feeling down in the dumps, consumed with anxiety at the thought of the day ahead or unable to muster the energy to face the outside world? Your mood enhancer is as close as the fridge, stocked hopefully with "happy food" like banana and berries, kale and cabbage. 'You are what you eat' should be an everyday mantra to keep you healthy in body and also to keep you fit mentally is the new thinking in the medical community, which is increasingly using "nutritional psychiatry" to combat a spectrum of ailments.
Consuming a "happy diet" can help "avoid, treat and prevent" depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental illnesses, said several medical consultants and researchers on World Mental Health Day, observed every year on October 10. According to clinical psychologist Preeti Singh, research in the field of nutritional psychiatry has shown that optimisation of micro-nutrients is a "viable way to avoid, treat and prevent mental illnesses".
"Poor nutrition is a significant risk factor for developing mental illnesses," the doctor at Gurgaon's Paras Hospital told PTI. Not more than a couple of decades old, nutritional psychiatry goes beyond treating mental illnesses solely through medication, and explores food items containing specific micro-nutrients (omega-3, B vitamins, amino acids, zinc, magnesium and iron) as a possible treatment to keep the mind happy.
A "happy diet" can comprise leafy vegetables like kale, cabbage and spinach as well as broccoli, mushrooms, red/yellow bell peppers, zucchini, onions, oregano, and vitamin rich fruits like berries, apples, oranges, peaches and pears. Proteins can be consumed in the form of eggs, cheese, chicken and fish, while nuts, almonds, and pistachios can supply the micro-nutrients.
The mental health awareness movement gained momentum in India when Bollywood actor Deepika Padukone opened up about her battle with depression in 2015, reassuring those suffering that it was 'okay to not feel okay'. A 2018 study by global medical journal Lancet noted that people with mental illnesses accounted for nearly 6.5 per cent of the Indian population, which, it said, was likely to increase to 20 per cent in 2020.
Diagnosed with clinical depression, anxiety and PTSD a few years ago, UK-based teacher Kasturi Roy Bardhan said she found relief in medication, face-to-face therapy as well as a change in diet. She was unable to find work for a long time and, when she did, dragging herself to work became an "everyday battle", she recalled.
"Making sure you are eating healthy, or food that you generally associate with positive memories or thoughts makes you feel better emotionally," the 29-year-old said. A September 2019 study conducted by Australia's Deakin University revealed that dietary intervention can reduce depressive symptoms in individuals more efficiently than social support, which is known to be helpful for people with mental health issues.
For the experiment, adults with major depressive disorders were recruited and randomly assigned to receive either social support or support from a clinical dietician over a three-month period. The results showed that around 33 per cent of those in the dietary support group met criteria for remission of major depression, compared to only 8 per cent of those in the social support group. "The results of the team's new study offer a possible new treatment approach to depression, one of the world's most prevalent and costly medical disorders," Felice Jacka, director of Deakin's Food and Mood Centre, said in the report.
Biologically put, chemicals produced in the gut also affect the brain, and by altering the type of food, it is possible to improve one's brain health. "Food is generally associated with just weight loss and weight gain," said Mumbai-based nutritional consultant Jaydeep Bhuta. He explained that consumption of certain food items help release happy hormones that get processed by the brain and help improving the mood. "There's a saying -- 'You are what you eat'. It simply means that whatever you eat, directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately your mood," Bhuta said.
Banana, for instance, is known to be a great mood uplifter, added Delhi-based nutritionist Surbhi Aggarwal. "It releases the happy hormone serotonin. So, we can say, 'Eating one banana every day, keeps the mental health issues away'," she added. One can keep the happiness metre high by consuming antioxidant-rich products such as apricots, carrots, sweet potatoes, kiwis, tomatoes, along with healthy carbohydrates that can be found in abundance in legumes.
Gurgaon-based theatre artiste Sakshi Gandhi was prescribed food rich in iron, and vitamin D to treat her depression, which was adversely affecting her day-to-day life. Her sleeping patterns changed, she would have disturbing thoughts and completely stopped socialising, she said.
"A change in diet along with exercises was prescribed. It helped in overall increase of energy levels, and I stopped feeling exhausted, both mentally and physically," she added. Both medical experts as well as nutritionists agree that while a balanced diet can enhance the treatment of mental illnesses, it is not an alternative to traditional medication. Right food can enhance positive effect of medication but this can't be an alternative to psychotropic drugs (medication capable of affecting the mind, emotions, and behaviour)," said Shweta Sharma, clinical psychologist at Gurgaon's Columbia Asia hospital. "With the right diet, one can control side effects and the duration to continue the medication," she added.
So if you are not feeling great, talk to friends, exercise, seek professional help -- but also remember to eat happy.
By Trisha Mukherjee