The two best things you can do for a healthy smile are to make good hygiene routine and to eat healthfully. At minimum, the former includes regular brushing and flossing, but may also include practices like oil pulling and using an oral irrigator. The latter means basing your diet on whole, not hyper-processed, foods, especially fresh vegetables and other plant-based foods. It includes little to no added sugars or other refined carbs.
This is especially important for preventing gum disease, which is marked by rampant, chronic inflammation. Rich in antioxidants and other key nutrients, plant-based foods are anti-inflammatory. Sugars and refined carbs, on the other hand, fuel it. (The same goes for many animal-based foods.)
Of course, it’s not just your teeth and gums that benefit from this way of eating. Your whole body does. And as recent research suggests, it supports good mental health, as well.
The study, published this past October in BMC Psychiatry, looked at the effect of fruit and vegetable consumption on psychological distress. The dietary habits and mental health of more than 20,000 Swiss individuals over age 15 were assessed. The recommended produce consumption was a minimum 5 servings a day – 2 of fruit, 3 of veg. (This is in line with current US recommendations, as well).
The 5-a-day recommendation was met by 11.6 % of the participants with low distress, 9.3 % of those with moderate distress, and 6.2 % of those with high distress. Consumers fulfilling the 5-a-day recommendation had lower odds of being highly or moderately distressed than individuals consuming less fruit and vegetables.
In other words, more produce consumption, better mental health. This, the authors note, is in line with previous research.
As for the why, it may be the result of plant-based foods’ power to fight inflammation. As science is showing more and more, depression is an inflammatory condition. In fact, one study just published in Molecular Psychiatry suggests that fighting inflammation may help especially with persistent cases of depression.
Another factor may be the increased folate (a B vitamin) intake that comes from eating more fruit and veg. As the authors of the BMC Psychiatry study note,
Folate is a further substance in fruit and vegetables that has been shown to be linked to depression. A meta-analysis of observational studies showed significant inverse associations of folate status with depression. The included studies were mostly cross-sectional, but the result was also supported by one cohort study. The latter study hypothesized that folate increases methylation processes and the regulation of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin which, in turn, is associated with a lower risk of depression.
Interestingly, a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Indian Society of Periodontology found “a direct correlation between the severity of periodontal disease and the severity of depression in patients.”
Depression is associated with negligent oral health care and another mechanism proposed disturbance in the hypothalamic-pituitary axis system and hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid system, which can affect the periodontal status by affecting the immune system.
Of course, just as diet is only one part of oral health, it’s also just one part of the complicated mental health landscape. As Dr. Felice N. Jacka noted in a recent interview with BMC Psychiatry, many triggers can prompt depression and other mental health disorders.
It is important that we take a life course approach to resilience. One of the challenges is that so many of the environmental factors that impinge on the risks for mental disorders happen outside of the mental health sector. Thus it really does need a whole population approach. We need to protect people from vulnerability risk factors, such as child abuse and neglect, poverty, bullying, workplace stress, and social isolation, and target these by building resilience through education, social and emotional learning, and community-based interventions… Improving physical health and health behaviours, such as diet, physical activity and smoking, is really important.
But even if it is only a small part, diet should be taken seriously as it affects every aspect of your health, from your head to your toes. For though your health can, in theory, be segmented into categories, in reality, everything is connected.
Image by Joan Nova