Nutrition and lifestyle approaches to promote good mental Health
Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year.
Of these, mixed anxiety and depression are the most common mental health disorders experienced.
By 2030, it is estimated that there will be approximately two million more adults in the UK with mental health problems than there were in 2013.
Adapting your lifestyle can be a good place to start if you are suffering with mental health disorders. Below are some nutritional and lifestyle approaches that have helped many people cope and manage symptoms.
1. Balance your blood sugar and insulin
I know it seems like this is the answer to everything at the moment but in terms of mental health it really is. Refined carbohydrates and sugar increase your cortisol levels making you more prone to anxiety and low mood. Balancing your blood sugar will also help you sleep better by encouraging your natural rise of cortisol in the morning and drop in the evening.
How to do it
Decrease your consumption of processed carbs and sugars, caffeine, alcohol
Eat protein and fat at each meal with a little (no more than ¼ plate) of complex carbohydrate (e.g. wholegrains, beans, quinoa, oats, amaranth)
Choose carbohydrates that are released slowly into the blood and do not cause a sharp rise and fall of insulin (low GL)
Eat real food
Increase intake of fibre (esp flax seed as high in omega 3 too!)
2. Improve your Gut Health and Microbiome
Your gut microbes have now been implicated in the health of your whole system. Gut microbiota influences serotonin and dopamine production, 90% of the body’s serotonin is found in the gut!
Recent research links depression with chronic inflammation. Your microbiota regulates your immune response and can reduce unnecessary inflammation so ensuring that you have a diverse rich community in your gut can really help improve your mental health.
How to do it
Remove the following from your diet:
Inflammatory foods such as trans fats, sugar, processed vegetable oils, alcohol, caffeine, potentially gluten and dairy (please seek help to do this to ensure you are still getting the nutrients you need)
Medications such as ibuprofen, antacids, antibiotics where possible
Foods you are intolerant to. Try an exclusion diet such as ‘whole 30’ then reintroduce foods into your diet to see if they negatively affect you.
Chemicals, additives, and pesticides
Include the following:
Anti-inflammatory foods such as healthy fats, fruit and vegetables especially greens and berries, turmeric, nuts and seeds
Prebiotic fibres from vegetables, especially onion, garlic, unripe bananas, wholegrains.
Probiotic foods such as live yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi
Consider the following supplements
Digestive enzymes, glutamine, zinc
3. Eat Real Food
Avoiding processed foods will eliminate additives, chemicals, unnecessary sugar, trans fats, and other inflammatory substances from your diet. Real, whole foods contain a huge array of vitamins minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants and macronutrients in natural ratios to promote a healthy brain.
4. Avoid poor quality meat
There is research that supports including good quality grass fed red meat in your diet can reduce the risk of developing depression in women. Having said that, eating grain fed poor quality meat can have the opposite effect due to its inflammatory effects on the body.
5. Eat enough protein
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Many of these amino acids are pre-cursors to our neurotransmitters so if you are deficient you are likely to be struggling to produce the neurotransmitters needed for a healthy brain and mood. Seafood, quality meat, eggs, nuts, beans, legumes, tofu are great sources of protein. If you are plant based try to ensure that every meal has a good source of protein.
6. Increase your healthy fat intake
Fats have long been feared and therefore many of us have reduced our intakes. Certain fats that we can not make ourselves are essential for our brain health. The omega 3 fat EPA plays a critical role in the regulation of cellular inflammation whilst another, DHA is important for maintaining nerve cell structure and function and helps to build the brain’s neuronal (brain cell) connections as well as the receptor sites for neurotransmitters. A deficiency of these fats in the diet will likely result in mental health disorders. Include lots of fatty fish, olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, and coconut oil in your diet to increase your intake. If you are plant based I would advise a vegan supplement of EPA and DHA.
7. Get your B vitamins
Folate increases methylation and therefore can increase neurotransmitter production. Rich sources include green leafy vegetables, asparagus, avocado, beans, peas, and lentils.
B12 is involved in serotonin production. Sources include all animal products as well as fortified foods (no natural vegan sources)
B6 (Pyridoxine) is a cofactor in the tryptophan-serotonin pathway and research links low B6 with symptoms of depression. Sources include pork, poultry, such as chicken or turkey, fish, wholegrains, eggs, vegetables, soya beans.
B3 (Niacin) Enhances the calming neurotransmitter GABA and increases serotonin production. Rich sources include fish, meats, peanuts, whole grains mushrooms, seeds, eggs and almonds
8. Get enough magnesium and zinc
Magnesium stimulates GABA receptors in the brain and reduces cortisol release, it is anti-inflammatory and increases brain plasticity. You can buy this in spray form or use Epsom salts in your bath. Zinc is also anti-inflammatory, increases Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (supports growth of neurons) and deficiency is linked with excitotoxicity in the brain which is associated with migraines, dementia, anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. Good sources include seafood, particularly shellfish, quality red meat, nuts, seeds, dairy, eggs, beans.
9. Get outside and move
Much research has linked the effects of fresh air and sunlight on positive mood and health. It doesn’t have to be a gruelling run or a 3 hour hike. Just adding a 20min walk into your day can refresh your senses and allow you to process thoughts and worries preventing the dreaded night-time mind racing effect. It also allows you to breathe in the environment, especially if you are lucky enough to live in the countryside where you can absorb all those lovely microbes from the soil and plants.
10. Listen to Podcasts and get educated
Podcasts can inspire and motivate you just when you need them. Check out my post on favourite shows. Reading books about mental health can increase your awareness, provoke new thought and theory as well as giving you hope for the future and comfort that you are not alone.
11. Switch off for a second
If social media eats away at your time, try and consciously put your phone somewhere else for a while. If you need to do it for work, schedule time for it to avoid constant checking. Consider if it affects your mood negatively. Who are you following and why?
12. Start a habit tracker or bullet journal
Writing the habits that you would like to adopt in a nice concise list and referring to them daily can really help to install healthy routines naturally. Try not to do too much at once, make them achievable, even add things that you do already (the process of ticking things off can be very satisfying).
8. Try and keep your environment tidy and organised
This is a hard one. Most of us are juggling a million things at once so finding time to clean and organise your home often falls to the wayside. I know from my own experience that mess and chaos around me affects my mood and sleep and I hate it when I don’t have time to keep on top of things. I try to do a couple of things to keep it manageable. I try to have a clean and tidy kitchen before bed and I try to put things away once I’ve used them. Most people find it useful to have a home cleaning schedule, have a folder for important docs, have a place for everything so you don’t get build up of ‘stuff’ without a home. I have also put a 15min clean on my habit tracker which would be for stuff other than the norm e.g. windows, fireplace, walls, deep clean fridge but this doesn’t always get ticked!
9. Consider herbal supplements
Ashwaghanda is an adaptogen herb that works by blocking stress hormones. It supports the adrenal glands and nervous system and can be really useful for those feeling ‘tired but wired’. Other herbs such as St Johns wort and rhodiola have also shown to be beneficial for stress and depression.
10. Yoga and meditation
The beneficial effects of yoga and meditation on mental health has been now widely documented. Apps such as 'headspace' and 'calm' guide you and teach you how to meditate, starting with very short sessions and increasing in length if you want them to.
11. Be prepared for bad days
On a good day make a list of things that you can do for a time when you’re struggling to get you through the day. Think about the things that would realistically help e.g. listen to a podcast, going for a walk, having a bath, sleeping, talking to a friend, family, reading a book. Obviously, it needs to be realistic and not cause you extra stress because you are trying to fit something in to an already busy day.
I hope that this post has helped and provided you with some practical ideas to promote good mental health and mood. What strategies do you use to stay brain healthy?