Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a common mental health disorder that can occur after experiencing a traumatic event. 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. PTSD disrupts every facet of a person’s life: relationships, daily functioning, work life and physical health.

What PTSD treatments are available?
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 their clients challenge unhelpful behaviour or thinking patterns. CBT works for most people, but may not be the treatment of choice for several reasons such as cost or limited availability.

Medication is the other most common evidence-based treatment approach for PTSD. There are no medications to cure PTSD, but medications can be used to alleviate PTSD symptoms related to mood, stress or sleep. 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, 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. We know that nutrition plays a key role in the structure and function of our brain and body. Diet is a pragmatic and cost-effective intervention approach. It can work alongside existing treatments, and has positive side effects for our physical health, too.

There are good reasons to think that diet can, and should, be used to help with PTSD. Those experiencing mental health disorders often eat a lower quality diet for a number of complex and interacting reasons. For example, depression can affect people’s energy levels, appetite and motivation, which in turn has a large effect on food choices. Others may experience food insecurity, have a lack of support from family/friends, or have limited cooking skills. In addition, PTSD is associated with stress-related eating disorders and emotional eating.

People experiencing PTSD have an increased risk for physical health conditions, including metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. This is a reminder of how mental and physical health are fundamentally connected. For this reason, we need approaches such as dietary and other lifestyle interventions (e.g. physical activity and sleep) to simultaneously address the mental and physical symptoms of PTSD.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, diet has the potential to influence biological mechanisms underlying PTSD, such as inflammation, oxidative stress, brain chemical irregularities, gut microbiome dysbiosis and mitochondrial dysfunction. Building evidence suggests that what we eat can have a positive influence on each of these mechanisms.

What are some tips for eating a diet that is helpful for mental health?
As there is no specific research on diet for PTSD, the best advice is to try and follow a diet that is helpful for mental health in general. Here are a few simple steps to follow to manage your mental health through diet:

  1. Enjoy plenty of high-fibre plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, nuts and seeds
  2. Include plenty of healthy fats coming from extra virgin olive oil, avocado, oily fish, nuts and seeds
  3. Enjoy a wide variety of foods
  4. Include moderate amounts of lean sources of protein, such as fish and seafood, white meat (chicken and turkey), and small amounts of lean red meat (beef, lamb and pork)
  5. Incorporate principles of intuitive eating such as mindful eating and recognising hunger and fullness levels
  6. Start small with sustainable changes, rather than having an all-or-nothing approach

In addressing the multifaceted challenges of PTSD, it is evident that while conventional treatments like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and medication offer crucial support, they may not fully encompass the needs of those affected. Integrating dietary interventions alongside existing treatments not only presents a practical and cost-effective approach but also addresses the intricate interplay between mental and physical health.