What is nutritional psychiatry?

Nutritional psychiatry refers to the emerging field of using food as a treatment intervention for mental health conditions.

There has been considerable research over recent years linking psychiatric disorders and diet. As a result, there has also been an increase in research on nutritional interventions for these disorders. Several potential pathways may link diet and psychiatric conditions, such as the gut microbiome and nutrient deficiencies.


How the food you eat affects your mental health

Eating well can improve mental health symptoms, whilst eating a diet of poorer quality can increase your chance of developing a mental health condition and may worsen existing symptoms. As most mental health conditions are heavily influenced by diet, addressing nutritional deficiencies and imbalances through nutrient-dense food choices and targeted dietary interventions can help many people with mental health issues.

Gut microbiome

Your gastrointestinal tract, or 'gut', contains around 100 trillion bacteria that help you digest the food that you eat. This ecosystem is referred to as the gut microbiome. The microbiome influences the body's production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that can affect mood and anxiety levels.

Research suggests that there is a link between the gut microbiome and mental health conditions. For example, studies have discovered that the gut microbiome of those with schizophrenia and psychosis differs from those without the condition.

It is therefore thought that the type of food you eat could improve the composition of the gut microbiome and, as such, may play a role in improving one’s mental health symptoms.


Nutrient deficiencies

The link between nutrient deficiencies and mental health conditions is well established. Such deficiencies may arise from inadequate intake or poor absorption.

Some examples of deficiencies include Vitamin 12, B9 (folate) and B6, which are important vitamins needed for DNA and protein synthesis, and vital to brain function. Research shows, for example, that people with schizophrenia have lower levels of Vitamin B6 and B9 and Vitamin D. Vitamin D is another example of an important vitamin needed by the brain, as it is required in the modulation of releasing neurotransmitters (such as dopamine).

Nutritional interventions

Given that eating well nourishes the brain and body, which can improve mental health symptoms, it is important to consider the role of nutritional interventions in psychiatry.

Eating well can generally involve the following:

  • A focus on eating wholefoods.
  • Eliminating or cutting down on processed foods and sugar.
  • Drinking adequate water.
  • Limiting your alcohol intake.

If nutritional interventions are integrated into your treatment plan, they should be done in a well-considered and personalised way.