Elnaz Vaghef Mehrabani, Postdoctoral associate

University of Calgary

Nutritional psychiatry: A healthy diet can alleviate depressive symptoms

There is this renowned saying that “we are what we eat”! However, great emphasis is put on physical health and not much is said on how food affects the mental wellbeing of individuals. Nutritional psychiatry is an emerging research and practice area focusing on healthy diet for better mental health. There is compelling evidence from observational studies that healthier dietary choices are associated with less depressive symptoms and anxiety in all stages of life. Since these associations are sometimes attributed to the overall healthy lifestyle, clinical trials have been conducted to investigate if dietary modifications can benefit psychological outcomes, and have come up with mixed findings including positive or no significant effects. Meta-analyses have found that dietary interventions can significantly decrease depressive symptoms but cannot alleviate anxiety. Hypothesizing that individuals with clinical diagnoses of mental health problems might benefit most from dietary interventions, few studies have addressed the impact of a healthy diet on improving mental health outcomes in those diagnosed with depression, and have come up with promising results. Some potential mechanisms have been suggested explaining these findings; a healthy diet provides sufficient nutrients essential for production of neurotransmitters that are crucial for optimal brain function, and prevents neuroinflammation which is implicated in pathogenesis of common mental health problems. While prenatal and postnatal depression are very common and substantially affect the pregnant individuals and their offspring, there is scant research on the potential benefits of dietary approaches to alleviate the symptoms, calling for well-designed clinical trials.

Speaker/Chair Bio:

Elnaz completed her B.Sc. in 2010 and her M.Sc. in 2013, both in Nutritional Sciences at Tabriz University of Medical Sciences, Iran. She then worked as a dietitian to expand her clinical experience. In 2019, she completed her PhD in Nutritional Sciences at Tabriz University of Medical Sciences. She started her first postdoc in 2019 at the University of Calgary. Her research being interrupted by maternity leave, she extended her postdoc in the same lab to complete her projects. Elnaz is interested in the role of nutrition in prevention of chronic diseases especially mental health problems which are tightly connected with physical disorders and complicate their management. During her postdoc she developed interest in learning about how maternal nutritional exposures pre-pregnancy and prenatally could affect mental health outcomes in the mother and the offspring. The focus of her research is the inflammatory aspects of these exposures. She hopes to use this knowledge to work on feasible, cost-effective, and community-based nutrition interventions during pregnancy to help prevent mental health problems in both the mothers and their children.