Today (October 10th 2018) is World Mental Health Day, which aims to raise awareness of mental health issues.
As a society, we are suffering greatly from mental health issues, from depression, to ADHD, autism, or inability to properly handle and manage stress. Poor mental health can be a risk factor for other chronic conditions such as IBS and people with chronic diseases such as autoimmune diseases are also much more likely to suffer from depression.
Mental health support is becoming a core part of HR teams in corporations and educational professionals in schools and universities, as well as health services, as poor mental health is having a dramatic impact on our overall society, from high suicide rates (highest mortality cause in men below the age of 45), to lost productivity in organisations due to sick days. Mental health issues are becoming less of a stigma, but still, people who suffer may still struggle to be open about it. We have no issues talking about diabetes or heart disease or cancer; depression and other mental issues are chronic conditions, which often have physical root causes similar to other chronic diseases. The brain is an organ like heart or liver and it needs the right conditions to function properly.
Solutions offered often centre around therapies such as psychotherapy, coaching, talking therapy, meditation, exercise, etc. Don’t get me wrong, these are crucial and we should continue to invest time and money into these.
However, what is often overlooked - though it is changing - is the role of food in mental health. So if the brain is not given what it needs and lacks essential nutrients, or if it is given too many toxins or is exposed to chronic infections, it will be unable to thrive and actually it will lead to dysfunction. This dysfunction will lead to unstable moods, inability to focus or to retain information, potentially all the way to full blown depression. Whilst I have personally never suffered from depression, there have been times when things have been extremely hard: when I struggled greatly with a previous job and I was sick to my stomach on Sunday night, or how my moods were constantly up and I down, when the RA I suffer was at its most active. I noticed a vast improvement into my mood stability and my ability to focus since I changed my food (and again in the past month since I’ve started my meditation practise - but this will be for another post in a few months!).
Below is a “simple but not easy” 3-step strategy to regain full function of your brain and overall health:
Maximise what the brain and human body needs: raw materials, oxygen, water, nutrients (such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, proteins, healthy fats, etc.): mainly what you breathe and ingest
Minimise “insults” that will cause dysfunctions: toxins, infections, allergens, stress & trauma
Prioritise and create an environment for healing: Sleep, stress management, exercise, laugh, breathe, meditate, positive and meaningful relationships, hobbies.
As a society, we have become quite poor at doing all 3 consistently - for many different reasons - for example:
our priorities have shifted and we are using our time and resources on other things,
technology has changed our lives so rapidly we’ve not yet adapted and taken positive steps to control our use of it
our consumption of food, drinks and personal care products have shifted from locally and naturally sourced and produced to being controlled by multi-national corporations that grow, manufacture and distribute the majority of what we consume, in ways which are far from aligned with our needs.
But I digress….
So let’s talk about food can be used to boost brain & mental health.
You won’t be surprised to hear that it is closely aligned to the foods needed for the health of other systems (such cardiovascular, immune, digestive, or endocrine system), because all systems are linked. They all continuously communicate with one another and a dysfunction in one will ultimately impact another. But there some key areas to address:
Omega 3 Fats are key to for your brain and thereby mental health.
Why are they important? Omega 3 fats are crucial building blocks when it comes to brain cells. They are also a key component to healthy communication within the brain. The essential fats are also key to your immune system and cardiovascular health, all of which has an impact on your overall well-being.
Where do you get them from? The best source of nutrients is always our food, because it comes in its natural form, with many other nutrients. Fish, especially oily (salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, trout, tuna - though avoid too much due to mercury), as well as seafood (such as oysters or mussels) are a great source of Omega 3. The other source of Omega 3 is high quality grass fed meat (beef, lamb for example) or eggs (of pasture feed birds). Finally, if it is difficult for you to consume high amounts of fish and grass fed meat, you can always go down the route of Omega 3 supplements (especially if vegetarian, as the sources of plant based Omega 3s are more difficult for our bodies to assimilate).
Cholesterol: Yes, you have heard it right. Cholesterol is key to your mental and brain health. And we are still being told that cholesterol is “bad” for us. Think about it, breast milk contains more cholesterol than in full fat cow’s milk. No-one questions that breast milk is the best food for babies and so if Mother Nature was to create something as perfect as breast milk with so much cholesterol, surely this is - at least - not bad for your health, but - at best - actually critical for it?
Why is cholesterol key? It has 3 main functions. It is used by every cell of our bodies to keep their membranes healthy and therefore strong against foreign invaders. It is also the raw material for all hormones. And finally, it is crucial to the production of bile salts which are critical to the digestion process. No small tasks, right? It’s not as simple as having a lot of cholesterol, as you need the balance between the different types pf cholesterol (HDL and LDL in particular, the so called “good” and “bad” cholesterol). Studies have showed that LDL cholesterol (so called bad cholesterol) is found in neurosteroids that are crucial for brain function and mood regulation.
Where to get Cholesterol from? Animal products are the richest sources of cholesterol. This includes meat, offal, dairy, eggs - yolks specifically, seafood (prawns, crab, lobster, squid). Additionally, other sources such as olive oil, legumes & beans, nuts & seeds and avocado will help balance your HDL & LDL ratio which is important.
Another key consideration with Cholesterol. Deficiencies in LDL cholesterol (the so called “bad” cholesterol) actually leads to insufficient protection by the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E & K, which leads to deficiencies. These vitamins are key to immune health. It should be clear to anyone that all the systems are inter-connected and the health of one cannot go without the health of another. It also means that there is not one silver bullet when it comes to food. Not one food is superior to another, it is a matter of balance.
Vitamin D: it has been shown that low levels of Vitamin D can be linked to depression. We have all noticed how when the sun is out we seem all to be in a happier mood and vice versa. The best source of Vitamin D is of course the sun. Foodwise, fish, grass-fed dairy, oysters, eggs and mushrooms are a good source of Vitamin D. However, in high latitudes, a supplement of Vitamin D during the winter is highly recommended.
Serotonin: it is a neurotransmitter that help boosting your mood. When our serotonin levels drop (this often happens in winter, due to lack of light), this can lead to lower moods. Serotonin production can be boosted by exercise (see, again, how things inter-connect?!), but also, Serotonin is mostly produced in the gut.
I’m sure you will have heard of gut microbiome and healthy bacteria being so important to your heath. If you suffer from any digestive issues, in particular gut dysbiosis (where you either have too much or too little of the good bacteria or you have too much bad bacteria, or the bacteria isn’t in the right place), this will dramatically influence your moods. So good digestive health leads to good mental health.
How to achieve good digestive health?
It will be a function of increasing the good bacteria (it could involve a probiotic or eating probiotic foods, such as sauerkraut, kombucha, yogurt, kefir), reducing bad bacteria (a stool test would help determine if it is present). An increase in fibre , especially from vegetables, is essential to healthy gut microbiome and will improve digestion. Drinking bone broth is also wonderful, as it helps healing your digestive track. Also, avoid foods high in sugar, as it feeds the wrong kind of bacteria, which in turn will have a huge effect on your moods.
Here are a few guidelines and tips to ensure you include some of the foods into your diet (no affiliate links below, simply companies I use and love, so happy to recommend them):
Fish / seafood: ideally 5 times a week, that is less than 1 meal a day a week. I love Fishbox who delivery fish and seafood to me on a weekly basis, it has greatly increased our intake. I have a lovely recipe for a nice tarragon sauce to turn a bit of white fish into a tasteful dinner. And of course, this great fennel and salmon salad; keep it simple: bake fish in the oven with a bit of olive oil, salt and lemon, a fillet usually takes 15 mins or so to bake. Canned fish counts too, so no need to stress about buying fresh fish regularly.
Meat and eggs: I’m pretty sure you won’t have any issues adding these in your diet, however, ensure the highest quality you can afford. Ideally grass feed (pasture raised for pork/poultry/eggs). Local independent butchers are a great source and there are now numerous farms who deliver straight to your door.
Vegetables: a lot more recipes will get start appearing on this site, but you need to aim for 8 to 12 portions a day! Yes, that much! How? Here are a few tricks & tips:
Source the best vegetables you can, ideally organic, to avoid nasties like pesticides. They truly taste better (and are much richer in nutrients, so it’s a double win!). My favourite company is Riverford as I get a lot of variety, it’s always seasonal and as much as possible local.
Have vegetables for breakfast! This is something most of my clients find peculiar and struggle with, but why? We have no issues eating cereals or meat, so why not vegetables? Start with a smoothie if savoury is an issue, but make sure it’s 50:50 vegetables-fruits. Swap your piece of toast for a few salad leaves or cucumber sticks… and build from there. Here’s another simple idea to add vegetables into your breakfast: Vegetable egg muffins
Soup: coming into winter, it’s a great way to ingest large amounts of vegetables in one sitting. Use scraps (such as stalks of leafy greens or broccoli, cauliflower leaves, carrot tops, etc.) , so your soup costs you hardly anything. And of course, use bone broth, so it’s again, a double whammy!
Replace all your cereals based products (pasta, bread, rice) and potatoes by vegetables. A cliché, but replace Spaghetti with “Zoddles” (zucchini/courgette noodles), or simply slice courgettes and pan-fry it. Swap potatoes for other root vegetables, which quite frankly, are far more tasty and interesting: sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, turnips, parsnips, celeriac, etc. What you can do with potatoes, you can do with these: roast, chips, mashed, steam, and some you can even grate and eat raw. Use Cauliflower to replace rice: place cauliflower florets into a food processor and run it until fine, it actually resembles more like couscous than rice. I just pan-fry it in a bit of olive or coconut oil for 10-15 mins.
Prepare a big batch coleslaw (as it keeps well for 5 days) and have a little bit as a side salad with every meal.
I shall stop here for now, I am sure I have missed out on a few things. However, I would summarise by this.
Earlier, I said, that “not one food is superior to another and it is a matter of balance”.
I shall correct myself. There is one food superior to another and it is whole foods. Whole foods are far superior to ultra-processed foods (defined by foods that include more than 5 ingredients and which now constitute more than 50% of the food consumption in the UK). A diet of whole foods prepared at home is the best way to guarantee yourself good physical and mental health. And yes, it does include cakes and biscuits (in moderation) as long as you’ve baked them at home. (And the good news is that cake and biscuits, because of the carbohydrates, ie. sugars, are great are producing Serotonin, the “happy neurotransmitter”, so for a short while, you’ll have boosted your happy mood!).
IIN qualified health coach, foodie, mum of 2, wife of 1, ex corporate advertising executive, RA warrior