Mental Health month runs during October and aims to promote awareness about mental health and wellbeing. Taking care of your needs nutritionally is one of the best ways to look after your emotional wellbeing and mental health. Good nutrition plays a role in prevention of both chronic mental health conditions such as depression, Alzheimer’s, attention deficit and other behavioural related disorders as well as avoiding feelings of anxiety and low mood.
Why Nutrition – what’s the link?
Specific nutrient deficiencies are linked to the development and progression of mental health conditions. Research has confirmed a link between unhealthy dietary patterns and poorer mental health, especially in children and adolescents. Early onset of depression and anxiety is an increasing concern and clearly points to dietary improvement as a means of prevention.
Neurotransmitters & Mood
Neurotransmitters act as chemical messengers within the brain and are responsible for mood. They are primarily built from amino acids (protein), which tells us protein is a critical part of the diet for a healthy mood. Here are a few key neurotransmitters:
Serotonin: promotes feelings of wellbeing and happiness made from the amino acid tryptophan found in turkey, avocado, cottage cheese, eggs, wheat germ & banana.
GABA: promotes feelings of calmness and focus, built from the amino acid glutamine found in cabbage, brown rice, spinach and bone broth.
Dopamine: promotes feelings of reward and pleasure made from the amino acid tyrosine found in almonds, avocado, dairy and pumpkin seeds.
If our diet is not rich in amino acids necessary for neurotransmitter production, we may be at risk of poor mental health. As well as protein, there are numerous other ways optimal nutrition goes hand in hand with good mental health. Here are some of the key dietary influencers:
Nutrition and Diet Tips for supporting optimal mental health:
- Smaller more frequent meals to control blood sugar: poor blood sugar balance can lead to impaired tryptophan (amino acid) delivery to the brain, which results in low serotonin production (our happy hormone)
- Low-glycaemic index foods: for better blood control balance swap white refined grains for whole grain (eg spelt, brown rice, sourdough, quinoa)
- Protein at each meal and snack: provides essential amino acids which play a critical role in production of neurotransmitters which as you have learnt regulate our mood
- Daily Selenium: has been shown to exert a significant mood boost
- Try 3 brazil nuts daily or supplement 50-100mcg selenium daily short-term
- Ensure your diet contains at least 2 daily serves of healthy omega-3 fatty acids (EFA): our brain is 60% fat, EFA’s are critical for the proper functioning of the chemical messengers in our brain, controlling mood and emotions. Research has linked low intake of EFA’s with increased risk of depression and anxiety:
- 1 serving = 1 tbsp of olive, flaxseed, 150g fish, ¼ cup of nuts/seeds (raw & unsalted), ¼ of a avocado or 1 tbsp LSA.
- Assess Zinc status: lowered levels of zinc have been associated with low mood
- Signs of zinc deficiency: low immunity, brittle nails, lowered sense of taste and smell, hair loss and low appetite
- Food rich in zinc: seafood, miso, red meat, liver, mushrooms & green leafy vegetables
- Assess Magnesium status: Magnesium assists to calm the nervous system and reduce feelings of anxiety and irritability and assists with sleep, try Epsom salts bath as a daily wind down
- Food rich in magnesium: Green leafy vegetables, green leafy herbs, nuts, seeds, molasses & kelp
- Reduce caffeine: if caffeine creates feelings of anxiety or puts you on edge, only use caffeine if it results in beneficial effects!
- Indulge in Mindful eating: eat in a clam environment and focus on the food in front of you and let go of distractions!
What about the brain-gut connection?
You may have heard about the so-called brain-gut connection and be wondering what it really means? Our gut and brain are linked as they share many of the same nerve endings, hormones and neurotransmitters. It only makes sense that our emotions can have a significant impact on the physiological functioning of our gut and vice versa. A healthy mind is important for good digestion and good gut function including balance of bacteria, which is needed for a healthy mind. To help your gut flourish, try these tips:
- Assess for food intolerances and sensitivities which can promote inflammation in the body and interfere with mood related hormone signalling (ie dopamine)
- Dairy, gluten, wheat, eggs, night shades (eggplant, tomato) are the most common culprits
- Consume adequate fibre daily to feed good gut bacteria aiming for 25-30g daily
- Eg LSA, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, wholegrain carbohydrates
- Introduce fermented foods to your diet
- Eg Kimchi, kombucha, miso soup, tempeh, sauerkraut and kefir
Lifestyle – Pulling it all together
Scheduling regular movement and relaxation compliments a healthy diet to ensure optimal mental health. Choose a form of movement which you enjoy and can easily incorporate into your daily routine. Also, put time aside to relax and do something for you, it might be a walk in nature, reading a book, sipping tea in a quiet room, whatever works best for you!
Mood Boosting Smoothie – a perfect start to the day!
- 1 cup almond milk
- 1 frozen banana
- 1 handful spinach leaves
- ¼ avocado
- ½ tbsp. brazil nut butter
- ¼ cup berries
- handful ice, optional
- Place all ingredients into a blender/food processer and blitz until smooth, enjoy!
Grander, M et al 2014, ‘Sleep Symptoms Associated with Intake of Specific Dietary Nutrients,’ Journal of Sleep Research, Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 22-34.
Mokhber, N et al 2011, ‘Effect of supplementation with selenium on postpartum depression: a randomised double-blind placebo-controlled trial,’ The Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine, Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 104-108.
Swardfager, W, Herrmann, N, Mazereeuw, G, Goldberger, K, Harimoto, T & Lancott, K 2013, ‘Zinc in Depression: a Meta-Analysis, Biol Psychiatry, Vol. 74, No. 12, pp. 872-878.