The past decade (in particular this past year) has seen a shift and emphasis on developing an understanding of mental health issues we are facing in our often fast-paced, chaotic world. With the focus being primarily on the psychological aspects of managing stress, anxiety and depression, research is now showing we need to look beyond the strategies of positive thinking, mindful practices and medication.
Mental illness and depression is not just a brain disorder but a whole-body disorder. With many environmental factors such as lack of sleep, exercise and nutrition influencing the gut microbiota and immune system. Research is finding the gut is capable of influencing the mind and now referred to as the second brain. The gut (which is actually all based in our intestines, not the stomach, comprises of the small intestine (ileum, jejunum and duodenum) and the large intestine (colon) and plays a massive role in our wellbeing by regulating mood with thanks to millions of nerves and neurons passing through our vagus nerve (which runs alongside our spinal column). With the right microbial conditions, it is said 90% of the body’s serotonin, our feel-good hormone, is produced inside the digestive tract. So, it makes sense to shine the spotlight and make nutrition the superstar player in how eating habits influence our mental state.
Our gut microbiota loves nutrient-dense foods, including vegetables, fruits, lean meats and whole grains, which also boost our immune system. On the flip side, a diet high in saturated fats and refined sugars has an impact on the stress response system, meaning poor nutrition compounds any preexisting conditions and stalls efforts to improve mental health concerns.
It now makes more and more sense that addressing the whole person and how they act, think and do trumps the band-aid solutions of medications when treating mental disorders.
So, where do we start if we choose to eat for a healthy mind space? And even then, how do we put into practice the thinking vs doing mindset?
Well for starters choosing to eat well helps us get a better night’s sleep, improves energy and concentration levels, so beginning with one small change is ideal. Often feelings of stress, anxiety and hopelessness see us turning to unhealthy eating patterns. This is of course counterproductive, so developing tools on how to strategize coping mechanisms, that are not related to unhealthy food choices, allows space to consider healthier options.
Avoid overwhelm with any dietary changes and increase your long-term success by swapping, for example, an afternoon chocolate bar with a handful of nuts, fruit and yoghurt or hummus and whole-grain crackers. Having an all or nothing attitude is one of many negative thought processes that are common among people with anxiety and depression and can exasperate harsh negative self-judgement and esteem, derailing the best of efforts. Look at it this way, if you gradually build your improving eating plan 80-90% of the time, this may be a 25% improvement on what has been in the past – which is a feather in anyone’s cap!
Age does not discriminate and it’s disturbing to hear that half of all mental-health disorders set in by age 14 with the importance of diet being especially relevant to young people.
Mass food production has a lot to answer for and has completely altered the food environment so that unhealthy foods are now seen as the norm. Added to the fact fast foods are cheap, difficult to resist and socially acceptable – it makes it an uphill battle trying to instigate healthier eating.
Specifically turning to foods that promote the colours of the rainbow through varieties of fruits and vegetables, increasing whole foods such as legumes, grains and healthy fats (avocado, salmon, almonds) and feeding gut bacteria with fibre and fermented foods is highly recommended.
Just like drinking alcohol impairs brain function, so too does excess sugar intake with findings showing the sugary stuff shrinks the brain in the region of the hippocampus, which is the brains centre for mood regulation. Processed foods that are high in additives can disrupt gut bacteria and increase inflammation which is the catalyst for digestive issues consequently impacting our mood or how we feel.
Other foods to avoid
Caffeine – being a stimulant drug, (which means it speeds up the messages travelling between the brain and the body) it also affects sleep, which is essential for mental health
Refined foods and sugar – Long term refined foods affect our energy levels and ability to cope with daily stresses. Chocolate, lollies, soft drinks, cakes and chips are the usual culprits
In summary, we can turn to specific food groups that are essential for maintaining a positive mindset by boosting key nutrients.
Foods to include
B vitamins: Yeast extracts, whole grains, legumes, dairy products, eggs, meat
Iron: Red meat, fish, wholegrain bread, dried beans and lentils, poultry, green leafy vegetables
Selenium: Brazil nuts, meat, fish and eggs.
Folate: legumes, asparagus, citrus fruits, beets, eggs and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, brussels sprouts etc.)