Fatty acids and brain signaling
So, what happens in the brains of people who are overweight or have obesity that makes them more susceptible to depression?
To gain a basic idea, the research team conducted a preliminary study in mouse models to which the scientists fed a high fat dietary, containing up to 60% of both saturated and unsaturated fats.
The brains of mammals, including human body, actually need certain fatty acids —such as omega-3 — to function correctly. Humans bodies, in particular, cannot synthesize fatty acids on their own, and so they need to absorb these nutrients from food.
However, not all fatty acids are as healthful, and the overaccumulation of fatty acids in the body can lead to health problems.
Too much dietary fat in the brain may impact mental health, cautions study
People with obesity are often likely to develop depression as well, but the mechanisms at play are still unclear. New research in mice may now explain what happens in the brains of entity who have a high-fat diet.
The investigators, note that this is a particularly important research topic, as obesity-related depression seems to happen via different mechanisms from depression in otherwise healthy individuals.
In its study paper, which appears in the journal Translational Psychiatry, the research team explains that many people with obesity and depression , who doctors treat with regular antidepressants, do not see any benefits from the treatment.
At the same time, people with obesity and depression also do not experience some of the side effects that people typically accomplice with those antidepressants, such as further weight gain.
‘When compared with patients of normal body weight, overweight and obese patients showed a substantially slower response to antidepressant treatment, less improvement in neuroendocrinology and cognitive processing, and less antidepressant-induced weight gain,’ the researchers write.
Diet and mental health
There is research to suggest that what we eat may affect not just our physical health, but also our mental health and benefit.
Eating well (i.e. a well-balanced diet rich in vegetables and nutrients) may be associated with feelings of wellbeing. One 2014 study found high levels of wellbeing were reported by individuals who ate more fruit and vegetables. A recent study found that a Mediterranean-style diet (a diet high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, cereals, grains, fish, and unsaturated fats such as olive oil.) complement with fish oil led to a reduction in depression among participants, which was sustained six months after the intervention. The importance of good nutritional intake at an early age is explored in multiple studies, including a systematic review in 2014, which found that a poor diet (with high levels of saturated fat, refined carbohydrates and processed food products) is linked to poorer mental health in children and adolescents.
However, there are a range of inequalities that can contribute to the development of mental health problems, and how these factors interact with each other to affect mental health can be complex. Factors such as poorer physical health, and living in poverty, or deprived communities, have been found to be associated with poorer mental health and wellbeing. Both these inequality factors have also been shown to have a complex relationship with poor nutrients.
Which comes first? Poor diet or depression?
One could argue that, well, being depressed makes us more likely to eat delicate foods. This is true, so we should ask what came first, the diet or the depression. Researchers have addressed this question, thankfully. Another large analysis looked only at prospective studies, meaning, they looked at baseline diet and then determined the risk of study volunteers going on to develop depression.
So, how should I counsel my patients on diet? There are several healthy options that can be used as a guide. One that comes up again and again is the Mediterranean diet. Another wonderful resource for folks is the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health website with an introductory guide to healthy diet.
Comfort eating may amplify bad emotions
This is the first time anyone has observed the direct effects a high-fat diet can have on the signaling areas of the brain related to depression. This research may begin to explain how and why obesity is linked with depression, and how we can potentially better treat patients with these conditions,” he adds.
The team believes that the mechanism it observed in mice is probably also at play in humans with obesity-related depression. The connection between a poor diet and poor mental health makes sense, according to the lead author.
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