Nutrition & Mental Health

By Alice Benskin

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Research has shown the important connection between diet and mental health. Large scale studies have established clear links between diets high in ultra-processed foods and poorer mental health outcomes, whereas diets centred around wholefoods have been indicated to confer some protection, most probably due to their nutrient-dense composition and reducing inflammation, a key mechanism involved in mental illnesses.

This #mentalhealthawarenessmonth, here are some nutritional strategies to support mental wellbeing:

Support blood sugar levels: blood sugar instability is a key feature that has been observed in many mental illnesses. Ensuring that high sugar and ultra-processed foods are avoided, and that meals are centred around the concept of “protein, fat, fibre”. For example, homemade granola with oats, nuts, and seeds or poached egg with avocado and a colourful salad.

Increase fibre: UK recommendations are presently for 30g of fibre to be consumed daily. However, national averages are around 18-20g, so increasing fibre is a recommendation which is relevant to most individuals. Fibre provides the major nutrient source for gut microbiota. The interaction between the gut and the brain, called the “gut-brain-axis”, has been demonstrated to be imperative for mental wellbeing, and a key consideration for most mental illnesses. Consuming a wide array of colourful vegetables, fruit, as well as wholegrains, nuts, seeds and legumes is a great way of increasing fibre and supporting the gut-brain axis.

Have more fermented foods: Fermented foods have played a role in human diets for around 10,000 years. Fermented foods include sourdough bread, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir and kombucha. Once ingested, nutrients and microorganisms from fermented foods may colonise the gut and influence composition of the gut microbiome, encouraging presence of beneficial strains of bacteria.

More omega 3: High dietary intake and serum levels of omega 3 fatty acids have been associated with greater diversity of gut bacteria within the microbiome, and reduced inflammation. To support the gut-brain axis, oily fish, such as salmon or mackerel, and vegan sources, such as flaxseeds, walnuts and chia seeds should be increased.

Reduce / Remove alcohol: Alcohol and its metabolites promote intestinal inflammation through multiple pathways, which over time causes damage to the gastrointestinal tract. There is also a well-established link between alcohol-induced oxidative stress, intestinal hyperpermeability. Alcohol also increases levels of the metabolite homocysteine, which increases neuroinflammation and has been associated with increased risk of many mental illnesses.

Manage stress levels: Chronic stress depletes specific nutrients that are essential for mental health and wellbeing, including B vitamins, magnesium and Vitamin C. Managing stress levels through appropriate lifestyle strategies, such as exercise, meditation and mindfulness, as well as maintaining dietary quality during times of stress, where there may be greater vulnerability to cravings for ultra-processed foods and alcohol.

Psychological therapies: Many individuals will benefit from talking therapies, which are offered free on the NHS, although there are often long waiting lists. Individuals can in many areas of the UK self-refer for these, or be referred by their GP. A list of conditions supported by this service, known as IAPT or Talking Space, depending on your location, can be found here. Individuals with more severe mental illnesses will require different support, but can be assessed by this service and referred on.

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