FORT LEE, Va. (March 17, 2011) -- March is National Nutrition Month. Let's celebrate by learning how nutrition impacts mental health.

Nutrition is one of many factors thought to have an effect on mental health. Research shows that the foods we choose can aid in the prevention, progression and management of several mental health problems including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Alzheimer's.

The benefits of good nutrition begin as early as when the child is in the mother's uterus. Breast milk is thought to protect the infant by supplying disease-fighting antibodies and hormones. Breast feeding can be beneficial to the mother's health, too, and has been linked to a lower risk of cancer, diabetes and postpartum depression. Ensuring that children eat breakfast is believed to increase problem-solving ability during the school day.

A balanced diet consumed throughout the teen years helps with the body's accelerated growth and maturation. Perhaps the easiest connection we can make with how foods and fluids impact our mood is noticing how alcohol, coffee, energy drinks and even chocolate affect our thoughts and behavior during the day as well as our sleeping patterns at night. The right amount of water is also essential for good mental health.

Water makes up three-fourths of the brain. Not drinking enough water is similar to not putting enough oil in your automobile's engine.

Eating the wrong foods can impact mood in a negative way. For instance, foods high in saturated fats and trans-fats can work against our brain's ability to manufacture chemicals such as serotonin, which is directly linked to mood. Recently, carbohydrates have been given a bad name, but not getting enough carbohydrates depletes our brain of the glucose it needs to function. Choose complex carbohydrates - bread, cereal, potatoes, pasta, rice - which release glucose slowly to keep our brains running efficiently through our waking hours.

Because the brain is composed of a high percentage of fat, we need to consume a certain amount of fat in our diets, but be careful not to consume more than needed. This can lead to clogged arteries blocking the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain, which can have a negative effect on the brain's functions. Protein also helps the brain manufacture serotonin and dopamine, two of the neurotransmitters that are thought to impact mood, eating and sleeping patterns. Not enough of the B vitamins can also affect mood, memory, sleep and energy level. Lastly, minerals in the right amounts can help eliminate fatigue, irritability, apathy and restlessness.

KAHC has a registered dietician on staff. If you would like to talk to her about your nutritional needs, ask your PCM for a referral. For more information on nutritious food choices to help optimize mental and physical health, go to this website: www.mypyramid.gov/indes.html.

Lt. Cmdr. Julie A. Niven is a clinical social worker specializing in mental health treatment of adults. She joined the Fort Lee Department of Behavioral Health in June 2010.