Mental health – what is it?
The World Health Organisation defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” (1)
Mental health is important in order for us to think, feel emotions, interact with others, earn a living and enjoy life. Without optimal mental health, we are not able to live life to the fullest.
You may ask: What does a nutritionist know about mental health? Don’t they just work with food and the gut? More and more research is showing a link between the gut and the brain, known as the gut-brain axis. We also know that the brain can use only glucose for fuel, and is only able to store a small amount of it for future use.
The Gut-Brain Axis
The gut-brain axis is a two-way communication pathway linking the emotion and cognition parts of the brain with the gut.
Research has linked specific types of bacteria in the gut with behaviours that are common in anxiety or depression, as well as conditions such as autism. There have also been findings that people with irritable bowel, or IBS, have some disruption to the gut-brain axis. (3)
We also know that some neurotransmitters are produced in the gut. Neurotransmitters are the body’s chemical messengers. Put simply, they pass messages from the nerves to the muscles. There are a number of neurotransmitters that are responsible for behaviour, emotions, reward and feelings of fear. The ones that are produced in the gut, by the gut bacteria, are:
- Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) (4)
All these neurotransmitters move from the gut to the brain via the gut-brain axis.
Macronutrients and the brain
Macronutrients are broken into three categories: carbohydrates, protein and fats. Each of these are important for optimal brain function.
- Carbohydrates, for instance, are easily converted into glucose in the body. Glucose is the only fuel source for the brain. Poor glucose levels can relate to poor memory skills in young adults. Increased insulin levels in older people can be related to impaired cognitive function.
- Proteins can improve attention span. Not enough protein can affect emotions, behaviour, eating patterns and sleep patterns.
- Fats, especially omega-3 fats (the heathy fats) are essential for neurological development in babies. (2)
What can we do to help?
You can optimise your mental health through diet and lifestyle.
- Today’s western diet has been linked to higher risk of anxiety. To combat this:
- Eat as many whole foods as possible
- Try to eat organic, where possible – have a look at the dirty dozen & clean fifteen These are lists put together by the Environmental Working Group which give a summary of the amount of pesticides on fruits and vegetables. The dirty dozen is the list with the most pesticide residue, while the clean fifteen is the list with the least amount of pesticide residue.
- Eliminate packaged foods containing preservatives and additives
- Stabilise your blood sugar:
- Decrease sugars and refined carbohydrates
- Include protein regularly throughout the day to feed the beneficial gut bacteria
- Include a wide variety of fruit & vegetables for nutrients needed to make neurotransmitters
- Remove caffeine as it can act as a stimulant
- If suggested by your healthcare provider, an elimination diet might be helpful to improve your gut and mental health. This is done by removing foods that may be affecting gut health (eg. gluten, dairy, eggs, sugar, soy, corn)
- Repair the gut – include probiotics & prebiotics, glutamine, bone broths, fermented foods
Other things that can help include:
- Weighted blankets – to help with anxiety and sleep
- Meditation – to help reduce stress levels
- Yoga – to reduce stress and help strengthen the body
- Exercise physical activity has been linked to lower levels of depression
- Spend time in nature – spending time outdoors in green spaces can help to lower stress and anxiety.
- Ensure quality sleep
What we eat affects our gut, which in turn affects our metal health.
Everyone is on a different health journey, so please make sure that you consult your healthcare practitioner for an individualised approach to ensure that you are doing what is right for you.
- World Health Organisation, 2018, Mental Health: Strengthening Our Response, viewed on 17 September 2020 <https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response>
- Tortora GJ & Grabowski SR, 2003, Principles of Anatomy and Physiology, 10th ed, New York
- Carrabotti M et al, 2015, ‘The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems’, Annals of Gastroenterology, 28(2): 203–209, viewed on 17 September 2020 <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4367209/#:~:text=The%20gut%2Dbrain%20axis%20(GBA,microbiota%20in%20influencing%20these%20interactions>
- Strandwitz P, 2018, Neurotransmitter Modulation by the Gut Microbiota, Brain Research, Vol 1693, Part B P128-133, viewed on 17 September 2020 <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6005194/>