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A growing body of research shows that a high-quality diet can boost brain performance and protect us from a host of mental health conditions. Our experts at Paracelsus Recovery explain why food impacts our brain just as much as it does our body.
The coronavirus pandemic has left a mental health crisis in its wake. Anxiety, depression and burnout continue to skyrocket, and leaders worldwide know they need to act, but they face a difficult task. However, if we focus on nutritional psychiatry, we can find hope on the horizon (and in our fridge.)
We know that our diet impacts our weight, energy levels, and our risk of developing conditions such as heart disease or type 2 diabetes. However, we are now beginning to realise that our mental health might play a role in the development of these conditions. For example, a ground-breaking study (2019) in Denmark found that Danes diagnosed with mental illnesses live ten years less than their counterparts due to issues such as heart disease, infection or cancer. Other studies have shown that compared to a typical Western diet, those who eat a Mediterranean diet have a 25–35% decreased risk of developing depression. Thus, if our diet plays a role in our emotional wellbeing, it begs the question; do mental health conditions worsen our diet, or is a poor diet the cause of mental ill-health?
Our brain controls almost every aspect of our health — from our thoughts, heartbeat, breathing, movement, senses and so on. But, to work as effectively as possible, our brain needs a constant supply of fuel. This “fuel” is found in the foods you eat, and that’s what makes all the difference. For instance, studies show that nutrient-dense foods — such as whole grains, lefty greens, colourful vegetables, beans, legumes, seafood and fruits boost our brain health by strengthening our ‘neural pathways’ and improving the bacteria in our gut.
“If you are struggling to cut down on sugary foods, try to counteract them instead. For example, for each wine-gum you eat, try to eat two pieces of fruit.”
In the former’s case, these neural pathways control our learning, thinking, feeling, and sense of wellbeing. For example, when we learn something new, our brain’s neurons will seek out other neurons so as to connect past experiences with new information. Therefore, by paying close attention to the foods we eat, we can effectively control how well our brain performs. This can lead to a ripple effect, whereby the more ‘awake’ we feel, the more our self-esteem improves, and the stronger our mental health becomes.
Secondly, there are numerous connections between what we eat, the bacteria that live in our gut, and our mental health. For instance, our gut contains between 200 and 600 million neurons and trillions of microbes that produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in feelings of happiness, self-acceptance and self-esteem. Low levels of serotonin can also lead to depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.
Thus, making sure we eat a diet rich in prebiotic fibre, probiotics, and low in sugar will improve our gut-health, which in turn, improves our mental health. For example, research shows that when people take probiotics that contain ‘good’ bacteria, their anxiety levels, perception of stress and mental outlook improve.
While our diet impacts our mental health, our emotional wellbeing can also influence what kind of foods we crave. For example, if you struggle with anxiety or depression, your day-to-day life is often filled with brain fog, sadness and fatigue. These symptoms are exhausting and stressful.
“Our gut contains trillions of microbes that produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in feelings of happiness, self-acceptance and self-esteem. Low levels of serotonin can also lead to depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.”
Stress pumps out hormones such as cortisol, which activates our fight-or-flight mode. When this happens, our bodies crave foods that will give us instant energy, such as carbohydrates. Stress is also emotionally taxing. It can make us exhausted, irritable, and unfocused. When we feel like this, we can start to crave dopamine — the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. Sugary foods provide us with bursts of dopamine. Or, in other words, a fleeting feeling of happiness. Therefore, the more stressed you are, the more likely you are to eat junk food, which in turn, makes you more likely to develop a stress-induced mental health condition.
Thus, what you eat plays a vital role in strengthening your mental health. But, your stress levels and general wellbeing will impact what you eat. To navigate these complex relationships, try to be extra mindful of your diet. If you are struggling to figure out where to start, focus on the following nutrients:
Numerous studies show that zinc can have an antidepressant effect and improve symptoms of anxiety or ADHD. You can find zinc in red meat, poultry, beans, nuts and whole grains.
Antioxidants are our brain’s primary form of defence against environmental toxins. For instance, studies show that low antioxidant intake increases your likelihood of developing chronic health conditions. Berries, kale, broccoli and dark chocolate are excellent sources of antioxidants.
3. B Vitamins
B-vitamins play a vital role in controlling our moods and our brain’s efficacy. Conversely, low levels of B-vitamins have been linked to depression. Citrus fruits, seafood, poultry, eggs, nutritional yeast and seeds are all high in B vitamins.
Magnesium can help calm down our stress levels, improve our mood, help the ‘good bacteria’ in our gut, and enhance our sleep. You can find magnesium in foods containing dietary fibre, such as nuts, tofu, seeds and bananas.
In numerous clinical trials, probiotics such as lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium bacteria were shown to increase the amount of serotonin in our gastrointestinal tract, thereby easing symptoms of anxiety or depression.
To conclude, try to remember that we are living through a pandemic. It is a highly stressful period, and that stress will impact both your mental health and what foods you crave. Therefore, while it is important to be mindful of the ‘fuel,’ we give our brains, it is equally important to be compassionate with ourselves. If you are struggling to cut down on sugary foods, try to counteract them instead. For example, for each wine-gum you eat, try to eat two pieces of fruit.