World Mental Health Day was on Wednesday. When we talk about mental health, often the food we eat and the impact it has on our mood can get overlooked. The field of nutritional psychiatry is a fairly new one, but more and more health professionals are looking to diet and nutrition as a way to help support mental wellbeing.
Our brains need a constant supply of fuel and that fuel has to come from the food we eat. If we fill our plates with processed junk food, refined carbohydrates and sugars we are likely to end up feeling low, flat and sluggish. If we fill our plates with nourishing food packed with vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, protein and slow-release carbohydrate, we are providing our brain with the optimum fuel it needs to function effectively.
There is plenty of research to back this up, showing a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and a worsening of mood disorders like depression.
Blood sugar fluctuations from these refined carbs and sugary foods can result in anxiety, cravings, low mood and irritability or even anger. Cutting back on sugar is the first step in the right direction, but it can be difficult to do because the sugar hit we get from chocolate, sweets and cake hits our brain’s reward centre, giving us a rush of feel-good dopamine, so we want more and more.
Some people find a chromium supplement helps to take the edge off sugar cravings so it is easier to break the habit.
Cutting out sugar and refined carbs is not easy but making small swaps soon adds up. If your usual breakfast is a coffee and croissant, simply swapping to boiled egg with toast would be great, or adding a little less sugar to your usual breakfast cereal.
Exciting new research has linked the health of our gut to the health of our brain. It is now thought that around 95 per cent of the neurotransmitter serotonin, that helps support sleep and regulate mood, is produced in the gastrointestinal tract and its production and function seems to be very influenced by the billions of probiotic bacteria in our gut.
It makes sense then that eating foods rich in these ‘good bacteria’ could play a part in our mental wellbeing, foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir and live yoghurt could be a helpful addition to your diet.
Eating more healthy fats like oily fish (mackerel, salmon, sardined, herring and trout), nuts, seeds, avocado and olive oil provides the brain with fats that are essential for the production of neurotransmitters as well as the structure and function of the brain; these fats are an essential ingredient for mental wellbeing. Aim to have oily fish a couple of times a week and a handful of nuts and seeds every day.
Protein also helps neurotransmitter function, so have a bit of protein with every meal and snack. Eggs, lean red meat, fish, nuts, seeds, natural yoghurt, pulses, quinoa and cottage cheese are all good sources.
The amino acid tryptophan is the precursor for serotonin. Eating more eggs, wild fish, free-range or organic chicken, organic dairy produce, sesame seeds and bananas will provide you with tryptophan in your diet.
What we drink has an impact too. Too much alcohol and fizzy drinks are not a good idea. Try swapping your usual morning coffee (which triggers adrenalin and contributes to anxiety) to green tea (which contains theanine to help keep us calm and focused).
It’s the small steps we take to improve our nutrition that have the biggest impact, so think about this as a long term approach to mental wellbeing, rather than a quick fix.
This blog post first appeared as an article in The Irish News on Saturday 13 October 2018.