Your diet and the connection with mental health.
The brain is an incredible organ, controlling everything we do whether we’re conscious of its workings or not. The flip side is that everything we experience, feel and do (or don’t do) affects our brain, which in turn affects our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Physical and emotional stressors found in our modern world, such as bright lights, late nights, financial pressures and relationship problems, can wreak havoc physically and mentally, sapping our energy and upsetting the brain’s delicate balance. This may leave us vulnerable to making the wrong choices when it comes to what we eat, which is a shame because ultimately, looking after our mood starts with our food.
We reap what we sow in the mood food department. It’s not just about major mental health disruption, it’s about keeping calm and carrying on, concentration and motivation, sharp focus and memory maintenance. These factors are an important part of functional nutrition considerations for mental health – specific nutritional support (for stress, depression or anxiety), balancing blood sugar levels, boosting digestion and absorption of nutrients, ensuring a strong microbiome, tackling food and environmental allergies or sensitivities, and eliminating toxins like heavy metals.
What everything in our brain is geared towards is the presence and efficient function of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are the brain’s messengers, allowing communication between neurons. They are essential elements in reducing or preventing anxiety and balancing mood and motivation. Neurotransmitters are made from amino acids, but as with the proper functioning of all processes and systems, a number of other nutrients are necessary for the conversion ‘tree’. Eating good quality protein, along with a wide range of fresh fruit and vegetables, plus wholegrain carb sources are the best way to ensure that the components of neurotransmitter production are able to work properly.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOUR NEUROTRANSMITTERS ARE OUT OF WHACK?
From slightly low mood, irritability and sugar cravings to psychosis, OCD symptoms and insomnia, an imbalance in our neurotransmitters can manifest in diverse symptoms that you wouldn’t necessarily relate to nutritional deficiencies that are impacting your brain function. Serotonin, GABA, dopamine and acetylcholine are the main players, all with different purposes and processes – feeding the brain should be top of everyone’s list.
Take serotonin, for example. This governs mood, dreaming, sleep rhythms and rational thought. It’s made from tryptophan, an amino acid, and needs several other nutrients, such as folic acid, zinc, B6 and vitamin C, to convert into serotonin. Low levels or deficiency can result in varying severity of mental health disorders, from high anxiety levels or mild depression to schizo-affective conditions. The many disparate symptoms of serotonin deficiency include depression, higher pain sensitivity, anxiety, emotional volatility, carb cravings, alcohol/drug abuse, obsessive thoughts, disturbed sleep/insomnia, suicidal tendencies, low libido, allergies, headaches, sugar/salt cravings, paranoia, shyness, eating disorders, nausea, body temperature changes, low energy and irritability.
We need to remember, too, that there are non-nutritional factors that can contribute to physical effects on brain function, mood and motivation such as genetics and individual biochemistry, and how you perceive or deal with what life throws at you.
￼When life is frantic and demands on our time and energy are high, it’s easy to feel that we want the quickest, easiest route to fuelling our bodies. Obviously, the more nutrient-rich, unprocessed and freshly prepared our food is, the more supported our body systems are and the more we benefit. Realistically though, there may be times when we take the easy road – and in this case, learning to make informed choices can reduce the impact of lower nutritional food choices.
WHAT TO EAT?
Experimenting with recipes can be creative, fun, therapeutic and something all the family can play a part in. Getting children involved in food and its magical conversion into a delicious, satisfying, nutritious meal can be a great way to teach them about healthy eating and give them skills they’ll use for life. Pack the herbs into your food, too – they don’t just help add flavour to food, they also have a number of health benefits. Stabilising blood sugar levels and optimising nutrient content and availability are the main goals when thinking about how to nourish your brain.
Eating a wide range of fruits and vegetables, especially including a ‘rainbow’ of colours daily, will give your body the best spectrum of vitamins, minerals, micronutrients and co-factors necessary for the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, GABA and dopamine.
Essential fats in the right ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 are absolutely crucial, as is protein from sources our bodies can use. Vegan diets might be popular, but I see many vegans whose mental health is suffering because they do not realise that the proteins from animal products and plants are essentially treated differently by our bodies. This can be easily remedied, but is frequently overlooked nonetheless.
It is also crucial for the brain to have what it needs to maintain and repair itself, and for hormonal systems and energy release to be able to respond to the demands placed on us in our daily lives. Eating breakfast and then eating regularly throughout the day is a must, as is staying hydrated with pure water, herbal teas and diluted vegetable and fruit juices.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
Of course, this is the ideal and we all know that sticking rigidly to an eating plan may not always be practical. Real life has to leave room for meals out, holidays, parties and sometimes just sheer exhaustion! But the important thing to remember is that a strong brain and body will not suffer from the occasional deviation, and being self-aware means that you know what to do and when. Above all, feeling balanced, vibrant and full of vitality means you won’t want to go back!
Give yourself and your brain the best possible help by sticking to these principles as far as possible, keeping physical, emotional and mental elements in balance:
• prioritising good quality food;
• maintaining regular eating patterns;
• including protein, carbohydrate and healthy fats in each meal;
• staying hydrated;
• reducing exposure to chemicals, toxins and pesticides;
• making time for rest and relaxation in whatever form suits you;
• being aware of changes in your emotional state and dealing with situations that cause you stress;
• taking part in pastimes that allow you to let off steam and feel positive; and
• investing in relationships and friendships in which you can connect with those who allow you to talk, laugh and put problems in perspective.
Above all, take care of yourself. When your brain is happy, you’re happy.
Illustrations: Rosanna Tasker