Can a change in diet cure psychological illnesses? What dietary changes or interventions may be effective in treatment or management of mental or mood disorders?
Diet is more than weight loss, and has been invoked, modified and studied for a wide variety of physical and mental ills and conditions. Yet there is surprisingly little hard data available to tell us what diet changes may affect our minds and our moods.
A recent literature review from the American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology (ASCP) looked at a range of dietary interventions and studied the evidence available for each one.
The authors reviewed five models of interventions that have attracted attention in recent years:
- Adding something to the diet (eg vitamins or supplements)
- Removing something from the diet (elimination diets)
- Both adding and removing (“healthy eating”)
- The gut microbiome
- Fasting and the ketogenic diet
The review was specifically about the use of these dietary interventions for psychological benefits, not for physical health or weight loss.
Adding something to the diet, usually supplements of some kind does have some research backing it up. In particular, supplementation with Omega-3 fatty acids has been studied with positive results for mood disorders and depression. On the other hand, folic acid and Vitamin E have not shown positive results for depression or mood. Vitamin D may provide some help in depression for those who are deficient in this vitamin.
Anyone choosing to take dietary supplements should be aware that there is no Federal oversight of the contents of supplements. We recommend the use of the site “Consumer Labs” which conducts independent testing of products purchased from grocery stores and other sites where consumers would usually access them (not directly from the manufacturer). Consumer Labs is a membership site which charges a small monthly subscription fee, and users of dietary supplements or other alternative treatments are well advised to join the site.
Removing something from the diet (elimination diet) has shown fewer results in mood disorders or depression. Some results have been found in eliminating food colorings from the diets of children with ADHD, but elimination of other elements has not shown any results.
Both adding and removing, or eating a healthy diet has long been considered an important adjunct to treatment for mental illness, and the Mediterranean Diet, as reviewed in Moodsurfing before, has some robust results to back it up. Use of olive oil, nuts, seafoods, and fresh vegetables, and a reduction in sugars and saturated fats has been shown to have significant effect in controlling and reducing depression.
The gut microbiome is beginning to show interesting results for its influence on overall health, and many people are using “probiotics” of one kind or another, however, research has not caught up, and very little clinical data is available.
The ketogenic diet/fasting is another area in which interest is growing, but except for some results in children with epilepsy, no mood or psychological effects have been found.
Palmer. Christopher M. Diets and Disorders: Can Foods or Fasting Be Considered Psychopharmacologic Therapies? J Clin Psychiatry 81:1, January/February 2020. https://doi.org/10.4088/JCP.19ac12727