A rapidly growing amount of research is highlighting the impact that food has on mental health and well-being. This connection has been difficult to study because we are just scratching the surface of understanding the human gut microbiome, the small world of organisms that live in our digestive system, and how this biological community impacts the two-way communication channel between our nervous and digestive systems. It is only in recent years that scientists have had the capacity to research this relationship, and the results suggest a tremendous amount of promise for nutritional approaches to supporting mental and physical health.
The microbiology found in the human gut may contain over 1,000 different species of organisms (known so far) that support our well-being, when they are in balance. This relationship impacts immunity, bodily inflammation, the chemicals of our nervous system, and how well we absorb nutrition from our food. Consuming supplements with specific strains of gut bacteria has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. Traditional diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, that significantly limit the consumption of processed foods and sugar, may positively impact the gut biome by providing nutrients that support beneficial species of microorganism over detrimental types. This is in contrast to the typical American diet that is primarily made up of processed foods, many of which have been shown to harm beneficial gut biology. The Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce the chances of developing a neurological disorder by as much as 28% compared to other diets.
In clinical research, drawing strong causality between what we eat and mental health is complex and difficult. Despite this, the number of new studies seeking to understand this connection is growing, and may indicate one of the most important areas of focus in the healthcare field. This area of study also suggests significant overlap with the food and agricultural sectors. Local food systems can significantly contribute to equitable community access to a diet that contains the healthy foods that will support a flourishing microbiome. This in turn may lead to a reduction in the number of nutrition related diseases (diseases that between 2016 and 2021 cost the United States almost 9% of its Gross Domestic Product), stronger local economies, and healthier individuals and communities.
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