Every year the World Health Organisation recognises mental health as a priority, and this year's theme is to make mental health and wellbeing for all, a global priority.
The connection with food may not be that obvious, but in a world where food is shipped and air freighted thousands of miles, and here in the UK we think nothing of plentiful fresh food all year round, arguably we have also lost connection to where our food comes from, our part in the ecosystem, and the impact that has on our health.
Physical and mental health are intrinsically connected. If we are physically sick, we withdraw just as we do with depression, and when we are mentally distressed, this shows up in the body; panic attacks, aches and pain, gut trouble, fatigue. Our food is information for our minds as well as our bodies, we are 4 x more likely to reverse depression with a healthy diet.
The food and mood connection Nutrients from foods affect our brain chemistry, which in turn impacts our mood, memory, cognitive function and performance. The brain produces neurotransmitters, chemicals that guide our mood, including serotonin, which helps us relax, dopamine, which helps us feel focused, and GABA which has a calming influence.
Our food choices directly affect this neurotransmitter production because food provides the building blocks for these chemicals, and with the gut home to 70% of our immune system, food can be a source of inflammation to our whole body including our brain. Certain nutrients such as B vitamins, magnesium and zinc have been shown to be central to brain function, so if we don’t fuel properly, we can be prone to low mood, concentration, or anxiety.
Our brain is also connected to our gut in many ways most directly via the vagus nerve, constantly sensing our hunger or fullness levels via hormonal messages, the state of our immune system by surveying what we eat, and our gut bugs (the microbiome) influencing all of the bodily systems. Trials are beginning to show that live bacteria (prebiotics) can influence our mood, showing promise as a source of treatment for mental health conditions in the future.
How to eat our way to improved mental health No single food is the magic bullet, but incorporating variety from these food groups on a regular basis, have been shown to improve our mood, energy and focus:
1. Fish and Seafood Our grandparents intuitively knew that fish was good for the brain, and it's true. Omega 3 fats, particularly found in oily fish such as salmon, sardines, anchovies, and mackerel, stimulate the brain to grow and change. Seafood such as clams, mussels, scallops and oysters are also rich in zinc which help ensure efficient neurotransmitter messages from one brain cell to another, and also a key nutrient in a well-functioning immune system.
2. Chickpeas Chickpeas are a great source of B6, needed to convert our food into energy, support the blood cells to carry oxygen to the brain, as well as make neurotransmitters. They contain the essential amino-acid tryptophan supporting the sleep hormone melatonin. Low B6 can result in trouble concentrating, nervousness, irritability and sadness.
3. Nuts and seeds Almonds, cashews and brazil nuts are a great source of magnesium, the ‘calming mineral’, with a deficiency shown to contribute to low mood. Flax, pumpkin and chia seeds sprinkled on oats or salads are also a great choice.
4. Dark green leafy vegetables Spinach, sprouts, asparagus, cabbage and kale are your ‘go to’ for folate, the natural form of folic acid you may have heard given to pregnant women to support brain and spinal cord development in babies. Well, it's just as beneficial for adult brains with low levels of folate linked to depression and low energy.
5. Fermented foods Foods such as kimchi, kombucha, miso, kefir and sauerkraut are not only in trend, but are chock full of probiotics (live bacteria) which support the friendly strains of bacteria in our gut. Increasing the diversity of our bacterial strains has such positive effects on our overall health, the brain is just one organ to benefit.
So, this world mental health day, can you check in with yourself to see how both your physical and mental health are doing? Is there an aspect of a healthy lifestyle you recognise as missing and keep putting off? One small change might just lead to another.