Mental health and nutrition are rarely discussed in the same breath and the interactions between the two are often overlooked.
Having been directly affected by mental illness throughout my adult life, I’ve taken ever more interest in the information and care available, and have often been disappointed by what I’ve found.
In my opinion, our society has become far too dependent on healthcare systems providing TREATMENT for mental (and physical) illness, where PREVENTION should be paramount.
I’m a true believer that everybody should take responsibility for their own health and do their best to prevent any illness, be that mental or physical. As such, it’s important for the tools to be available to take control of one’s own well being.
How can you take control of your mood? It’s as easy as a few extra greens, less sugar and some fish oil…READ ON!
Feeling good and happiness in general can be approached from any number of angles, be it philosophical, sociological or psychological. For emotions to be felt, certain physiological changes must take place in the brain; working out the specifics of these changes enables us to identify the origin of what puts us in a good mood and subsequently how we can avoid a bad mood.
Clinical depression is at the low end of the mood scale, and isolating the exact cause of depression is almost impossible as every case is different. Billions of pounds are invested in researching depression, the majority of which is directed towards medicating the illness. Where causation is concerned, a combination of biochemical, psychological, genetic and environmental factors are associated with its development. Diet and nutrition have a profound effect on the biochemical make-up in the brain, it is therefore reasonable to assume that diet has an effect on the severity or extent of the condition.
The three suggestions below are by no means revolutionary, but they are evidence based and proven to have a significant effect on your mood.
As children, most people are encouraged (if not forced) to eat their ‘5 a day’. It turns out this is a good idea.
Large proportions of patients with depression are found to be deficient in folate (aka folic acid). Folate is necessary in the early stages of the synthesis of serotonin and noradrenaline and its deficiency has been closely linked to depression and low mood (Young 2007, Williams et al. 2008, Coppen 2005, Astorg 2007).
The best source of folate? Vegetables – specifically dark green vegetables (spinach, broccoli, kale, asparagus, pak choi, brussel sprouts). See below for some specific recommendations.
1) Suppressing the production of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) – BDNF promotes healthy neurons and therefore efficient signalling in the brain, too much sugar interrupts the synthesis of BDNF (Molteni et al. 2002, Araya et al. 2008)
2) Chronic inflammation – chronically raised blood sugar leads to an inflammatory response from the body. The body then releases natural anti-inflammatory’s called cytokines; these cytokines cause the release of an enzyme which degrades serotonin and lowers its overall levels (Myint and Kim 2003, Tsao et al. 2006).
Research into how intake of fish oil affects mood is extensive. Thousands of investigations have been undertaken over several decades, but the evidence is largely inconclusive. A positive association is generally seen (i.e higher intakes of fish oil tend to have a beneficial effect on mood and mood disorders – McNamara et al. 2006, Stoll et al. 1999), but there is yet to be any research which proves conclusively that a higher intake of fish oil is solely responsible for better moods.
HOWEVER…it is clear and undisputed that EPA and DHA (the fatty acids in fish oil) are essential for optimal brain function (Swanson et al. 2012, Bradbury 2011, Kidd 2007). Both of these fatty acids have a range of functions in the brain, including:
– changes the structure of cell membranes making them more permeable and more efficient at sending signals throughout the brain
– protects neurons throughout the brain
– reduces inflammation in the brain
The three factors I have briefly discussed barely scrape the surface of how nutrition affects mood and brain function, but optimising your intake of each of them will no doubt have a positive effect on how you feel; be that directly or indirectly.
Fruits and Vegetables – Aim for seven portions per day
This may sound like a lot but it’s easily done. Here are a few diet-hacks to help:
– Make a ‘super shake’ – Ingredients: 3 big handfuls of baby leaf spinach, 3 tbsps of frozen blueberries, 1 scoop of whey protein. Tastes good and accounts for roughly three of your seven servings.
– Make a vegetable soup – a great way to get one or two servings (recipe dependent, obviously).
– Add chopped up spinach leaves to everything – This is a trick I often use. Spinach doesn’t really taste of much so adding in a few handfuls of chopped up leaves to an omelet will give you all the benefits with none of the hassle.
– Pick a meal and double up on greens – adding spinach to your eggs? Have a side serving of sugar snap peas. Trying to add fruit and vegetables to every meal can be quite troublesome, especially if you’re on the move, so allocating two servings to one of your meals is a maintainable tactic (the last meal of the day works for me).
There you have it – one super shake, one cup of vegetable soup and a spinach omelet with side serving of sugar snap peas and you’ve hit the magical seven.
Refined sugars – reduce to a minimum
Reducing your sugar intake requires a change in habits. For example, removing all drinks containing sugar and replacing them with a sweetened version is a simple and easy change (see HERE if you’re worried about sweeteners). Keeping an eye out for ‘hidden sugars’ is also essential – think yoghurts and cereal bars.
Another trick is to bump up your fat intake slightly. If you’re having a strong sugar craving, eating some healthy fats (nuts, nut butter, avocado etc.) will normally quell that craving.
Fish oils – increase your intake to 3g of fish oil per day
This is simple – invest in some fish oil. Now. More on this here – FISH OILS.
There you have it. Three simple changes which will not only improve your mood in the short term, but will also prevent potential issues in the future.