What we eat appears to be of great importance in how we feel, both physically and mentally. But to what effect? Does your diet affect your mental health?
The effect food directly has on our mood and general mental wellbeing is subject to great scrutiny, and so it should be. We risk too much to our overall health to say that diet can help our mental health concerns. However there is a connection.
And, given that it’s Mental Health Week, I thought it would be wise to look at one of the more exciting areas of nutrition, while also tempering our expectations of how food, the gut and the brain may interact.
The Gut Microbiota and Feedback to the Brain
Here’s what we do know:
- The brain and the gut are in more of a loving relationship than we realised. The gut feeds back to the brain through a vast array of nerves leading to some coining the gut as ‘the second brain’.
- Given the fact that the gut and brain are connected, it would make sense that the composition of our gut, the microbes present, and the components of our diet would have an effect on cognition, stress, anxiety and overall mood. The make sense part would appear to be backed by some of the more recent and emerging science.
- The vagus nerve is also responsible for communication between the brain and the gut.
- The HPA axis (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) may also have a gut-related role. This would indicate that stress responses and digestion are inherently linked.
While there are studies showing that certain gut health promoting foods have improved areas such as anxiety, we cannot jump to conclusions and say that any single food was responsible for the change.
So where should we start?
If we look at the information we have as a whole, we can make some recommendations that can, perhaps, improve our mental wellbeing.
Overall dietary quality
I’m a ‘big rocks’ kind of guy, so the first port of call for something like this should always be assessing overall dietary quality. This means doing the boring stuff. Like focusing on whole foods over processed foods. Plenty of vegetables, not EXCESSIVELY high in red or processed meats. This is not to say that some of processed foods etc cannot be eaten, but more so an indictment against them being made the totality of your dietary intake.
Weight management and exercise
It wouldn’t be deemed smart to begin without addressing a somewhat obvious choice.
Focusing on a healthy weight and exercise for the benefits on mood and mental wellbeing
Weight stigma is a highly contentious issue currently. The recommendation to focus on a healthy weight and exercise is not designed to stir up controversy but purely to identify how exercise and some attention to weight management can improve anxiety and mental wellbeing. It feels like we should be switching the paradigm of looking at eating well and exercising from a weight loss focus to more of a wellbeing focus.
Probiotic usage and prebiotic food sources
Research into gut bacteria populations has shown us that healthy populations of our gut require a fuel source to thrive. It’s also been shown that the more nefarious gut bacteria grow in the presence of poor overall dietary quality.
If you’ve ever taken a course of antibiotics and been recommended a probiotic afterwards, it is for this exact reason. With the removal of most bacteria due to antibiotic usage, the healthy pops need to be replenished. This role is generally satisfied by a probiotic.
Within the potential role for probiotics, there has been work looking at their effects in the management of depression and anxiety. This is still early data but does highlight the potential for the importance of gut health. The key ones that are routinely in focus are strains of Lactobacillus and bifidobacterium (if you are looking for probiotics, make sure that brand contains strains in the billions and not below).
However, to maintain their survival in a long term capacity, choosing more prebiotic foods on a regular basis could maintain bacterial health and improve aspects associated with mood and mental wellbeing.
What are your prebiotic sources? Foods items that can be fermented, are high in fibre and overall of a high nutritional quality. Examples include onions, garlic, artichokes, shiitake mushrooms, bananas and leeks.
Vitamin D intake
Sunlight, and by default, vitamin D have long links to mood and feelings of wellbeing. We Irish can certainly attest to this during our long dark winters. But is there more to it than just the bright days that we miss?
There’s some evidence correlating low vitamin D levels with anxiety but correlation doesn’t guarantee causation. However, due to its role in many other major areas of health and longevity, it would be worth adding to your arsenal just in case more research shines a greater light on this.
Some closing thoughts
In the end, it’s unfortunately the unsexy advice that wins out in looking to nutrition to improve your mental wellbeing. Yes, the ‘gut-brain axis’ and ‘microbiota’ are of considerable interest and will likely only increase in importance. Yet, as stated from the outset, they’re currently nutrition ‘buzzwords’ that easily sell.
Focusing on the big things that matter most and following up with the best evidence-based steps; like some mentioned above, would be the best approach to adopt.
And of course, please remember to reach out and speak to someone about how you’re feeling.
- As much as we are becoming more aware of its importance, the interaction between the gut is still a new topic
- Always adopt a big rocks approach. Focus on dietary quality first and monitor how you feel. Then once that’s done, move onto more specific approaches.
- Probiotic are a good shout. But if you really want to nurture the little folk in your gut, prebiotics should be at the top of your list
- Overall, it’s the combination of a lot of health seeking behaviours and interactions with what we eat that can go a long way toward making us feel whole, both physically and mentally.
Rabin Das is an MNU Certified Nutritionist and holds an MSc in nutrition and metabolism. He’s assionate about all things nutrition related. And he hopes to make a difference with the spread of honest, trustworthy and actionable nutrition information. Check him out on Instagram or at dasnutritionconsultancy.com