Chances are, you or someone you know has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Most people are aware of the debilitating symptoms such as nightmares, hypervigilance, flashbacks, intense fear and distress. These symptoms arrive soon, but continue long after, a traumatic event. PSTD disrupts every facet of a person’s life: placing strain on relationships, eroding occupational functioning, and ruining physical health. PTSD is so isolating, painful and pervasive, that it can lead people to end their lives to end their suffering. Clearly the treatment of PTSD is vital. Research which tells us how to effectively treat PTSD is incredibly important because beyond reasons of prevalence and suffering, there is no 100% cure for PTSD.
What PTSD treatments are there?
One of the most common and evidence-based treatments for trauma is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). CBT is a psychological approach which focuses on the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Therapists use a variety of techniques to help clients challenge unhelpful behavior or thinking patterns. CBT works, but may not be the treatment of choice for several reasons. People may be too embarrassed to seek therapy, or the symptoms of PTSD are so severe that they are confined to their home. People may have problems accessing therapy due to costs, limited availability or geographical location. Even when people manage to overcome these barriers and start CBT, it is not unusual for people to stop treatment prematurely. Patients may discontinue because treatment is too challenging, they struggle to make gains, it is not offering them relief, or, in some cases, worsens their experience of symptoms.
Medication is the other most common evidence-based treatment approach for PTSD. There are no medications to cure PSTD, but medications can be used to alleviate PTSD symptoms related to mood or stress. These medications work by changing levels of brain chemicals, such as serotonin. Medications may not be the treatment of choice due to factors such as response failure, non-compliance, cost or side-effects. Further, medication may not be appropriate for certain groups such as children or those with complex medical needs.
Overall, we see that current approaches to PTSD treatment are necessary and can work but are just not enough.
What about diet as PTSD treatment?
It is only in recent times diet has been considered as a possible treatment option for mental health conditions. This is surprising given the key role nutrition plays in the structure and function of our brain and body. Diet is a pragmatic and cost-effective intervention approach. It does not have to contend with the barriers of conventional approaches, has only positive side effects and can be used to support therapy or medication. Improving diet is something everyone can and should do.
There are good reasons to think that diet can, and should, be used to help with PTSD. Firstly, those with mental health disorders often do not have an optimal diet. For example, a large study indicated a relationship between lower fruit and vegetable consumption and distress levels. Furthermore, previous research has linked depression and anxiety with unhealthy dietary patterns. In addition, PTSDis associated with stress-related eating disorders, emotional eating and poor diet quality.
It is not surprising then that those with PTSD have increased risk for poor physical health , including conditions such as metabolic syndrome, cardio-vascular disease and diabetes. Therefore, a second reason that diet should be used to treat PTSD is that an optimal diet can manage physical co-morbidities. This is also big reminder to us of how mental health and physical health are fundamentally connected and exacerbate each other. For this reason, we need approaches such as dietary interventions to simultaneously address the mental and physical symptoms of PTSD.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, diet has the potential to influence biological mechanisms underlying PSTD. PTSD involves inflammation, oxidative stress, brain chemical irregularities, gut microbiome dysbiosis and mitochondrial dysfunction. Building evidence suggests that diets, such as the Mediterranean Diet, can have a positive influence on each of these mechanisms.
Despite very good reasons to consider diet to improve PTSD, research about a specific diet treatment for PTSD is virtually non-existent – until now! We are very excited to be developing a clinical trial which will explore the role of diet in treatment of PTSD. Watch this space for further information on how to get involved!
What are some tips for eating a diet that’s good for mental health?
In the meantime, the best advice for those who have PTSD is to try and follow a diet that is good for mental health in general. Here are a few simple steps to follow to manage your mental health via diet:
- Follow ‘traditional’ dietary patterns, such as the Mediterranean, Norwegian, or Japanese diet
- Increase fruits, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, nuts, and seed
- Limit intake of ultra-processed foods
- Eat wholesome nutritious foods for every meal and snack
- Start small with sustainable changes
Gina Howland is a PhD candidate at the Food and Mood Centre with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology and expertise in psychological intervention for trauma. She holds multiple degrees in psychology and teaching, and currently provides evidence-based clinical services (assessment and treatment) to individuals with complex needs.