After decades of depression, Jodi Corbitt, a 47-year-old mother from Catonsville, Maryland, believed she would always have to take antidepressant medication to function. Then, in 2010, she decided to lose some weight. She stopped eating gluten, and within a month her life had changed. She says,
It was like a veil lifted and I could see life more clearly. It changed everything.
Corbitt had accidentally come across a phenomenon that scientists are just beginning to study: the idea food can impact the mind in the same powerful way it impacts the body. This is a very new field. The first experiments were conducted just a few years ago. But Michael Berk, professor of psychiatry at the Deakin University School of Medicine in Australia, says,
…The results are unusually consistent, and they show a link between diet quality and mental health.
Traditional diets — the kinds of foods your grandmother would have recognized — have been associated with a lower risk of mental health issues.
In a 2011 analysis of more than 5,000 Norwegians, Berk and his fellow researchers found lower rates of depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder among participants who ate a traditional diet of meat and vegetables than among those who consumed processed and fast foods, or even a health-food type diet of tofu and salads.
Berk says traditional diets differ from culture to culture, but the common factor seems to be whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense food. He says:
There’s lots of hype about the Mediterranean diet [fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, nuts, fish] but the traditional Norwegian diet [fish, shellfish, game, root vegetables, dairy products, whole-wheat bread] and the traditional Japanese diet [fish, tofu, rice] appear to be just as protective” of mental health.
The beneficial effects may begin in the womb. In a 2013 study of more than 23,000 mothers and children, there seems to be a correlation between the mothers’ consumption of sweets and processed foods during pregnancy, and behavioral issues and mental health in children surveyed at 5 years of age.
Researchers are intrigued, but they say much work is yet to be done in this area. Rif El-Mallakh, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, says,
There seems to be a clear link, but it’s an association — it doesn’t tell you cause and effect, “We don’t know which is the chicken and which is the egg.
One factor could be gut bacteria. Many of the neurotransmitters that influence the brain are found in the gut. Bacteria in the intestines produce most of the body’s serotonin, which is vital in regulating mood. A 2011 study in mice demonstrated that exchanging the gut bacteria of two strains of mice, one bred for daring behavior, and another for fearfulness and shyness, made the bold mice more hesitant and the timid mice braver.
Two things are certain. Individual people like Jodi Corbitt are discovering a new way to improve their personal mental health. And science is on the brink of much more research, and possibly some very exciting discoveries about how diet affects our brains.