Jeanette C. Mostert & Alejandro Arias Vasquez from the Departments of Genetics and Psychiatry at Radboud University Medical Center Nijmegen, The Netherlands, lift the lid on improving mental wellbeing through a healthy diet
We know that healthy eating, plenty of sleep, social involvement and regular exercise are good for our health. Less well known is that these lifestyle factors are also beneficial for mental health. A better understanding of how lifestyle – and diet, in particular, – influence how the brain works, is of key importance to improving the mental wellbeing of European citizens.
A good understanding of what causes mental disorders is still far away. We know that genes play a significant role, as these conditions often run in families, but that is only part of the story. Whether, and when, someone develops a mental health condition is determined by a combination of factors, including a person’s environment and lifestyle.
The environmental factors contributing to mental disorders have the power to affect a person’s brain functioning, thereby increasing the chances of developing a disorder. This can, for instance, be due to stressors early in life, pollutants in the environment, low socioeconomic status, or poor diet. Many of these environmental pressures are difficult to modify, especially for an individual. However, diet and physical activity can be readily modified and adapted based on personal needs and circumstances, at any moment in someone’s life. They, therefore, provide a perfect target for intervention strategies to improve mental health.
The Horizon2020-funded project “Effects of Nutrition and Lifestyle on Impulsive, Compulsive, and Externalizing behaviours – Eat2beNICE” (No 728018), aims to unravel the biological mechanisms that link diet to mental wellbeing, to formulate nutrition and lifestyle recommendations for brain health.
To generate a better understanding of how diet and mental wellbeing are intertwined, the Eat2beNICE consortium brings together experts from a wide range of disciplines, working at 18 different partner institutes across Europe.
The gut-brain connection
The connection between diet and mental wellbeing stems from the close relationship between the brain and the gut. The gastrointestinal tract is home to billions of bacteria (gut microbiota) that influence the production of the precursors of neurotransmitters; chemical substances that constantly carry messages from the gut to the brain. Eating healthy food promotes the growth of “good” bacteria, which, in turn, positively affect neurotransmitter production. A steady diet of junk food, on the other hand, can cause inflammation that hampers this production. Disturbances in the gut can, therefore, lead to changes in brain function, which influences our mood and cognition. Through our research, we have identified that individuals with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have an altered gut microbiota profile compared to controls. (1) This suggests that gut microbiota has a part to play in ADHD.
Forget hamburgers, eat broccoli
So, which food is good for our brain? A way to start building an answer to this question is via epidemiological studies on large population datasets. Via these studies, we can investigate the associations between food and mental wellbeing, considering many other environmental factors, such as socioeconomic status and education level. Researchers from Eat2beNICE found that adults with symptoms of ADHD eat more sugar and saturated fat, and less fruit and vegetables than individuals without ADHD symptoms. (2) Furthermore, consumption of sweetened carbonated beverages during pregnancy has been linked to ADHD in offspring. (3)
These population-based studies do not explain causal links between food and mental health. However, from animal studies, we know that eating junk food influences genes regulating inflammation and metabolism, which, in turn, has been linked to a higher incidence of depression and anxiety. (4) Reversely, adherence to a healthy diet can reduce inflammation, depression and anxiety. (5,6) Healthy diets such as the Mediterranean diet are rich in fresh vegetables and fruits, olive oil, whole grains, nuts and legumes, seafood, and unsaturated fats.
Diets to improve mental health
What we do not yet know is to what extent diets or food supplements can be effectively included in treatment plans. Eat2beNICE is, therefore, conducting four large clinical intervention studies to investigate the effects of changing or supplementing diet on mental health. The PREDIMED-PLUS trial investigates the effect of the Mediterranean Diet plus exercise training on cognition in elderly individuals. The first findings show that after one year, both BMI and impulsivity were reduced in the intervention group. (7) In the TRACE trial, we test whether a restrictive elimination diet or a healthy diet can reduce ADHD symptoms in children. (8) Third, we are testing the effects of a probiotic – known to benefit gut microbiota – on mental health in highly impulsive adults with ADHD and/or Borderline Personality Disorder. (9) And fourth, the VANTASTIC study measures the effectivity of a broad spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement in children and adolescents with ADHD. (10)
These clinical trials will be crucial in determining the possibility of modifying diet to improve mental wellbeing, in addition to understanding the biological mechanisms underlying these effects.
Cooking for your brain
The research done by Eat2beNICE has important implications for society. Problems with mental wellbeing affect us all, and a healthy lifestyle has many benefits for both the individual and society at large. Changing your dietary behaviour, however, is not as easy as you may think, especially for individuals with mental health problems.
Furthermore, evidence-based information about healthy food choices (for mental wellbeing) has to compete with many food and brain myths. With all this in mind, Eat2beNICE has started the dissemination platform www.newbrainnutrition.com. Here, we publish blogs and videos with research updates and practical tips for a healthy lifestyle, including cooking videos by celebrity chef Sebastian Lege. This helps the lay public to easily obtain evidence-based information about how a healthy lifestyle can improve mental health and how you can incorporate this in your own life. Through these efforts, we strive to promote societal changes that will improve the mental wellbeing of European Citizens.
More information about the Eat2beNICE project: www.newbrainnutrition.com
- Richarte et al. 2021 https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-021-01504-6
- Li et al. 2020 https://doi.org/10.1002/ajmg.b.32825
- Kvalvik et al. 2022 https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-022-02798-y
- Veniaminova et al. 2020 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lfs.2019.117163
- Sureda et al. 2018 https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10010062
- Sánchez-Villegas et al. 2013 https://doi.org/10.1186/1741-7015-11-208
- Mallorquí-Bagué et al. 2021 https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-88298-1
- Bosch et al. 2020 https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-020-02576-2
- Arteaga-Henríquez et al. 2020 https://doi.org/10.1186/s13063-019-4040-x
Eat2beNICE has received funding from the European Union’s HORIZON 2020 Research programme under the Grant Agreement no. 728018.
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© 2019. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.
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