The past months have brought many challenges for all of us in many different ways. Stressful life events and ongoing physiological stress have been shown to increase inflammatory components of the immune system, leading to long-term chronic inflammation. And this inflammation certainly plays a role in the development of anxiety and depressive disorders directly by neuro-inflammation and degeneration.
Inflammation also influences mood disorders by inducing changes to our gut microbiome and disrupting our gastro-intestinal function. I see this in clinic all the time… you know how I encourage stool testing to ascertain if you have any microbiome imbalances!
Depression is consistent with specific alterations to the gut flora. Patients diagnosed with major depression disorder have a different faecal microbiome composition compared to healthy controls. Similar microbiome imbalances are seen in patients with anxiety too.
The good news is that we can do something to help reduce this inflammation and alter our microbiome. Because your gut and brain are intimately connected, diet matters a great deal when it comes to mood and mental wellbeing.
Our Western diets are full of highly refined sugars, meat, and fats, which notably have detrimental effects. It is considered a pro-inflammatory diet, which many studies have found to be associated with depression, depressive symptoms, and anxiety.
In comparison, the Mediterranean diet contains fresh fruit, unprocessed grains, and lots of vegetables, which have anti-inflammatory properties, with modest amounts of dairy, lean meat, fish, and seafood.
Of all the healthy diets, the Mediterranean diet has strong evidence of promoting better mental health and combatting anxiety and depression.
Our brain is largely composed of fats, and the body cannot produce sufficient essential fatty acids on its own. Important omega-3 fatty acids include docosahexaenoic (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acids (EPA), from fish and other sources. These fatty acids boost the brain’s ability to hold both short-term and long-term memory. It also seems to mood and lower anxiety.
Include DHA-rich fish (such as salmon, tuna, sardines, trout, herring and mackerel) at least three times a week.
Our bodies can also make DHA from the Omega-3 fat found in chia seeds, flaxseeds and unsalted nuts and seeds – add to breakfast cereals or salads.
Whole, unrefined carbohydrates provide the body with a slow and steady supply of glucose which won’t cause a sharp rise in blood sugar levels or spike in insulin. By eating foods that remain as close to their natural state as possible (such as foods that are unprocessed and unrefined and don’t contain added sugar, salt or fats) will result in more constant energy levels and help us to think and concentrate. Whole grains nourish the gut microbiome that maintains gut health, which contributes to a healthy immune and central nervous system.
Did you know that 90% of our feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin, is made in the gut with the help of your gut bacteria?
Serotonin helps us to stay calm and happy. It helps reduce anxiety and relieves feelings of sadness and depression. Serotonin levels are affected by our hormones; this is one of the reasons why women can have big mood swing during their menstrual cycle and the menopause! Serotonin is manufactured in the body using the amino acid tryptophan (which is an amino acids that the body cannot synthesise itself). This amino acid is also needed to produce melatonin, which is vital for sleep. Low serotonin levels are linked to depression, anxiety, insomnia and fatigue, therefore it is important to provide your body with food containing tryptophan (such as turkey, chicken, beef, fish, brown rice, eggs, cheese, nuts and bananas). Eating complex carbohydrates with these tryptophan-rich foods will help increase its absorption and enhance the production of serotonin (for example eat a turkey and salad granary sandwich or salmon with brown rice and vegetables).
Remember your 5 -a-day! Every meal should contain an abundance of fresh vegetables, fruit and salads – the more colourful the better! These contain key vitamins and minerals which are important not only for the functioning of your whole body, but also for your brain to help perform vital tasks. Certain B Vitamins such as B5, B12 and folic acid (found in leafy greens) support the healthy function of the nervous system (the brain, spinal cord and the nerves), vitamin C (some examples are kiwi, blackcurrant, red peppers and citrus fruits) has been linked to protect against age-related brain degeneration. Red and purple fruits such as blueberries contain antioxidants called anthocyanins, which are effective in improving or delaying short term memory loss. Zinc is also vital for enhancing memory and thinking skills and the best source can be found in pumpkin seeds which also are full of stress-busting magnesium.
Don’t forget about your hydration! About 60% of our body is made up of water, and your brain is about 73% water. That’s why hydration is so important to your body and brain health. There are actually quite a few studies about dehydration, mood, anxiety, and depression. One study found that drinking more water (for people who drank less than 1.2 lires per day) improved fatigue and alleviated confusion and bewilderment.
Without a doubt, nutrition has significant effects on our mental health and prioritising our mental health has never been more important than it is now.