We are becoming more aware as a society that mental health is as important as physical health. With one in four experiencing a mental health issue in the course of a year, whether it is conditions such as stress, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or dementia, it is something that will affect all of us directly or indirectly.
Diet and nutrition alongside other lifestyle factors, such as getting enough sleep, regularly exercising and practising relaxation techniques (for example, yoga, talking therapy and Mindfulness), can help you in building greater mental resilience. Eating the right foods and boosting your intake of certain nutrients is vital and can help you dramatically increase your energy reserves so you feel better equipped to deal with life’s challenges – if you want a high performance vehicle you need high performing fuel!
Below are some of the simple steps they recommend to get mental health on track:
Eat for stable energy, mind and mood:
- Consume three meals a day and never skip breakfast – This helps you keep your blood sugar levels even. Blood sugar dips either from not eating or as a rebound after eating something too sweet or starchy.
- Eat protein and good quality fats with every meal – For example, eggs, yoghurt, avocado, green leafy vegetables, smoked salmon or kippers with your breakfast; and meat, fish, dairy foods or grains combined with pulses (for example, chickpeas and lentils) for your lunch and supper. Choose slow-releasing low glycaemic load (GL) foods; this refers to foods that have less of an impact on our blood sugar levels keeping them even throughout the day, rather than high GL foods that can cause sudden peaks and lows which can lead to feelings such as low energy, depression and anxiety. A comprehensive list of these foods can be found here.
- Eat at regular intervals, including snacks that include low GL carbohydrate and protein – good options are fresh fruit with a small handful of nuts, oatcakes/crudité with houmous, soft full-fat cheese or a little nut butter.
- Reduce dependence on stimulants, for example, coffee, alcohol, tea, soft drinks, energy drinks and cigarettes. These deplete energy over time, and contribute to blood sugar imbalances.
Get a good night’s sleep:
- Avoid alcohol before bed, and limit caffeine intake after midday
- If you have difficulty sleeping and relaxing before bedtime it may help to supplement magnesium (research has shown up to 400g can help). The sleep regulating hormone melatonin can be disrupted if magnesium is deficient in the body. Magnesium is known as ‘nature’s relaxant’ and deficiency in this mineral is very common, even in people with a healthy diet.
Up your intake of essential omega-3 fats:
Omega-3 fatty acids can often be deficient in individuals whereas most people have a good supply (and often too much) of omega-6 fats – far more common in our diet. However, it is important to keep the ratio of these essential fatty acids (we cannot make these in our body, they have to be consumed through our diet) evenly balanced. When out of balance our health is compromised and we may be susceptible to inflammation which can lead to further health issues.
We would recommend eating oily fish at least twice a week, and seeds and dark green leafy vegetables on most days. Walnuts and chia/flaxseeds (and their oils) are also a great source and can easily be added to a number of dishes as a dressing (it is best not to cook with these oils as high heat will destroy the health benefits).
Check your homocysteine level and get enough B vitamins:
Homocysteine is an amino acid that is naturally created by our bodies; if certain internal chemical pathways are not working optimally (due to factors including genetics, lifestyle and diet) then levels of this amino acid can build up and have a toxic effect. You can test your homocysteine levels through your GP or using a home test kit.
Furthermore, your homocysteine level is a very good indicator of the amount of certain B vitamins, and other nutrients, you need. For example, homocysteine levels of over 7 highlight that you may have a higher need for B12, B6, B2 and folic acid (more information on this can be found here)
Have a vitamin D test:
Vitamin D is vital for our health; it helps to build strong bones, support depression and optimise cognitive function – to name a few! Most of us have low vitamin D levels as it is very hard to get optimum levels when living in the UK:
- Ask your GP or nutritional therapist for a vitamin D test. If your level is below 75 nmol/litre try supplementing and then re-test
- Get some sensible sun exposure, without sun-block, but don’t risk your skin health by allowing yourself to get sunburned!
- Key to digestion is having balanced gut bacteria. We all have gut flora living in our stomachs, colon and intestines. Gut flora refers to microorganisms that need to exist in our body to feed, protect and support important bodily functions. If there are too many ‘bad’ bacteria’s in our system it may be harder for us to absorb nutrients, leading to a decline in both physical and mental health. Ideally we want plenty of beneficial ‘good’ bacteria and lower levels of the non-beneficial ‘bad’ strains.
- Probiotic foods and supplements contain these ‘good’ bacteria. Live yogurt and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir and miso can all be beneficial in supporting a healthy gut environment.
- Support a healthy digestive system by relaxing before you eat and chewing your food thoroughly.
Increase vitamins and minerals:
Consume a diet rich in whole foods naturally higher in vitamins and minerals, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, seeds, nuts and wholegrains. Avoid processed foods that have had many nutrients removed.
Avoid food allergens:
You may want to consider whether you have any food intolerances which may impact your health. A trial period of excluding suspected foods (such as gluten, dairy, eggs, wheat) or taking a food intolerance test can indicate the food stuffs that may be having a negative impact on your health.
Reduce your body’s toxic load:
Try to eat at least seven portions of non-starchy vegetables and fruit daily – lightly cooked or raw to provide plenty of antioxidants. Choose a variety of colours and choose organic if possible. Eat protein with every meal and snack to provide a broad range of amino acids which are needed for the liver to carry out efficient detoxification.
Our charity partner Food for the Brain is a charity focused on educating and building awareness on
the important role nutrition has on mental health. The charity provides information for organisations and individuals to help them make informed nutrition and lifestyle changes. Along with its not-for-profit nutritional therapy clinic the Brain Bio Centre, they support mental health issues such as bipolar disorder, dementia, autism, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia and stress.