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Mental Health – What is it?

According to the World Health Organization(WHO), authors of the Mental Health Action Plan[1], mental health is an individual’s sense of well-being, the ability to function productively in work, home, and community environments, and the ability to cope with the stresses of normal daily life. Mental health is also the ability to control our thoughts and emotions, behaviours, our physical and mental well-being, and to effect our living conditions, social and work environments.

Mental health - New Brain NutritionWays to maintain mental health include:

  • Personal connections and social interactions
  • Helping others – coming out of yourself
  • Staying positive
  • A physically active lifestyle
  • Eating healthy foods
  • Getting adequate sleep on a regular basis
  • Learning and employing coping skills
  • Getting professional help if you need it

Mental health is an important part of overall health, according to WHO. Health is not just the absence of disease.  Health allows individuals to live long and productive lives.  Health is a vital resource we have that enables us to function productively in our environment, satisfy core needs, and achieve our goals and ambitions.

Mental Illness and Disorder – What is it?

Mental health problems can effect result in disordered or troubled thinking, unstable mood shifts, and erratic or unpredictable behaviors.  These can manifest in ten categories[2]:

Mental illness - New Brain Nutrition

  1. Anxiety disorder
  2. Behavioral disorder
  3. Eating disorder
  4. Substance use disorder
  5. Mood disorder
  6. Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  7. Personality disorder
  8. Psychotic disorder
  9. Suicidal behavior
  10. Trauma and stress-related disorder

Mental illness is complicated and fragile, and can be brought on or exacerbated by combinations of factors including, family history, early childhood challenges, genetics, socio-economic conditions, environmental conditions, trauma, and poor lifestyle.

Rates of mental illness are rising, according to the World Health Organization.  “The burden of mental disorders continues to grow with significant impacts on health and major social, human rights and economic consequences in all countries of the world.”[3]  It is unclear whether the data trend is due to better detection and diagnosis, changes in environment or genetics, the aging world population and life expectancy, or economic and political stresses.

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Impulsivity and Compulsivity

Maladaptive or uncontrolled impulsivity and compulsivity are part of several mental illnesses, including ADHD, bipolar disorder, substance use disorder, eating disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and autism. Impulsivity and compulsivity can be very harmful, as they increase the risk for crime, injury and mortality [4].

impulsivity compulsivity Impulsivity is defined as “the tendency to act quickly and unpredictably without apparent concern for consequences” [5][6]. This means that you do or say something without thinking about it first, such as blurting out a comment, or buying something expensive on the spur of the moment [7]. Impulsivity is also related to certain forms of aggression, hyperactivity and emotional instability. While occasionally acting impulsive is not a bad thing, impulsivity becomes harmful when it impairs your everyday functioning. Such can be the case for people with ADHD or bipolar disorder.

Compulsivity is “the performance of repetitive and functionally impairing overt or covert behavior without adaptive function, performed in a habitual or stereotyped fashion, either according to rigid rules or as a means of avoiding perceived negative consequences” [8]. Such acts may be the compulsive washing of hands, but also the compulsive need for drugs in the context of an addiction. Hence, compulsivity is an important aspect of substance use disorder, eating disorder, autism and of course obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Although they seem very different, impulsivity and compulsivity share a profound feeling of ‘lack of control’ and are thought to share similar neural mechanisms that involve the dysfunctional inhibition of thoughts and behaviours [8]. However, we still know very little about how to reduce the impulsivity and compulsivity, or protect people from developing these traits in a harmful way. That is why with New Brain Nutrition we are investigating the role of diet, socioeconomic status and genetics in developing – and preventing – impulsivity and compulsivity problems.

Gender Differences in Mental Health

Gender differences are apparent in multiple psychiatric and socially problematic behaviors including aggression, criminality, drug use, and gambling. When you compare large groups of men and women, men show a slightly higher vulnerability to these behaviors than women: they are more sensitive to rewards and risk-taking, are less able to inhibit their behavior, show greater preference for immediate instead of delayed rewards, and are more likely to persevere in such behaviors [9].

gender differencesBecause of higher prevalence, maladaptive behavior has been mainly investigated in men, and there is a critical lack of information for women. Furthermore, understanding gender-specific biological factors that play a role in these behaviors may help to improve interventions.

We still know very little about gender differences in diet and lifestyle and how dietary intake and lifestyle factors can exert gender-specific effects on behavior. The research of the Eat2beNICE consortium therefore specifically focuses on differences between men and women when investigating how food and lifestyle influence impulsivity and compulsivity.

Nutrition, Lifestyle, and Mental Health

The primary medical modes for addressing mental health problems today are medications and psychotherapy. Although medications can be very effective for certain conditions, they are not always helpful for everyone, and some people may experience side effects. Furthermore, medications often do not cure the disease, but only reduce symptoms while the medication is being taken. That is why researchers and clinicians are searching for other alternatives.

fig and cheese salad
There is a growing body of scientific evidence of the powerful effects of nutrition and lifestyle on mental health. See our helpful information on Healthy Nutrition. We have a lot of great information to share there.

Before specific diets can be used as treatments, they first need to be carefully tested in clinical trials. With the Eat2beNICE research consortium (funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 grant (2017-2022))[10], we are focused on ground-breaking research and clinical trials to evidence the relationship between nutrition, lifestyle, and our mental health.


[1] Mental health action plan 2013 – 2020. (2013). Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization

[2] Mental health: What to Look For. accessed May 19, 2018

[3]Mental Disorders: Key Facts. World Health Organization. Accessed May 19, 2018

[4] Dalsgaard, S., Leckman, J.F., Mortensen, P.B., Nielsen, H.S. & Simonsen, M. (2015) Effect of drugs on the risk of injuries in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a prospective cohort study. Lancet Psychiatry, 2(8): 702-709. doi: 10.1016/S2215-0366(15)00271-0

[5]Peters, E.M., Balbuena, L., Marwaha, S., Baetz, M. & Bowen, R. (2015). Mood instability and impulsivity as trait predictors of suicidal thoughts. The Britisch psychological society – psychology and psychotherapy, 89(4): 435-44.

[6]Moeller, F.G., Barratt, E.S., Dougherty, D.M., Schmitz, J.M. & Swann, A.C. (2001) Psychiatric Aspects of Impulsivity. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 158 (11): 1783-1793.

[7]Chamberlain, S.R. & Sahakian, B.J. (2007) The neuropsychiatry of impulsivity. Current Opinions in Psychiatry, 20(3):255-261.

[8]Fineberg, N.A., Chamberlain, S.R. et al. (2014). New developments in human neurocognition: clinical, genetic, and brain imaging correlates of impulsivity and compulsivity. CNS spectrums, 19(1): 69-89. doi: 10.1017/S1092852913000801.

[9]Cross, C.P., Copping, L.T. & Campbell, A. (2011). Sex differences in impulsivity: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 137(1): 97-103.

[10] EU Horizon 2020 grant agreement No 728018 (2017-2022)

About the author

New Brain Nutrition is the public dissemination effort of Eat2beNICE, a consortium of 18 European universities, hospitals and agencies doing research on the connections between nutrition, lifestyle and mental health. We look to attract members of the public, health professionals, and representatives of industry and government to help develop healthier lifestyles and improved mental health.

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This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 728018

New Brain Nutrition is a project and brand of Eat2BeNice, a consortium of 18 European University Hospitals throughout the continent.

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