According to Mind UK, 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year and each of us knows someone who is or has been suffering from mental illness.
Raising awareness of how common the problem is has helped to decrease the stigma once attached to mental disorders and it has increased the research in understanding the causes and finding possible solutions.
Many factors such as biology (genetics and brain chemistry) and life experiences (trauma, abuse) contribute to mental health problems and therefore a successful approach to recovery must include a variety of interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapies, resilience-building activities, psychotherapy, yoga, relaxation techniques, exercise and on a biochemical level, science has shown how nutrition, can play a major role, in improving and supporting the healing.
Indeed, there is no doubt about the connection between the food we eat and the way we feel, in the short and long term.
Blood sugar balance and mental health
Anxiety, mood swings, depression and dementia can all be negatively affected by imbalanced blood sugar levels and regulating the amount of sugar in circulation in our bloodstream is the first essential step we can take to improve our mental wellbeing.
However, this is not so easy because when we feel stressed or low, the type of foods which give us an immediate lift in energy or comfort are the food rich in simple sugars and fat. These foods can activate the reward system in the brain via the opioid, dopamine, and endocannabinoid systems, the systems responsible for influencing instinct, moods and pleasure. So, when you eat that pain au chocolate in the morning, you’re influencing these systems, which makes you feel good in the short term and reinforce a behavioural loop which makes you think that in order to feel better you need to eat that type of food…
Unfortunately, in the long-term this will not be helpful, on the contrary, it can become one of the factors involved in the development of mental imbalances. A chronically high amount of sugars in the bloodstream will lead to the elevated secretion of insulin, a pro-inflammatory hormone, and eventually, the insulin will no longer have the desired effect of disposing of sugar into our cells and will result in a condition called insulin resistance ( which if not addressed will lead to diabetes type2). The inability of delivering glucose in the cell, can affect the supply of energy and make us feel tired, depleted, hungry, low, irritable and craving for more sugar!
Our brain health is also directly influenced by our blood sugar balance. The brains main function of processing and transmitting information through electrical signals is very expensive in terms of energy use and relies on a constant supply of oxygen and glucose (it can also utilise ketones very effectively… this is the topic for another blog). The link between insulin resistance and dementia is very well established and Alzheimer is often referred to as diabetes type 3.
The way to balance blood sugar levels is to adopt a low glycaemic load (low GL) eating style and you can start by simply applying the following guidelines:
- Eat regularly – you might need to start with 3 main meals per day and 2 regular snacks in-between. The goal is to progress to 3 or 2 main meals per day without food in between; this will take a while especially if your blood sugar is very imbalanced at the moment. I have clients who thrive with 2 meals only per day and clients who absolutely need 3, remember we are all unique and one rule does not fit all. Your meal requirements also depend on your exercise routine. One thing that is absolutely a no-go is grazing from meal to meal!
- Avoid foods which are highly processed and refined – anything that is made with white refined flours and grains ( white rice, bread, pasta, biscuits, crackers, scones, certain types of breakfast cereals); anything that is high in added sugar ( chocolate bars, candies, cereal bars, fruit yoghurt, soft drinks
- If you juice, avoid fruit juices but instead opt for juices made prevalently with green vegetables; keep your dry fruit to a minimum (raisins, dates, dry cranberries, dry fruit …they contains a very high amount of glucose and fructose)
- Have balanced meals with proteins, healthy fats (from avocados, olive oil, nuts and seed, coconut yoghurt, oily fish ) and slow-releasing carbs ( these are the carbs you get from non-starchy vegs)
- Make the first meal of the day rich in proteins and healthy fats rather than focused on carbs, this is a very common mistake and lead to more carbs cravings later in the day.
If you want to read more in detail about blood sugar balancing click here to read my blog on low glycemic eating style.
What your brain needs for optimal function
The eating style:
Low glycemic to regulate and maintain blood sugar levels
Vitamins and minerals: the essentials
Multivitamins, B complex, vitamin C, magnesium, vitamin D
Several studies show that taking multivitamins on a regular basis can help reduce stress, anxiety, aggression, low moods, autism and ADHD.
A study involving 129 young healthy adults taking a multivitamin formula for 12 months reported significantly improved moods feeling more agreeable, more composed and reported better mental health.
B vitamins delay brain atrophy and have been studied for their positive effect in increasing cognitive function and resilience to stress.
Vitamin C is very supportive in reducing mood disturbance, fatigue and higher amount of plasma vitamin C are associated with improved cognitive functions.
The first evidence for the use of magnesium in patients suffering from depression was published almost 100 years ago and modern research has confirmed the efficacy of magnesium supplementation in supporting those recovering from depression. Magnesium is also very helpful during periods of high stress as it helps the body and mind to relax.
Vitamin D is well known in relation to bone health and immunity, however, it also performs a hugely important role in mental health. Vitamin D, which behaves more like a hormone than a vitamin, reduces toxicity and inflammation in the brain and is one of the key nutrients that must be considered in the prevention of dementia. If you are living in the UK, there is no doubt that you are not getting the optimal level of vitamin D and I always recommend my clients to get tested at least once a year to establish the baseline level and start supplementation accordingly. Getting tested for vitamin D can be done by ordering a prick finger test online. I use a lab called Thriva, it’s cheap and easy and an important assessment to have done.
Get fat smart!
Omega 3 and phospholipids
2/3 of brain dry weight is fat of which ¼ is an omega 3 fat called DHA. DHA intake, found in oily fish (salmon, anchovies, mackerel, sardines) and algae extract (in a supplement form suitable for vegetarian and vegan), is positively correlated with brain volume. It is an important component of neurons membranes, stimulates neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons) and is a brain antioxidant.
Research shows that daily omega 3 supplementation of DHA and EPA is supportive in reducing anxiety, depression, improves antisocial behaviours, psychosis and better neurocognitive performance under stress.
Phospholipids are perhaps the less know type of fats and don’t often get the attention they deserve, however, these type of fats are extremely important for healthy nerve cell membranes which play a major role in neurotransmission ( the communication between neurons). Phosphatidylserine, in particular, can slow, halt and reverse biochemical changes and deterioration in nerve cells. In the diet, we get it from animal sources ( chicken and beef liver are particularly rich in it ), fish, egg yolks, soybeans, sunflower seeds.
Phytonutrients: the powerful and free plant pharmacy
Phytonutrients are naturally occurring plant chemicals which have a beneficial effect on our health. Plants that have been grown organically have a higher content of phytochemicals which they produce as a form of defence against attacks from the environment (insects, heat, infections etc.)
Research shows that higher consumption of vegetables rather than fruit is associated with decreased risk of dementia and cognitive decline. An optimal amount of daily fruit and vegetable is 7 portions per day and I recommend 6 portions of vegetables, a portion is considered 80g, and 1 portion of fruit, 150g.
When it comes to brain health and content of phytochemicals the champions from the plant kingdoms are berries, raw cacao, green leafy vegetables, herbs and spices and green tea.
The gut-brain link
Your brain health is strictly related to the health of your gut and when we think brain we should automatically think of the microbiome, the collection of trillions of micro-organisms living in our gut, which have direct communication to the brain via a bidirectional highway. They are constantly in communication with each other in many different ways and the fascinating thing is that there is 400 times the number of messages coming from the microbiome to the brain than from the brain to the body! This means that by improving the quality of our microbiome we can influence communication and improve brain health!
Foods which play a major role in gut health are the prebiotics and probiotics foods.
Prebiotics foods are rich in the type of fibres that the beneficial bacteria love to feed on, asparagus, green bananas, aubergine, endive, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, legumes, onions, peas and radicchio.
Probiotics foods contain good bacteria and help colonisation of the digestive tract, yoghurt, kefir, sour cream, cheese, fomented vegetables, kimchi, kombucha, miso, natto, tempeh.
I recommend that you include some of these foods daily into your diet. Start with a small number of prebiotics foods and slowly build up as they might cause some bloating and flatulence until your system gets used to them.
Depending on the specific mental challenges and goals, there are other nutritional interventions that can be added to the above and, as I said before one size does not fit all, especially when it comes to nutrition, I always recommend to see a qualified and registered nutritional therapist to discuss your particular individual needs.
Finally, in my practice, I meet many people, and in particular women, that find difficult to prioritise their needs because they perceive focusing on their wellbeing as being selfish and indulgent. This is far from the truth…the truth is that if we don’t honour our body with nourishment, exercise, mindfulness and relaxation, this will not only reflect on our health but also in the wellbeing of the people around us… so if you can’t do it for yourself … do it for the people who you love.
Wishing you a healthy and vibrant New Year.