When you think about nutrition, you generally think about physical health, dieting to lose weight or fueling the body for exercise; we don’t often think about how what we eat affects our mental health.
Some people will associate a low mood with eating and drinking, how often have you had a sweet treat to make you feel better, ordered a takeaway because your too tired to cook, or craved alcohol because you’re stressed?
The truth is that nutrition has a huge impact on your mental wellbeing.
“The right foods can make you happy, and the wrong foods can make you feel anxious or depressed.”Patrick Holford
When we talk about mental health, we generally focus on the brain and the roles played by neurons and neurotransmitters, but what if I told you that the digestive system contains 100 million neurons, and produces as many neurotransmitters as the brain!
In addition, the gut produces two-thirds of the body’s Serotonin (happy neurotransmitter); it’s called the gut-brain connection and it’s important to consider when looking to manage your mental health.
This gut-brain connection also becomes important when we look at how the body reacts to stress. When we are in periods of stress our body goes into Fight or Flight and all energy is focused on reacting to this situation; energy is borrowed from parts of the body that aren’t involved in this process, and a lot of the time this energy comes from the gut because the last thing you’re going to do when you’re in a period of stress or fear is to stop for a meal or a snack.
If you’re experiencing constantly high levels of stress and anxiety then the brain takes advantage, and this energy borrowing becomes excessive to a point where the gut gets angry and starts sending nasty messages to the brain which can cause fatigue, loss of appetite and diarrhoea; the gut can also try to save energy by getting rid of food, causing vomiting.
When this situation occurs regularly or for prolonged periods of time it can cause a reduction in the blood supply to the gut, which weakens the gut wall, which leads to a Leaky Gut, which is where harmful microbes pass through the gut wall into the blood stream causing problems in other parts of the body.
These unpleasant reactions can make us more anxious because the brain starts to think twice about taking on stressful situations in the future.
So, part of the goal is to reduce our stress so that our gut can work properly; another part is what we then put in the gut and how that affects our mental health.
There are 6 things we should avoid, or at least try to reduce (I can hear the groans already!), and they are:
CAFFEINE – A stimulant that reduces Adenosine (a neurotransmitter which promotes sleep and suppresses arousal) causing an increase in Dopamine and Adrenaline.
ALCOHOL – The brain’s worst enemy, can lead to memory loss.
SUGAR – Affects the blood sugar levels which can lead to fatigue, irritability, insomnia poor concentration, forgetfulness, and depression; it also uses important vitamins and nutrients without providing any.
TRANS FATS & HYDROGENATED FATS (fried & processed foods) – Can mess up thinking and block the conversion of essential fats into vital brain fats.
ADDITIVES – It’s unknown the exact impact these can have on our mental health (Tartrazine E102 has been linked to hyperactivity in children).
DRUGS – Seriously mess up the brain and are highly addictive.
While the above are bad for us chemically the main problem with them is that they are highly addictive and so very hard to give up; I’ll cover addiction and habits in future blogs, but for now I want you to think about is the ASSOCIATIONS you give to these things.
‘I can’t function in the morning until I’ve had a cup of coffee.’
‘That was so stressful, I need a glass of wine / beer.’
The stronger the association then the harder it is to give up.
Marketing is also a big problem because they tap into these associations, or create new ones that suck you in. There is a well-known fast-food delivery company that has an advert where a group of people are in a sitting room and are feeling down because their team lost, the way they break that low mood is to order take-away. The hope is that the more you see that advert the more the association is created in your brain and as soon as you start feeling down, you’ll automatically order take-away and that will then become a habit.
It’s not about giving up these things all together, it’s about not relying on them to stimulate energy or raise our mood. When you need an energy boost during the day there are much healthier options than caffeine or sugar, such as nuts and seeds.
So, what should you be doing nutrition wise to improve your mental health:
- Eat Wholefoods – wholegrains, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, fresh fruit, and vegetables.
- Avoid overcooked (vegetables that have been boiled into submission) and processed foods.
- Dieting can be very stressful, eating a good, balanced diet and reducing portion size is much better for you.
- Make sure you have plenty of healthy snacks in the house, remove the bad stuff as it will be too tempting!
- Make friends with a freezer, great for having veg to hand, and you can also batch-cook homemade soups, curries, sauces, etc for when you don’t have time or energy to cook from scratch.
- Drink water – Dr Chatteerjee recommends around 1.2 litres per day.
- You can treat yourself sometimes, just limit it and be aware if something is becoming an unhealthy habit.
I know it’s not easy to change habits, especially where food and drink are concerned, I’ve struggled with addiction, especially where alcohol is concerned. I used it to make me feel more confident, to forget, and to try and stop the pain of anxiety; all it did was make things worse. I can enjoy a drink now and again, but I prefer low or non-alcoholic options; I get to chill in the garden on a sunny day and enjoy an alcohol-free beer or two without feeling the worse for wear.
As I said, I’ll cover Habits and how to change them in a future blog, but for now I want you to see if there are any negative food and drink coping strategies you have; how often do you use the word need before them? That can be a big sign that you need to make a change.
If you do want to change food and drink habits, then:
- Take it in small steps, one thing at a time rather than trying to change lots of things in one go.
- Ask for help from those around you.
- Change doesn’t happen overnight, so be kind to yourself, you will slip up, but beating yourself up won’t help.
- Keep a journal and note any changes in how you feel; are you sleeping better? Do you have more energy? (You may feel worse initially but stick with it).
- Reward yourself on your journey (in a healthy way), it will help keep you motivated.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.