Mental Health and Nutrition

This month I’m involved in two seminars on mental health and nutrition. It astonishes me even now that people still do not relate what they are putting into their mouths with not only their physical health but also their mental health. We are now quite accepting of the fact that if we have high cholesterol we should cut out saturated fat, or if we have high blood pressure we should cut out salt in our diet, but why does mental health get pushed to the back of the pile?

Last year I visited a private and an NHS psychiatric unit. Although there has been changes in a few hospitals, sadly not enough has been done in the last ten years I’ve being doing this job. The diet is high in caffeine, sugar, and saturated fat and the chocolate and drinks machines all too visible and widely used.

In the governments 2008 paper The Links between Diet and Behaviour (go to www.fhf.org.uk/inquiry to read the full report) there are clear indications that change needs to happen.

“The scanty training for GP’s and other medical professionals in nutrition and diet detracts from their ability to support their patients physical and mental health.”

From anxiety to bi polar disorder it is vital to get the basic building blocks of good daily nutrition into your body for your brain to function properly.

As the brain is made up from 75% water and 21% essential fact even on a basic level your brain needs to be well hydrated and your diet high in Omega 3 essential fatty acids which the body cannot make on its own ie you need to source it from your diet.

Many of my clients with mental health problems have low levels of omega 3, zinc, vitamin B, and magnesium. Their diet is usually high in caffeine, sugar and saturated fat, all detrimental to good mental health. An astonishing 70% have had problems with maintaining good blood sugar levels as a consquence of their diet.

A low protein diet is also common. Amino acids found in proteins provide the raw materials needed to make neurotransmitters and a low protein diet is often at the route of neurotransmitter imbalance.

Some foods directly stimulate a neurotransmitter response for instance carbohydrates influence serotonin production and caffeine stimulates adrenaline synthesis. There are many other specific vitamins and minerals that have a powerful effect on your mood. Without proper neurotransmitter balance brain function and mood can be seriously affected. Feelings of anxiety and stress are commonplace in today’s society. The body’s stress response has not yet evolved to deal efficiently with modern life, meaning the slightest emotional stress still causes a powerful release of chemicals. Two minerals, calcium and magnesium play an important role in regulating your nervous system. By making sure you have adequate dietary intake of these two nutrients you can help yourself combat feelings associated with stress and induce calmness and relaxation.

Two particular neurotransmitters are also especially helpful. GABA restores calm after a stressful event, helping you to relax. Another called dopamine enables your body to deal with stress more efficiently, helping to reduce feelings of anxiety.

Foods to calm you down
Include dark leafy vegetables like watercress, kale, broccoli, spinach along with brown rice, almonds and walnuts, wheatgerm and sardines to top up on calcium and magnesium. To boost GABA formation include cheddar cheese, cow’s milk, chicken, turkey and eggs in your diet. For dopamine add in a few soya products like tofu, miso and soya yoghurt with peanuts, almonds and tuna.

Foods to make you happy
Cold water oily fish such as salmon and mackerel contain the good fat omega-3, helping with cell function and production of serotonin. To boost serotonin increase tryptophan rich foods like cashew nuts, bananas, figs, cheese, milk and turkey.
Avocadoes, lentils and bananas all contain high levels of B6, helping with conversion of tryptophan into the necessary serotonin. B-vitamins can’t be stored in the body so it’s essential that you get a daily to up.

Foods to beat the blues
Complex carbohydrates have a slower release of sugar so include wholegrains, fruit and vegetables, lentils and beans. Replace your white refined foods with the wholegrain alternative – brown rice, granary bread, wholewheat pasta. Include some form of good quality protein at every meal, especially breakfast helps to stabilise blood sugar and up your production of serotonin. Increase your intake of oily fish which contain the omega-3 fats needed for proper brain function these have been shown to aid mood and concentration. Increase your intake of zinc rich foods including fish, nuts and seeds since zinc is needed to help make serotonin.

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