Neuroscience may be in its infancy, but an increasing body of research suggests a link between diet and mental health. Plus there’s our own experience…
I was going to start this blog with something along the lines of, ‘To celebrate Mental Health Awareness week…’ But then caught myself. Do we really ‘celebrate’ such events? It seems an odd turn of phrase for what was - and still is - a taboo subject for many.
But thankfully times change and we should be grateful that mental health is now addressed with more candour than ever. Because talking saves lives.
If the road to better mental health is long, make it as straight as possible
Given we applaud medals won in endurance sport and celebrate our physical health, we should also be able to cheer our journey to better mental health too.
The reality is that the two - physical and mental health - are inseparable, and I’m adding a new topic that connects the two: nutrition.
What role does nutrition play in brain function?
The reason diet plays such an important role in mental health is two-fold.
First there’s the direct impact of what we consume on our grey matter.
It’s been the subject of much research. Take carbohydrates for example, and this review of understanding nutrition, depression and mental illness
This states: “low glycemic index (GI) foods such as some fruits and vegetables and whole grains are more likely to provide a moderate but lasting effect on brain chemistry, mood, and energy level than the high GI foods - primarily sweets - that tend to provide immediate but temporary relief.”
Which makes perfect sense.
It’s why all 33Fuel products are based on low-GI wholefoods not high-GI processed lab ingredients as found in so much sports nutrition.
Even without being a nutritionist it’s not much of a leap to appreciate how certain foods inflame the gut, help clog the arteries, spike the blood sugars, and accelerate heart-rate.
Which poses the question: If the brain is trying to put out fires around the body caused by crappy foods, who’s looking after the brain if it’s being de-nourished on the very same crappy foods?
Some days you’ll feel you’ve a mountain to climb
Secondly, when we eat and drink poorly it impairs our decision-making process which affects our entire environment. Our relationships, productivity at work, sports performance, and ability to sleep.
From there negative consequences happen that would put us in a bad mood in everyday life anyway. This isn’t the same as poor mental health, but can be a potential trigger if we are already susceptible.
Why do we fall into the poor nutrition trap?
It’s not hard to see how sub-optimal nutrition choices happen when we’re on a mental health rollercoaster.
When we’re in a depressed state, we reach for a pick-me-up. There’s evidence to suggest our appetite can be suppressed, we skip meals and our taste perception (gustation) becomes compromised, so a desire for the quick-fix of sweet foods dominates.
Plus, in a depressed state, opting for a healthy diet seems so low on the list of priorities, it’s not worth bothering. The thinking is that when things are bad, what difference does a bag of doughnuts or a bottle of wine make?
Further, because our cognitive functioning is so low when depressed, the idea of preparing even a simple healthy snack can feel as tough as crafting a Michelin star-worthy banquet.
When we’re on the mental upswing things don’t always improve either. In fact, it can be equally challenging to make decent nutritional decisions and we’re more likely to be unwittingly tripped up.
Other days you’ll feel on top of the world - use great nutrition to help your climb to the top
The brain is remarkably adaptable, bordering on Machiavellian, and does a great job convincing us that because we’re well in the moment, we can handle a little excess.
Because we’re human and we like adventure and inspiration. Why not have a night out and a few extra glasses of wine, maybe a takeaway to enjoy with friends and even celebrate how much better we’re feeling mentally?
No-one says those susceptible to mental health problems shouldn’t enjoy themselves. In fact, it’s vital to give yourself a break in every respect, and that includes food and drink.
But if we want to function consistently, an awareness that poor dietary choices can be a negative trigger helps.
The research shows that many of the easily noticeable food patterns that precede depression are the same as those that occur during depression.
While correlation doesn’t equal causation, this is still worth bearing in mind.
Food, and most importantly nutritional quality of food, really can be mood.
Personal experience: can better nutrition improve mental health?
Let’s finish with some first-person experience. I had a breakdown a couple of years ago and count myself fortunate for a few reasons.
I have two daughters who give me a non-negotiable reason to live, I’d played sport my whole life so exercise was ingrained and – if used correctly – was a viable relief mechanism.
And finally, I was referred to a psychiatrist by the name of Dr Sally Braithwaite whose own research examined how vitamins and minerals in the diet can improve brain health.
Some of the most common nutritional deficiencies seen in patients with mental disorders are deficiencies of omega–3 fatty acids, B vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.
Her advice was to increase my intake of:
- Vitamin D - activates genes that release neurotransmitters (e.g., dopamine, serotonin) that affect brain function and development.
- Zinc - studies show it may influence the effectiveness of antidepressant therapy and protect brain cells against the potential damage caused by free radicals
- Magnesium - one of the most essential minerals in the human body, it is connected with brain biochemistry and the fluidity of neuronal membrane. A variety of psychiatric symptoms have been observed when it is deficient
- Omega 3 Fish Oils - the two omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) which the body converts into docosahexanoic acid (DHA), found in fish oil, have been found to elicit antidepressant effects.
But before you rush to the nearest health food store for supplements, there are a couple of points to add.
Firstly, increasing these vitamins and minerals through diet is always preferable to taking tablets.
As examples cashews, quinoa and spinach are high in magnesium, while mackerel, sardines and other oily fish are good for omega-3s.
Secondly, there may be other personal reasons not to up your intake.
For example, large doses of magnesium may not be advisable for those with kidney problems of diabetes. Taking too much zinc could cause stomach issues. Or you simply might have such a rich, and varied diet already, you don’t need to make changes. In short, it’s always best to seek professional advice.
Diet and mental health: core principles
If this all seems a confusing (and more reason to avoid taking action that could help) here are four key principles:
1 Focus on wholefoods
Look for whole foods that have had as little tampering in the food chain as possible. From avocados to beetroot, dark chocolate to turmeric and walnuts, the list of ‘brain-boosting’ foods is extensive
2 Avoid junk in sports nutrition
When it comes to sports nutrition, avoid processed products and ingredients. You’re working so hard on training and diet elsewhere, don’t chuck it all away for a bar/gel/shake full of lab ingredients you’d normally cross the road to avoid
When you want your sports nutrition to be a much more powerful version of your daily diet instead of a chemical cocktail, 33Fuel has you covered - everything we make is 100% natural and uses only the most powerful wholefood ingredients. You can find out more here
3 Batch cook
Invest in (eco-friendly) storage containers! Then batch cook and freeze when you’re in the mood. As discussed above, cooking even the simplest of meals can be hard-work when depressed, so prepare sustenance in advance - having a stash of good stuff in the freezer is a huge help.
4 Be kind to yourself
Don’t worry if you turn to junk. The more rules you set around food, the more you’re setting yourself up to fail which can then become one more reason to chastise yourself. So instead of a unattainable perfection, think of better nutrition instead as a journey of discovery and try, step by step, to make better choices that will eventually become self-reinforcing good habits as you feel the benefits.
Diet and mental health: conclusion
Good nutrition won’t cure poor mental health, but along with prioritising sleep, de-stressing your life where possible, applying cognitive techniques and taking the right amount of exercise, it can be a powerful ally to help lead a richer and more fulfilling life - and what better time to start than today?
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