In some ways, your brain is like a car and food is its fuel — and what you’re putting into that car to make it run matters. A Western diet full of sugar, simple carbohydrates, bad fats, and red meats makes you feel like you’re running on empty, both physically and emotionally. While we’ve known for years that what we take into our body affects our weight, a growing number of scientists are beginning to explore the role of diet in disease and recovery. In fact, there’s an entire field dedicated to the relationship of our mental well-being and the food we eat called nutritional psychology, and specialists in pain management, addiction recovery, and depression are incorporating nutrition into patients’ treatment plans.
Dieticians can play a unique role in treatment for addiction recovery. Treatment can be complicated; different drugs create their own kinds of nutritional deficiencies, while an addict’s existing deficiencies may be exacerbated by addiction. It’s important to teach the fundamentals of good nutrition through food so that not only will a patient get through the recovery process in a healthy manner, but continue their good habits for life. This practice is called nutritional counseling, and many addiction specialists believe that this form of therapy in addition to a moderate exercise routine can help improve the chance of recovery, decrease the risk of relapse, and help a recovering addict feel healthier more quickly. A good dietician will work to support the body through the detoxification process, then to strengthen and stabilize it in recovery with food, cooking, and resource education.
Pain management is a field that is also implementing nutrition to ease symptoms. For conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, many nutritionists suggest avoiding inflammation-causing dairy, chocolate, eggs, meat, wheat, corn and nuts, and adding omega-3s and fatty acids, which may help ease pain. More than half of those in one clinical study on omega-3s were able to stop taking their prescription pain medicine and use only the supplement. For maximum results, the Mayo Clinic suggests adopting an anti-inflammatory diet, which is free from red meat, processed foods, and refined sugars. Instead, its centerpiece is colorful vegetables and fruits, which possess anti-oxidants. They also suggest consuming omega-3s, which come from fish and some nuts.
Interestingly, depression symptoms can also be treated with nutrition. In several studies, a low folate level seemed to be closely related to depression. Folate is a B-vitamin found in foods like some leafy vegetables, some legumes, and orange juice. Depressed people with low folate levels may find antidepressants to be less effective. One study found that between 15 and 38% of people diagnosed with depressive disorders had low folate levels. The same study reported decreased symptoms when folate was added into the diet. Another study noted selenium, iron, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids as playing an important role in alleviating symptoms of depression.
Researchers are trying new applications for the field of nutrition. What used to be considered as “emotional work” and “physical work” are now becoming interconnected. As doctors learn how the body’s absorption of nutrients affects mental and physical health, the field will surely only grow.