Eating for a Happy Head
Each October, Australia celebrates Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health is an issue of great importance and devastatingly, accounts for the highest-burden of global disability. This year, amidst a global pandemic, we feel that it is crucial to shed some light on such a great cause because we all know someone who is directly affected by mental health-related illness. "This month encourages all of us to think about our mental health and wellbeing, regardless of whether we may have a lived experience of mental illness or not. It also gives us the opportunity to understand the importance of good mental health in our everyday lives and encourages help-seeking behaviours when needed," (Mental Health Month NSW)
It is important to understand that effective treatment for mental health conditions should be done so through a multipronged approach. It is crucial that if you need help you should reach out to organizations who are there to help you (we will put links to those below). We are here to shed some light on how we can help through what we know best, nutrition! Nutrition is known to have a profound impact on mental health. Now, there are a few reasons behind this. This article will highlight the connections between food and mood and offer some advice to help get your eating habits on track to support a happy head!
Researchers now believe that depression, in particular, isn't just a disorder of the brain, but rather a disorder of the whole body. They have found that immune system dysfunction, chronic, low-grade systemic inflammation is a risk factor for developing the disorder. Systemic Inflammation can arise as a result of external 'lifestyle' stressors such as poor diet, stress, lack of exercise, smoking, being overweight or obese, lack of sleep, vitamin D deficiency and the list goes on... Lots of these factors influence the gut microbiota, and in turn, profoundly influences the immune system. The gut microbiome not only affects our head but it is critical to almost every aspect of health including our metabolism and body weight, neurotransmitter production, hormone balance and overall wellness. All of these factors are relevant to depression, reinforcing the idea that depression is a whole-body disorder.
How Diet Impacts Brain Function
There are two ramifications of a poor diet that interact with the gut microbiome and immune system, and subsequently influence brain function. Although these dietary factors are food-related, they aren't exactly the same thing.
The first; is nutrient insufficiency. A diet that is lacking in enough nutrient-dense foods (vegetables, fruits, wholegrain, good quality fats and proteins) can lead to deficiencies in antioxidants, fibre, vitamins and minerals, Needless to say, if the body isn't getting the fuel it needs (through a diverse diet centred around whole-foods) to function it is not going to thrive and all body systems will be affected particularly mental health. The gut microbiome is particularly reliant on getting a diverse spread of fibres from different foods to build gut health.
The second; excess dietary intake of foods high in fat, sugar and additives has a detrimental effect on proteins that influence our brain. Foods like these drive inflammation and disrupt the chemical messengers in the brain.
These two factors need to be addressed synergistically in order to achieve optimal health. What we mean by that is that even though perhaps you have a good variety of vegetables and fruits in your diet it does not mean that you can overindulge in processed foods. This will still have a detrimental effect on the gut. We need to shift focus to decreasing the "bad" and increasing the "good." Sounds simple right?
What You Should Aim For
Our top tips for boosting gut health are the same as any recommendations we would generally make for overall health! Diet should be built from whole foods and a big variety of them!
Begin by assembling your plate with plant-based foods such as vegetables, salads, then add in a good form of protein (plant-based or animal), then complex carbohydrate (fruits, starchy vegetables, whole grains) and finish off with some good fats such as olive oil!
The fantastic part of eating a diet like this is that it is rich in fibre! The fibre in particular has a massive influence on gut health. Did you know that you should be aiming for about 25- 30g of fibre per day! To put this in perspective, 1 medium-sized carrot has 2g of fibre and a medium apple has 4.4g. You can do the math here.
Dress your salad off with vinegar such as balsamic and apple cider which have also been shown to have a positive impact on the gut. You may also like further "pimp" your salad with gut-loving goodness by adding in fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh!
Impact of Poor Mental Health on Dietary Behaviours
The flip side of poor mental health is the impact that it can have on eating behaviours. Nearly everyone is aware of how uncomfortable emotions and stress impact our dietary choices. Do you ever find yourself reaching for the chocolates or ice-cream when you're feeling emotional or stressed? There is research (in animals) that shows that by consuming sweets the stress response is reduced through the release of reward/ happy chemicals that are sent to our brain. However, don't be fooled - the short term reward if hugely outweighed by the long term negative effects it has on health. Studies also show that a diet that is high in refined sugar, additives and saturated fat are addictive and interact with our dopamine pathways (as do other addictive products like cigarettes and caffeine) and long term will add to the vicious cycle.
The First Step
If you are feeling as though you can relate to what we have mentioned above, do not worry, there are simple steps you can take to improve your wellbeing! Start by adding in colour and variety into your diet through fruits and vegetables. You also want to support your energy by giving the body complex carbohydrates and quality protein. Build a balanced plate in the way we have mentioned above. If you would like help doing this, or feel that you have been trying this and nothing is working, this is when you will see great benefit in booking in for an appointment. Here at Inspire Wellness, we love the effects that the program Metabolic Balance has on supporting mental health. The sole purpose is to reduce inflammation and re-balance the body. When the body is given the nutrients that it needs, it begins to repair and then thrive!
As Clinical Nutritionists there are also supplements that we can prescribe for some individuals to help further support them. It is important for your practitioner to understand what supplements might be useful to you and what areas your body might need support in. This screening is done in an initial consultation and comprehensive blood chemistry analysis. Help is out there and we would love to assist you in your journey.
Please submit an enquiry to get in touch!