Metabolism and Mental Health: What’s the Connection?
Metabolic psychiatrist and Sakara Science Council member Dr. Shebani Sethi explains.
In the quest for optimal vitality, we often return to our metabolism—the beautiful and complex chain of reactions that our bodies use to convert food into energy, as well as balance hormones, boost energy, and improve sex drive and quality of sleep.
A lesser known way that metabolism affects our overall well-being? Mental health. The connection between mental health and metabolic health is a new and ground-breaking area of research, and one that Dr. Shebani Sethi—Sakara Science Council Member, board-certified psychiatrist, obesity medicine specialist, and founding director of Stanford’s Metabolic Psychiatry Clinic—has dedicated her work to.
“Currently, one in five Americans live with a mental illness, and the rates of mental illness have been tracking alongside increases in metabolic disease,” says Dr. Sethi.
Dr. Sethi established the discipline of Metabolic Psychiatry to study this emerging relation and, alongside her team at Stanford, provides groundbreaking treatment for patients with psychiatric illness and metabolic abnormalities.
We sat down with Dr. Sethi to better understand the connection between nutrition and mental health, and how we can eat in a way that supports our brightest, healthiest beings.
Defining “Metabolic Psychiatry”
“We developed the term ‘metabolic psychiatry’ at Stanford to describe treatment of metabolic dysfunction to improve psychiatric outcomes,” says Dr. Sethi. “That means that the focus is on improvement of metabolic abnormalities or dysfunction, whether that's peripheral or central.”
Per findings, mental illnesses—such as depression, bipolar illness, psychosis, and eating disorders—are strongly associated with increased inflammation. Individuals with these conditions also suffer from higher rates of metabolic disease—including insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, and unhealthy excess body weight—than the general population.
“There was a recent study from collaborators of mine at Stanford showing that 40% of patients suffering from mood disorders are insulin resistant,” says Dr. Sethi. “So, if you're insulin resistant, your risk of developing major depressive disorder is double that of someone who's not insulin resistant—even if you've never experienced depression before and have no psychiatric history.”
Alongside medication, Dr. Sethi finds dietary interventions—ones individually tailored to a patient’s unique needs and focused on whole, non-processed foods—critical in the assessment and treatment of metabolic dysfunction and improvement of mental health.
Eating to Elevate Metabolic + Mental Health
Nutrition can be used as a powerful tool to improve mental well-being—regardless of your current mental health status. When you fill your plate with fewer processed foods and more foods found in nature (like all the plant-based, whole food goodness found in our Signature Nutrition Program), you support a lifted mood and help quiet everyday stressors and anxiety.
“The #1 thing we can do for our health? Reduce or eliminate refined carbohydrates and sugar. Our brain has a delicate balance of neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, and the more sugar and processed food that we consume (we call it the SAD diet, or Standard American Diet), the more these levels become unbalanced,” says Dr. Sethi.
A misconception in the pursuit of healthy eating is that it should lack fat—opting instead for an assortment of fat-free, artificially-flavored yogurts and ultra-processed, shelf-stable options. Yet, to fully embrace a balanced and beautiful diet (and life), we don’t swear off the F-word at Sakara. In fact, we believe that fat is our friend.
“Everyone's afraid of fat, but actually fat can be protective… Your brain is composed of electrical cells and it's a complicated web of signaling molecules. Those cells need fat to develop and function properly, so you need fat in your diet, like omega-3s,” says Dr. Sethi.
When we shift our diet to include more vibrant, nutritious, and varied plant foods (and nourishing fats like avocado, walnuts, and high-quality oils) we support the health of our whole body, mind, and spirit—starting with the metabolism. Our metabolic health sets the foundation for us to truly take flight; the healthier our metabolism is, the brighter and lighter we feel—and the better we can show up for ourselves and those we love.