A few years ago I was standing in the coffee queue at my university when I was approached by a female student. She told me that she and her husband were massive cricket fans and because of me (I used to look after the Australian cricket team!), they had changed their diet and now followed the low carb/ketogenic approach. She told me that her husband had suffered from bipolar disorder for many years, but he was now much better and off all his medications. “You have changed our lives and I just want to say thank you”.
Powerful stuff which certainly sparked my interest in the link between diet and mental health; so I’m delighted that National Diabetes Week 2021, which launches today, focuses on type 2 diabetes and mental health.
Unfortunately, there have not been good clinical trials conducted to investigate the link between diet and the various mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD and schizophrenia. However, there are enough case reports and anecdotal evidence to suggest that there may be some benefits to a low carb approach. I have certainly had several patients whose mental health has improved dramatically after changing their diet.
US psychiatrist Dr Georgia Ede believes there is a strong connection between rising rates of mental distress, and the obesity and diabetes epidemics. She believes that the decline in mental health around the world has a lot to do with the decline in the quality of our diet over the last 75 years.
It has been known for a hundred-odd years that a low carbohydrate/ketogenic diet is beneficial in the management of intractable childhood epilepsy, so it is probably not surprising that it might also help other brain disorders.
What could be the mechanism by which diet could affect mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression?
It is becoming increasingly obvious that many chronic diseases are due to chronic low-grade inflammation, and anxiety and depression are no exception. I recently read a fascinating book by Edmund Bullmore, a professor of psychiatry in London, called “The Inflamed Mind” in which he explained the role that chronic inflammation plays in the development of anxiety and depression.
Many lifestyle factors affect inflammation. They include diet, activity, smoking, alcohol, stress and sleep. We know that certain foods such as sugar, refined carbohydrates and the omega-6 polyunsaturated fats contained in vegetable oils are pro-inflammatory, while other foods such as the omega-3 fats contained in fish and fish oil are anti-inflammatory.
It follows then that reducing intake of processed foods, most of which contain carbohydrates and vegetable oils, by following a low carb or ketogenic diet, may impact mental health in the same way it has been shown to reduce obesity and put type 2 diabetes into remission.
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