Being “kind to your mind”; adapting your diet to support your mental health
Now, I'm not sure if you know this but your brain, and more specifically your mental health, is super-duper important.
The COVID 19 pandemic has unfortunately led to an unprecedented rise in mental health issues. Social isolation, anxiety, stress, depression and many other mental health related issues are now becoming extremely common in the general population.
Focusing on maintaining a healthy lifestyle can protect your mental wellbeing. We're going to cover what changes you can make to your diet so that it supports your mental health and overall wellbeing.
The brain acts as the "control centre" of our body. It's always working to regulate your thoughts, emotions, behaviours, movements, senses, breathing and much, much more.
It's always "on"; managing stressors, filtering stimuli and sending the correct signals to the right parts of the body when they need to get there. It has to be dynamic and able to adapt to a constantly changing environment. Oh, and on top of all that, we ask the brain to act as our "librarian" (creating, protecting and storing memories) and problem solver.
It's a 24/7 job for our brain, and there's thought that, as hard as it works during the day, it may work even harder when you're asleep.
How your diet can impact your brain
Unsurprisingly, all the work the brain does requires a whole lot of energy. This energy comes from the food we eat and, just like a car, performs better with certain "fuels" over others. Additionally, our diet can actually affect the structure of our brain too, which also has a significant impact on how it's able to function!
Just as they are as important for our overall wellbeing, essential nutrients are required for healthy brain function and work synergistically. Supplement companies and creators of new diets will suggest incorporating their one "magic" component will be enough to sort your mental and or overall wellbeing. This is likely not the case, and the focus should be on improving the whole diet which is likely to have far greater benefit for mental health than any single nutrient / "missing piece" alone.
So, instead of focusing on just one thing you can do to improve your mental wellbeing via dietary change, we're going to discuss a few of the most important nutrients as well as a diet you may want to kick the tires on!
Specific nutrients for improved mental functioning
Research has so far identified a select few nutrients we want to consider increasing to protect and or improve our mental health.
Omega 3 fatty acid
Omega-3s have been shown to have a protective effect on the brain. Achieving adequate intake also contributes to improved cognitive performance as well as improving the symptoms of mental health disorders.
So, how do omega 3s work to improve our mental health? Firstly, they can alter our brain function itself by changing the content of our cell membranes. Secondly, they can act as intracellular messengers, also altering how our brain functions. Thirdly, they can induce a more favourable anti-inflammatory state.
A diet rich in foods that induce an anti-inflammatory state can protect your brain directly from damage (which ultimately affects focus, performance and overall health state) which may be caused in a pro-inflammatory state. We'll talk a bit more about the role of inflammation later on!
Where can you find them? Omega 3 fatty acids are typically found in marine food sources (such as oily fish), plant-based foods (such as chia, hemp and flaxseeds) and as a supplement (which may be the most practical source for some).
Aiming for around 1 - 2g a day would be a great start and this can be achieved by having several portions of oily fish (like salmon or mackerel) per week or having a daily supplement!
Vitamin D deficiency is associated with an increased risk of having a mental health disorder and suffering from cognitive decline. Adequate levels appear to have the opposite effect and so may be an important part of your strategy to protect your mental health!
Vitamin D works to improve our mental health in a whole host of ways, from protecting the brain to even effecting how our brain functions.
Whilst you can achieve it from your diet it would be pretty difficult to do this successfully long term (unless you enjoy eating your bodyweight in mushrooms every day). A supplement is honestly the best approach to achieving adequate vitamin D intake; aim for around 1000I.U / 25 micrograms a day consistently.
B vitamins are really important for our mental wellbeing too. They play a specific role in the production of brain chemicals as well as clearing our brain of other chemicals which can disrupt our mental functioning.
A diverse, plant centric diet is a great start here. It may be difficult to achieve the intakes of certain B vitamins like folic acid and vitamin B12 if you are vegan so consider supplementing or incorporating some foods fortified with these B vitamins.
Considerations for the gut
A healthy gut will also help protect our mental health. Yes, your butt and brain working together (well more than just your butt, but I really wanted to say butt... butt).
Why is the gut important you ask? Well, that's all down to serotonin; a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain.
About 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gut. This can be disrupted by poor diet, specifically a diet higher in foods contributing to a pro-inflammatory state (namely highly processed foods).
A diet rich in omega 3s, plants and fermented foods (like yoghurt and kefir) can be great for your mental health and gut! These diets are rich in probiotic and prebiotic foodstuffs which our "good" gut bacteria love and thrive off of; if our gut microbiome is healthier and our “good” gut bacteria are thriving, we tend to be performing and feeling better (whilst generally being much healthier and happier).
The Mediterranean diet
If you're looking for a diet that encompasses everything we've spoken about here, then you'll want to give the Mediterranean diet a shot!
Rich in nutrient dense plants as well as oily fish, it ticks off a whole load of boxes for us! You may still need to supplement with vitamin D however, but that's going to be the case for virtually every diet.
The Mediterranean diet is also richer in fibre and antioxidants; both critically important for gut and brain health!
If you want to follow the Mediterranean diet its relatively easy to do so. The diet itself is one rich in fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fish, white meats, and olive oil. It may also include moderate consumption of fermented dairy products, low intake of red meat and even the inclusion of some red or white wine (if you’re that way inclined).
Recently, an in-depth review has shown that studies employing the Mediterranean diet have reported a reduction of depressive symptoms over time and improved rates or remission!
It has never been as important to be looking out for our noggins; lockdowns and COVID-19 generally have proved difficult for all of us in some way and we’ve unfortunately seen a lot of people’s mental health take a hit.
We can’t necessarily control everything about the situation itself, but we can control how we look after ourselves. Continue to exercise if and when you can, try and keep a good sleep routine and schedule and talk to people if you’re feeling down / need support.
Your diet can play an important role in your mental health too; why not use this free time to create your own science experiment and see how incorporating some of those things which we’ve outlined can benefit your health! Oh, and don’t forget to let us know about it too!