How Diet Can Promote Recovery from Depression and Anxiety in a Residential Treatment Setting

In the past, food has been suggested as a factor that can influence our mental health, but the recent SMILES trial is the first to clearly show the positive effects that diet can have on depression in a mental health treatment setting. Given the results, it’s likely that diet also has positive effects on anxiety and co-occurring addictions, supporting the effectiveness of including a diet plan to support the process of healing through residential treatment.

St. Francis de Sales said that “the spirit cannot endure the body when overfed, but, if underfed, the body cannot endure the spirit.” His quote can be interpreted in many ways, but in the context of mental health, it’s easy to perceive it as an expression that highlights the connection between what we put into our body and our state of mind. Just like mental health challenges can adversely affect our body if left untreated, a lack of attention to our body and the foods that we put into it can negatively impact our state of mind.

Even if you’re completely aware of the link between diet and mental health, when you’re struggling with issues like anxiety and depression, you might still find yourself eating unhealthy foods because of the instant gratification that they provide, which can help you temporarily forget about how you’re feeling. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that similar reward pathways in the brain underlie both drug and food addiction, which suggests that junk food might be used by some as an escape from their internal struggles in a similar way to drugs.

Regardless, the role that diet plays in the state of our mental health is becoming increasingly recognized, with data revealing that people who eat fresh fruits and vegetables on a daily basis have less mental health issues than those who don’t. But despite these connections, no research has experimentally studied the effects of dietary treatments within a mental health setting—until now.

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The SMILES Trial

Back in 2012, researchers began a study referred to as the Supporting the Modification of lifestyle in Lowered Emotional States (SMILES) trial, which sought to answer a question that continues to arise in the field of mental health: “if I improve my diet, will my mood improve?” The study took place over 12 weeks and focused specifically on 55 people living with, and being treated for, depression. One group in the trial cut down on foods suspected to be tied to poor mental health, such as fried foods, sugary drinks, and sweets, and stuck to a modified Mediterranean diet that consisted of foods such as:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Whole grains
  • Lean red meat
  • Chicken
  • Fish
  • Eggs

This group also went through seven hour-long nutritional counseling sessions. The other group, meanwhile, continued to eat normally and made no effort to exclude fast food, processed meats, and sweets from their diet. In the place of nutritional counseling, they engaged in neutral social support sessions that were in no way related to mental health treatment—they were simply added to the study design ensure that the experiences of both groups were as similar as possible.

The results were promising: those in the group with the healthier diet had the greatest reductions in their depression scores, as measured by the Montgomery–Åsberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS). Given the positive influence that diet has on physical ailments such as obesity, which appear to be “both a cause and consequence of depression,” the connection between maintaining a balanced diet and positive mental health seems almost. Future treatment strategies for depression and other mental health challenges may even place a stronger focus on adhering to a healthy diet, as these results now provide concrete evidence for the benefits of this avenue for depression in a structured treatment environment.

The Effect of Diet on Anxiety and Co-Occurring Addictions

Diets high in fats and sugars have also been linked to anxiety, which often goes hand-in-hand with depression. Although no studies have examined the potential of dietary treatment for anxiety to the extent that the SMILES trial did for depression, research suggests that these kinds of diets can disrupt the serotonergic neurotransmitter system, a system that is linked to both depression and anxiety.

In addition, if you’re struggling with a co-occurring addiction, tweaking your diet can provide your body with the “metabolic co-factors essential for the correct functioning and recovery of brain structures,” ultimately promoting a feeling of well-being that can kickstart your motivation to get treatment. Depending on the nature of your particular addiction, your dietary plan can be catered towards typical deficiencies observed in people with your addiction.

Healing Through Residential Treatment

Understanding how you can use diet to heal your body to promote recovery in your mind is something that takes a lot of effort and knowledge. Despite the positive results of the SMILES trial, if you’re living with mental health challenges like depression and anxiety, it can be easy to lose focus on things like exercisingand eating right. You might find yourself trapped in a state of mind where you feel burdened by depressive thoughts and worries which make it difficult just to get out of bed and go to work, let alone adhere to a proper diet. It also doesn’t help that as a culture, our perception of mental health treatment paints an image of it as something typically confined to the walls of therapy rooms and pharmacies. As nurse and food advocate Kayla Grossman put it,

If there is something I wish I understood long ago, it is the deep, integral connection between mood and food. Beyond the happy coincidence that these words rhyme, the two are complexly and biochemically intertwined in a way that is far-too-often minimized in our modern discussion of behavior, emotion and overall health.

Within a residential treatment program, you will be provided with the dietary structure and guidance needed to help you harness the power of healthy foods to their fullest. You will also have access to personal chefs and nutritionists that can constantly adapt to your needs and ensure that what you’re putting into your body is conducive to creating a happier, healthier lifestyle going forward.

Whether you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, or addiction, the mind-body connection plays an important role in the recovery process, and a healthy diet looks to be a promising way of positively using this connection in the context of treatment. Using the structure and focus of a comprehensive residential treatment program, you can benefit from dietary treatments through the help of professional support, ultimately learning how to integrate a healthy diet into your lifestyle and continue using it to promote your recovery well into the future.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with depression and other mental health challenges. Contact us to learn more about how our program can provide you with the dietary treatment necessary to forge a path to lasting recovery.

Lead Image Source: Unsplash user Henrique Félix