When we are thinking about mental health and wellbeing, nutrition is probably NOT the first thought that springs to mind. If anything, we think of comfort food, maybe something like chocolate to make us feel better when we are feeling down or stressed. But there’s a lot more to it!
Physical and mental health are intertwined, and one certainly affects the other.
Does a poor diet cause mental illness?
I realise that this may be a controversial statement and considering the different types and severity of mental illnesses, it’s clear that there is no one-size-fits-all and blaming a poor diet would be far too easy. But evidence shows that nutrition is definitely part of the puzzle – at any stage of your mental health journey, from the very first onset to final recovery.
If you are already vulnerable and affected by genetic and environmental factors like stress at work or at home, a traumatic experience or a medical condition; your diet and a lack of certain nutrients can increase the risk of developing a mental illness. On the other hand, we have been knowing for quite a while that certain nutrients support mental health and a lack of those can contribute to the onset of poor mental health in all its forms.
The communication between gut and brain
There is a significant communication going on between our central nervous system and the gut Microbiota. Basically - when our digestive system is well, our central nervous system is happy, too. On the other hand, studies have suggested that people with sensitive stomachs, IBS, coeliac etc are more prone to develop mental health issues.
When we are looking at the help we can offer our digestive system we need to differentiate between prebiotics and probiotics. Increasing probiotics, the live bacteria which can improve or restore your gut flora, is a first step. You can add more variety of gut bacteria by focussing on those pro-biotics, either in foods or as a supplement in tablet form.
Once you have topped up your gut bacteria you can start feeding them with prebiotics. Those are the types of fibre in foods which keep your bacteria healthy so they can do their job: digestion, immune system, production of the hormone leptin that makes you feel full.
Where can you find them:
Probiotics are in fermented foods like plain yoghurt, kefir, kimchi or sauerkraut are great. I don’t blame you if that sounds like an acquired taste to you! Thankfully, you can take probiotics as a supplement.
Once we have topped up our gut bacteria with probiotics, we need to keep them happy and feed them with prebiotics! You can find Prebiotics in garlic, onion, leeks, asparagus, chicoree, oats and apples, chia seeds and flax seeds.
But there’s more we can do – we can support our mental health even better when we add certain nutrients to our diet: In developed countries such as the US and Europe we eat a greater variety of foods than ever before – but that doesn’t mean that we are well nourished. In fact, many people do not eat enough nutrients that are essential, opting for a diet of heavily processed food containing artificial additives, too much salt and sugar.
Previous research has shown certain nutritional deficiencies correlate with some mental disorders. The most common nutritional deficiencies seen in patients are of omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, B vitamins, zinc and Vitamin D. Once these were added back into the patient’s diet, their condition improved! Let’s look at them one by one:
Magnesium: almonds, cashew nuts, brazil nuts, green leafy vegetables.
Omega-3 fatty acids: Fatty fish like salmon, tuna or mackerel is your best friend. If you don’t like fish, try chia or flax seeds.
B vitamins and zinc : Most B vitamins are found in meat, fish and dairy so if you are vegan, you may want to consider a supplement. You can find zinc in pecan nuts, Brazil nuts, almonds and oats
Last but not least, Vitamin D. Our body can make its own Vitamin D when we expose our skin to sunlight. No problem during the last two summers but in the darker months, a supplement can help. You can find some Vitamin D in foods like wild salmon and other fatty fish and eggs. The only plant source is mushrooms.
The entire list and much more detailed information about how you can support your mental health and wellbeing by making small changes to your diet can be found in my online course here
I’m a firm believer that Nutrition changes everything.
Don’t wait for the disaster to happen. If you start developing good eating habits and add the foods that support your mental health, you will go easier and quicker through the next storm!