Fasting, Food Sensitivities & Mental Health

What You Eat Can Affect Your Mood

World Mental Health Day (WMHD) is October 10th and to honor this important designation, I wanted to share a post on diet and mental health. There are various nutrition strategies to support mood disorders, but I’ll highlight a less widely known strategy: intermittent fasting (IMF). IMF has become a hot topic in recent years for its purported benefits of weight loss, healthy aging, and longevity. More specifically to WMHD, scientific research has shown there are benefits to mental health as well. When done properly, IMF has been shown to be helpful for anxiety and mood disorders. “Properly” simply means a well-balanced, calorie restricted diet that does not put you at risk for malnutrition.

So, what exactly is intermittent fasting? Fasting is merely a term to describe a non-feeding state; i.e. when your body is not actively consuming food or calories. Intermittent fasting just means fasting at different intervals of time. IMF can take a variety of forms; one example is a prolonged overnight fast (14-16 hours). Sometimes called “time restricted eating” it merely means you eat during a set number of hours in the day (10 am – 6 pm, for example) and fast for the remaining hours. Another version of IMF is “calorie restricted eating” (CRE) meaning eating around 500 calories per day for a limited period of time to gain the benefits of a fasting state. This can mean CRE for 2-3 days per week, or more, depending on your needs.

Each approach to IMF looks a bit different, and the results can vary, so it’s prudent to choose a method that works best for you and your circumstances. Consulting a nutritionist or healthcare practitioner who has experience with IMF can help you determine the most appropriate method for success.

What are the benefits of IMF, you ask? Studies have shown significant improvement of mood, decrease in anxiety, increase in energy, and better sleep. The mechanism of action is varied and research is ongoing, but the way it works has to do mostly with biochemistry.  Certain biochemical changes happen within the body during a fast that affect brain signaling pathways which, in turn, affect mood. For example, during a fast your body starts to use ketones (fat breakdown products) for energy instead of glucose (blood sugar). Ketones are used readily by brain cells and can improve communication and enhance neurotransmitter function. Fasting can also cause a release of endorphins (feel good chemicals) and accelerate the cleaning out of damaged cells.

Although IMF shows promising results for mood disorders, it doesn’t give you a hall pass to eat anything in sight during feeding times! Our brains need a balance of nutrients to function optimally and maintain a positive mood. Whole, nutrient-dense, foods should form the basis of our diet.  These are foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and good quality protein from meat and seafood. Foods that should be eliminated or greatly reduced are processed foods like refined flours, breads, pasta, chips, crackers, and industrial baked goods, plus beverages high in sugar like soda and energy drinks.

Additionally, underlying food sensitivities can exacerbate mood disorders. Common foods like wheat/gluten, dairy or eggs (to name a few) can play a considerable – and often unknown – role in anxiety and depression. These foods can create food sensitivities that cause inflammation (typically a type of antibody classified as “IgG”) and disrupt production of neurotransmitters that affect mood. Testing for food sensitivities can be beneficial because it can identify foods as a potential trigger. In combination with intermittent fasting, eliminating food sensitivities can be beneficial adjunct therapy.

Treatment for mood disorders is multifactorial, so it’s helpful to have various approaches to support therapy. As research and experience suggest, IMF could be an advanced nutrition protocol for improving mental health. Work with a nutritionist to determine the best strategy for you.