This post has been contributed by our Nutrition Partner, Lauren Ree - The Fit Nutritionist.
I know it's not easy, but you're not alone. As a practicing Clinical Nutritionist, I have counselled many clients with various forms of mental health disorders. Poor mental health can be a bumpy road to navigate, but with the right support and nutrition you can take back control and get on top of your mental health!
Being a complex condition, the following doesn’t cover all elements of nutrition and mental health –I could be here all day. This is a general break-down of what the relationship between diet and mental health is, and some tips on what to do to improve your mental health.
A little on the how and why:
Few people really understand the relationship between overall nutrition status and mental illness, while they’re so familiar with the connection between nutritional deficiencies and physical illness. Mental health disorders are often thought to stem from strictly biochemical-based or emotionally rooted causes. However, the reality is nutrition can play a key role in the onset as well as the severity of mental illness.
1. Gut Microbiome Our microbiome is made up of a colony of bacteria that exist in a symbiotic relationship with the host (us). A healthy gut microbiome offers protection from infection and modulates our mood through the stimulation and production of feel good neurotransmitters (our chemical messengers) which transport signals to and from neurons in the brain. Serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) are neurotransmitters of particular interest due to their implication in mood disorders.
The health of the microbiome is negatively impacted from factors such as, diet high in saturated and refined sugars, stress, chemical exposure, antibiotic use, drug use, smoking and physical inactivity. The diversity of the microbiome is another important factor to consider when talking about the health of the microbiome. The more diverse your microbes are – the better! A varied and healthy diet will help keep your microbes and neurotransmitters happy!
2. Nutrient deficiency
If we don’t consume enough nutrient-dense foods (fresh and whole food ingredients), this can lead to insufficiencies in nutrients, antioxidants and fibre. Our immune system and microbiome are negatively affected as well as impacting all other body systems in one way or another. Our gut microbiota is particularly reliant on getting an adequate intake of dietary fibre – both soluble and insoluble.
3. Poor Quality of Intake
On the other hand, a diet high in saturated fats, refined sugars and processed foods has a very potent negative impact on brain proteins that we know are important in depression and anxiety. Regular consumption of poor food choices causes inflammation in the body which then triggers a systemic stress response – again negatively impacting our mental health. The way I like to explain this to my clients is “your brain can’t express pain – it doesn’t hurt like an inflamed, stubbed toe would – instead, it expresses its hurt as mood imbalance or poor mental health.”
Helpful Tips to Improve Your Mental Health through Nutrition
- Seek help – your mental health is worth everything! Mental health can stem from multiple avenues and will differ for everyone. A qualified Clinical Nutritionist can help you identify the root cause and help manage your health through nutrition and behaviour change. Supplementation may be needed to address insufficiencies.
- Focus on consuming a wide variety of plant-based foods (vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes and nuts and seeds) with each meal! Aim for at least 5 or more different plant-based foods per meal! This will diversify the microbiome as well as fuel it with fibre to help feed the good bacteria.
- Avoid processed foods. Processed foods contain high levels of unhealthy fats, sugars and refined carbohydrates, as well as other components that have a detrimental impact on gut microbiota, such as artificial sweeteners and emulsifiers.
- Ensure you are consuming sufficient amounts of good quality protein. This will help stabilize blood glucose levels and support energy production. In addition, protein supports neurotransmitters as it is broken down into amino acids which are the building blocks to neurotransmitters (the chemical messengers we discussed above). Focus on consuming plant-based proteins and quality animal protein sources. Ensure you are going for quality over quantity for animal proteins – opt for grass fed, organic meats. These are not pumped full of the nasties that are destructive to our health. - Eat complex carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are thought to increase the amount of serotonin in your brain, which has a calming effect. Examples of complex carbohydrates are whole grains (oats, quinoa, whole-grain cereals, brown rice), sweet potato, white potato. Limit refined carbohydrates like sugar and sweetened foods! - Limit or avoid alcohol. The immediate effect of alcohol may be calming to some, however, as alcohol is processed by the body, it worsens anxiety and depressive symptoms by altering levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain. - Limit or avoid caffeine. Avoid caffeinated beverages (eg. coffee black tea, energy drinks, pre-workouts). Caffeine increases cortisol (our stress hormone) further exacerbating symptoms of anxiety. Try Matcha Green tea, although it contains a high amount of caffeine it also contains a high amount of L-Theanine. L- Theanine is an amino acid that may inhibit any possible side-effects from caffeine. - Pay attention to food sensitivities. - Stay hydrated!
- EXERCISE! 20 – 30 minutes per day improves mental health (more on this another day).
You’re still here!! GREAT! Good on you for reading and taking the next step to improve your mental health. Stay positive, stay consistent and remember small changes are better than none!
Visit Lauren's website: https://www.thefitnutritionist.com/
Strength - Vulnerability - Resilience