How Nutritional Interventions Can Help Improve Mental Illnesses


Though the connection between mental health and nutrition is inextricable, it is not commonly a focus of treatment. “While other fields have embraced the link the between diet and certain pathologies–such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease–psychiatry has been slow to recognize this link. This may be due to old medical theory of the mind being separate from the body,” said Dr Sarris. “The field of psychoneuroimmunology understands the link between all systems and the effect of modifying factors on the immune and endocrine system, and how this may impact the nervous system, and thus one’s mental health.” 

A recently formed organization seeks to encourage the widespread acceptance of dietary intervention in mental health care. The International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research (ISNPR) is growing rapidly, “in part due to burgeoning public and clinician interest in nutrition and its potential effects on mental health,” noted  Dr Sarris, who is a member of the group.  

In a consensus position statement published in World Psychiatry in October 2015, the ISNPR stated that in light of significant growth in research on the connection between mental health and nutrition, the organization’s aim is to promote movement toward the consideration of nutritional interventions as mainstream.1 “Epidemiological data, basic science, and clinical evidence suggest that diet influences both the risk for and outcomes of mental disorders,” the authors wrote. “As such, we advocate that evidence-based nutritional change should be regarded as an efficacious and cost-effective means to improve mental health.”

The majority of data supports an association between diet and depression, though additional findings suggest that nutrition has a significant role in a variety of disorders, as well as overall mental health. In a systematic review published in January 2015, researchers at the University of Copenhagen and the University of Southern Denmark evaluated 52 studies and concluded that “elimination diets fish oil supplementation seem to be the most promising dietary interventions for a reduction in ADHD symptoms in children.”2

Numerous studies have found evidence supporting a strong association between depression and diet among adults: Some show that a healthy diet–consisting of sufficient intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, for example–is linked with lower depression risk, while an unhealthy diet–for instance, the “Western diet,” which is high in refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fats like those in many fried and processed foods — is linked with higher risk.3,4,5 Researchers have observed similar patterns between diet quality and the mental and emotional health of children and adolescents.6,7