This week is Mental Health Awareness Week so I thought what better topic to discuss than mental health. It is a common misconception that the way you feed yourself and the way you move has little to do with how you think. I am here to tell you different.
Your body is one whole, complete (freakin’ amazing) unit. Your brain cannot be separated from your body, not for wellness or illness. What you put into your mouth directly and indirectly influences your brain. Have you heard of the gut brain connection? Well, it is as real as it gets.
Your gut and your brain are directly connected via the vagus nerve. This mega nerve is the major nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system (Remember that one? Some call it the rest and digest nervous system?) The vagus nerve controls a vast array of crucial bodily functions including control of mood and digestion as well as sending signals from the internal organs (including the digestive system) back to the brain.
(I am loving this illustration of the vagus nerve by Nicolle R Fuller.)
Did you catch that? Control of mood. And digestion. Mood (mental state) and digestion controlled by the same nerve. Signals from the intestines are sent to the brain directly via the vagus nerve. Directly. Do not pass go, do not collect $100.
What you eat matters.
There is preliminary evidence that vagus nerve stimulation can be used as treatment for a range of disorders including depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and inflammatory bowel disease. Interesting that a treatment to improve your digestion can also help with mental health.
So, if what we eat and how we digest matters to our mental health, that leads us to the next question, what should be eating? Many specific nutrients have been studied for their impact on mood and mental health but a great place to start is to ensure you are getting a balanced diet.
When you look at your plate is it 1/2 fresh raw and cooked vegetables, 1/4 starchy veg or whole grains and 1/4 good quality protein? If you are vegan or vegetarian is your plate 1/3 fresh raw and cooked vegetables, 1/3 vegetarian protein from nuts, seeds, beans and pulses and 1/3 starchy veg and whole grains?
Without enough protein you run the risk of not having the amino acids needed to produce certain brain neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. L-tyrosine is one such amino acid. It is a precursor to the catecholamines (dopamine, adrenaline, noradrenaline) and is found in many protein rich foods such as sesame seeds, fish and poultry. L-tyrosine is not essential meaning the body will produce it if you do not have enough, however, you have to have protein in the diet in order for the digestive system to break it down into the parts needed to build L-tyrosine. Although the body can make it, studies have shown improvements in cognition, concentration and mood in various situations with L-tyrosine supplementation. This may be due to the fact that levels of catecholamines in the brain can be influenced by the levels of building blocks needed to make them, of which L-tyrosine is one.
L-tryptophan is another amino acid that is important for neurotransmitter production. It is used to produce serotonin and then further to produce melatonin. This process requires cofactors (B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and iron) so you can see that diet really does matter when it comes to mental health.
Minerals and vitamins
Something as simple as low iron can cause lower serotonin levels and interfere with mood and sleep. This is a real problem. According to the WHO, 48% of girls 11-18 in the UK do not consume the Lower Reference Nutrient Intake (LRNI) of iron. The LRNI is the minimum amount that will be adequate for only 2.5% of the population. So, nearly half of our teen girls are at risk of low iron and the potential resulting mental health issues.
As I have mentioned, iron, magnesium and zinc are cofactors for serotonin production but there are other minerals and vitamins that are important for mental health for other reasons.
Magnesium is used by the arteries in the brain to control blood flow.
Folate (as 5-MTHF) is necessary for the biosynthesis of serotonin, adrenaline and dopamine as well as recycling homocysteine in the methylation cycle to create methionine which is used to create new neurotransmitters. Vitamin B12 also plays a role in the methylation cycle. A deficiency in folate or vitamin B12 may cause neurological disturbances such as depression and dementia.
Vitamin B6 in its active form, Pyridoxal-5-Phosphate, protects the brain from advanced glycation end-products (AGEs) which cause oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega 3 oils such as those found in flax seeds, chia seeds, and oily fish support neural plasticity, reduce inflammation, help optimise cognitive function and support healthy cell signalling.
There are many other foods and herbs that can support mental health and specific nutrients that are better for supporting certain mental health issues. It is a huge topic, much larger than I can cover here but if there is one take away for you today it is that a diet rich in phytonutrients from plants (including fibre to support your gut health, vitamins, and minerals), rich sources of protein, and healthy fats can go a long way to providing your body with all the building blocks it needs to support a healthy and balanced brain. It may not seem obvious that what you eat impacts your mood but if you struggle with mental health issues changing your diet for a week or two to see how you feel is a low risk, high reward experiment.
If you would like help planning a balanced diet or some advice about what foods to add in to improve your mental health, do get in contact. We have a choice, every time we eat, whether we enhance or degrade our health. Once you see how you feel when eating a healthy diet you may never go back to your old habits. You have the power to change your mood, your outlook and your health.
Interested in reading some interesting science to do with diet and mental health?