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A Customized Diet Might Be What Your Mental Health Needs

What’s the best food for your brain?

Our mental health is a truly fickle, complicated web of factors and needs. Getting enough sleep helps, exercising helps, getting therapy helps, taking medication helps, eating right helps — yet none of us are born knowing the precise parameters and which combinations of these practices will help us best. Maybe one person feels best on six hours of sleep, running several times a week and meditating, while another needs closer to eight hours, regular yoga and an SSRI. It’s all totally individualized. 

A new study from Binghamton University, State University of New York, however, offers some better guidance on how we can at least figure out how to curate our diet toward our psychological well-being, individual needs included. 

Over the course of five years, 2,628 participants were surveyed about their food intake, exercise and other lifestyle factors as well as for symptoms of mental distress, including anxiety and depression. The participants from North America, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Asia were divided into four groups depending on age and sex, with two groups for men and women ages 18 to 29 and two groups for men and women over 30. While ideally everyone would be able to have a full battery of physiological tests conducted to identify precisely their own needs, the study revealed some broad takeaways based on age and sex that can have significant impacts on mental health based on brain development and hormonal changes.

In particular, both young men and women saw improved mental health when caffeine consumption was low and they abstained from eating fast food. Caffeine is thought to play a significant role in mental health in young people because it is metabolized by the same enzyme that metabolizes testosterone and estrogen. Prior to turning 30, these hormones tend to be highest. As such, caffeine stays in younger people’s bodies for longer, stimulating the nervous system in a way that can produce feelings of stress and anxiety

Further, young adults with poor-quality diets and nutritional deficiencies reported higher levels of mental distress. To help remedy this, the study found that young women benefit from eating breakfast every day and moderate-to-high exercise frequency (two to four or more workouts per week). Young men benefit from similar levels of exercise, as well as moderate consumption of dairy and meat. 

For women over 30, both daily breakfast and daily exercise had marked effects in improving mental health, and high consumption of fruit was further linked to lower mental distress. In men over 30, high consumption of nuts had a similar effect. In all groups except men over 30, exercise was linked to better mental health. However, prior studies on the topic have linked exercise with mental stability in this demographic, too. 

There was some variance in data according to region, but seasons seemed to be of importance, as well. Oddly enough, women of all ages were found to be at highest risk of mental distress during the spring. Researchers speculate that disturbances in the circadian rhythm may be at fault, and that women are more susceptible to it. 

Though the results of the study might currently only offer some generalized insights, there are still little tweaks the average person could incorporate into their lifestyle accordingly. Maybe it works for you, maybe it doesn’t. Personally, I’ll take any excuse to eat breakfast.

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