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Treat the body well and the brain benefits

Published March 13. 2010 09:00AM

Less than two months ago, a Palmerton Area High School sophomore committed suicide. Word spread through the junior high school the next day, and many who knew the boy agonized over the loss.

This agony seemed to dredge up awful fears and memories in others, creating a classic example of the ripple effect. Tears begot tears, and by midday any attempts at school work were useless.

As kids sat in small groups comforting one another, more than once I heard the question asked.


When I was asked that question, I had no answer. But in the passing weeks I've come to realize that there's something more important than that answer.

It's developing a strategy to keep the sadness found in the school on that day from escalating into something more serious.

I'm not a psychologist, so I won't offer parents advice on how to provide emotional comfort to your son or daughter or post a list of warning signs that would indicate potential danger. What I will say is that when you treat the body well the brain benefits.

Specifically, eating right and getting sufficient sleep count when it comes to sustaining mental health.

Two recent studies have reinforced this, the first by demonstrating the inexorable link between food and mood. The Spanish study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry gave nearly 11,000 adults initially free of depression a 136-item questionnaire designed to establish to what degree the they adhered to the tenets of the Mediterranean diet a diet moderate in healthy fats, low in red meat, and high in legumes, fruits, nuts, cereals, vegetables, and fish and known to help weight loss and promote cardiovascular health.

The responses were given a score between 0 and 9. After nearly four and a half years, the researchers discovered that 480 of the nearly 11,000 had now developed depression.

But those who had scored between 5 and 9 on the questionnaire were 42 percent less likely to have done so than those who scored between 0 and 2.

Concerned that the scores may have been skewed by some respondents entering the study with undiagnosed depression, the researchers then removed anyone who had developed depression in the first two years of the study and worked the numbers again.

Surprisingly, instead of the relationship getting weaker, it got stronger.

Now those who scored between 5 and 9 were 58 percent less likely to have developed depression than those who scored between 0 and 2.

While these results say something particularly promising about the Mediterranean diet, many have interpreted the results in a broader way. They feel that adhering to any healthy eating plan will reduce the likelihood of developing depression.

So parents who provide healthy meals and refuse to let their kids eat too much junk may be doing far more for the child's benefit than sparing them the embarrassment of lugging around a few extra pounds. They may be creating a situation that keeps mental demons at bay.

Another important thing that parents can do to promote mental health is enforce a bedtime. While this may seem difficult to do the way we live our lives today, a study done at Columbia University suggests it may just save your child's life.

In this study, researchers found a link between the time of day and when a teenager has suicidal thoughts. According to the Bloomberg News account, teens whose parents let them go to bed past midnight were 20 percent more likely to have contemplated suicide than teens whose parents have set a 10 p.m. or earlier bedtime for them.

Equally as important was the discovery that the late-to-bed group was 24 percent more likely to be depressed.

This study is seen as particularly significant for it alters a view previously held about a lack of sleep. Prior to this, it was viewed as a symptom of depression.

Now it is being considered a cause.

James Gangwisch, the study's lead author and an assistant professor at Columbia, had this to say to Bloomberg News: "Adequate quality sleep could [actually] be a preventative measure against depression and a treatment for depression."

For years researchers have known that a lack of sleep affects judgment, concentration and impulse control, but Gangwisch along with many others in the field now feel that a lack of sleep may very well hinder the body's mechanisms that cope with stress.

Therefore, teens who are chronically low on sleep may see a serious problem as something even worse and act irrationally as a result.

Suicide is the third most common cause of death for Americans between the ages of 10 and 24. That fact combined with the research referred to today should encourage parents and children alike to view diet and sleep in a far more serious light.

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