By Guest Blogger: Dietician Kim Martin

If you’ve ever witnessed a toddler tantrum after they’ve hit a sugar-low, you’ll know that poor food choices can impact mental health. What we put into our mouths really matters, and choosing a diet rich in whole foods is key to improving mental health. We should really consider food as the basis of not just our physical wellbeing, but our mental wellbeing throughout our lives. Those struggling with mental health issues often tend to make poor diet choices. Likewise, those with poor diet choices often end up with mental health issues. It becomes a question of “what came first”, but in either circumstance we know that good nutrition is the key to improving health outcomes.

Poor diet is now the number two risk factor for early death across the globe.

Diets considered to be “poor” are those higher in junk foods such as sugar-sweetened drinks, fried foods, pastries, doughnuts, packaged snacks, and processed and refined breads and cereals. This eating pattern contributes to early death by increasing risk for diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and more. Those living with chronic disease often experience stress and chronic pain, both of which can lead to depression and anxiety – which brings us full circle back to the mental health challenges we’re faced with today.

What Happens Inside Our Bodies When We Are Depressed?

Whilst it’s not really possible to pinpoint exact causes for mental health issues, researchers have identified systems within the body that are altered in those with mental health issues.

These Include:

  • Changes to the level and functioning of our neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) such as serotonin (the mood stabilizing hormone), dopamine (the pleasure hormone), noradrenaline (the hormone that increases heart rate and blood pressure) and more.
  • Changes to cortisol levels (the stress hormone)
  • Increased inflammation
  • Increased oxidative stress (which is associated with aging and diseases such as cancer)
  • Physical changes to the shape and functioning of the cells in the brain
  • Altered function of our mitochondria (the energy powerhouse of the body)

These consequences of mental health issues provide key areas where nutrition can intervene.

Overall Food Choices to Improve Your Mental Health
There are a thousand-and-one diets on the market today. It’s no wonder we’re all confused over seemingly “trivial” issues such as whether or not we can eat eggs for breakfast – or (heaven forbid) have a slice of toast. There’s a need for personalisation when it comes to choosing the very best dietary approach for you and your health. However, there are key elements of the most successful and evidence-based dietary patterns that we can confidently recommend to everyone.

A diet that is rich in plant foods (such as vegetables), rich in fibre and antioxidants, rich in monounsaturated fats, and has a balanced intake between omega 3 fatty acids and omega 6 fatty acids, is associated with improved health outcomes across the board. As a starting point, we could all benefit from choosing whole foods that meet the above criteria more often.

Targeted Nutrients that are Associated with Improved Mental Health

1. Folate

Low folate levels are common in many depressed adults, particularly in women. The recommended daily intake for adults is 400mg. The very best sources of folate are brewer’s yeast, mushrooms, spinach, broccoli, brussels sprouts, asparagus, kale and other leafy greens, legumes, liver and orange juice.

2. Vitamin D

Vitamin D affects countless genes in the human body and is important for brain and skeletal health. Safe and frequent sun exposure is a great way to maintain healthy Vitamin D levels. Low Vitamin D levels have been found in those with mood disorders, and a deficiency is linked to increased risk for depression. The recommended daily intake for adults is 600IU. As sunlight is one of the best sources, it is important to recommend this first as it’s free and (weather- dependent) easy to achieve. You can also obtain vitamin D from the following sources: oily fish, egg yolks, fortified foods such as cow or soy milk, and fortified cereals (although doses tend to be low). The prudent approach is to include a vitamin D blood test as part of your annual check- up and supplement if levels are low.

3. Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Omega 3 fatty acids are important for the maintenance of cognitive function with age. Those who consume more fish and seafood during their lifetime have better cognitive function as they grow older. The dietary recommendation to ensure adequate omega 3 fatty acid levels, is to ingest fatty fish (such as salmon, trout, sardines and pilchards) at least twice per week. In those with mood disorders however, it is recommended that a minimum of 1g of omega 3 fatty acids be consumed daily via a supplement, with an upper level of 3g per day in severe cases. Fish oil and cod liver oil supplements are fairly easy to obtain, with vegetarian algae oil supplements increasing in availability with demand.

4. B Vitamins

The B family of vitamins are known for having positive effects on brain health. Three main B vitamins are often associated with improved brain health: (i) folate, (ii) vitamin B6, and (iii) vitamin B12. Dietary sources of B vitamins include animal meats, milk, eggs, fish, some enriched cereals and breads, and dark green vegetables such as spinach and kale. In individuals with mental health conditions, it is recommended that they take a vitamin B complex.

5. Antioxidants: Curcumin
Curcumin has been found to have the potential to improve a number of health conditions, including depression. Curcumin works to scavenge free radicals that can create inflammation. It is thought that antioxidants such as curcumin can fight chronic inflammation and relieve symptoms of depression. In 2017 a review looked into all of the research on curcumin for treating depression, and it was found to be a safe and effective natural option. Most studies have used a compound called BCM-95ä at a dose of between 250mg – 500mg daily.

6. Pre- and Pro-Biotics

The bacteria in our gut are not separate entities from our bodies. They are integrally involved in a number of aspects of our physical and mental wellbeing. Disruptions to the gut bacteria have been correlated with several psychiatric disorders. There are two main ways to address a dysregulated gut microbiome, namely probiotic supplementation, and a diet rich in prebiotics (found in fibre-rich plant foods) or prebiotic supplementation. A number of studies have shown benefit in supplementing with probiotics in order to encourage biodiversity in the gut. There is evidence that probiotic supplements increase cognitive function in those with depression, alleviate stress in adults with anxiety and depression, and lower anxiety in women with postnatal depression.

Final Thoughts

We can all relate to feeling lethargic and bloated after an overindulgent meal, and these aren’t feelings we associate with wellness. Likewise, many people will experience periods of anxiety or a low mood, whether or not they end up receiving a diagnosis or requiring medical intervention. Whilst good food may be only one aspect of a lifestyle that promotes mental wellness, it is a practical place for any person to start. Our bodies are designed to run on whole food sources that allow us to perform at our very best. Consistently nourishing your body with foods that are packed full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre is the best strategy to assure good mental health and overall wellness.  For those needing additional support, consider the individual nutrients mentioned above and supplement appropriately.