HOW CAN WHAT WE EAT SUPPORT OUR MENTAL HEALTH – World Mental Health Day 2019

When we look around us at our family, friends and work colleagues, just how many of them are suffering from mental ill health?  Often they suffer silently without reaching out to get the support they need, whether it be medical help or just someone to talk to.

Through my work as a nutritionist/health coach I see clients where there is often an underlying mental health condition, I find myself using my counselling skills most days. I trained as a counsellor twenty years ago but after five years of hard work to qualify I felt too restricted by ethics to practice. My interest was very much in mental health.

There is a lot of amazing work being done around mental health, and there is no doubt as we talk about it more, it has become more acceptable to be open about it.  I just hope that all the work being done to get us talking is then reflected in the care we are receiving from the GP or local mental health teams around the country.  I suspect it is creating a huge pressure on health services countrywide.  I do realise the NHS is under severe pressure and as always it boils down to money and GPs being time short.  However, when you are suffering from a mental health condition, being able to pick up that phone and try make an appointment is a major break- through.  Should you then get a receptionist who is abrupt or not very friendly that can be as far as a person suffering will go. Understanding and empathy from a doctor/nurse right through to the person answering the phone is key.

When you are feeling vulnerable, which most people suffering from mental ill health experience, you want to feel understood, listened to, safe. You want continuity so it’s exhausting to have to go over and over your medical history with a different doctor or nurse each time you see someone.  I have seen first- hand a young girl with severe mental health issues pushed from pillar to post from GP to local mental health team, as the GP could not change the complicated cocktail of drugs and the mental health team took 3 weeks to finally call back the patient. When they did, she was told to go back to the GP. In the 3-4 weeks this all took, a young girl is suffering with suicidal thoughts and very unwell with absolutely no support other than those unqualified to help her.  I wonder how many people without the support of a family cope under these circumstances.

  • One in four people in the UK will experience mental health problems each year
  • Depression affects 3 people in each 100
  • Anxiety affects 5 people in each 100
  • Mixed anxiety and depression affect 10 people in each 100

This is to name but a few – mental health affects 25% of people in the UK

Two of the top medical reasons someone will visit their GP are anxiety and unexplained fatigue.

Mental health issues cost businesses between £33-42 billion pounds every year. Half of this cost is down to loss of productivity.  Depression, anxiety and stress accounts for 9 million sick days taken each year.

The main contributors to workplace stress are the workplace itself, unrealistic deadlines, excess responsibility, workload pressures, and lack of managerial support.  However, there are many other factors that play a part in our mental health. Income, age, relationships, access to health care, education, physical health, hereditary factors and of course our lifestyle choices.

Last year the NHS prescribed a record number of antidepressants, fuelling an upward trend that has seen the number of pills being given to patients double over the last decade. This figure raises the question as to whether drugs are being handed out too freely or whether there are actually more people getting help for their depression, anxiety, panic attacks and stress.

I’m not going to knock antidepressants. They are very effective drugs when used appropriately and help a lot of patients who without them would have no quality of life at all. However, where possible, I always think exploring alternative treatments to run along -side them often helps most for a long term and sustained recovery. For example, counselling, group talking therapy, nutrition and lifestyle all need to be part of the mix.

 I see clients in my work from all walks of life, predominately female but I do work with men. They are usually sent to see me by their doctor or wife, always reluctantly! I have supported many a pre-diabetes diagnoses being reversed, and long-term being medication avoided.   Currently of many of my clients have or are getting over an auto immune disease, lupus, vasculitis, ME, chronic fatigue syndrome. With most of these conditions, anxiety, stress and depression, present as symptoms.    If we asked our parents or grandparents if these conditions existed 50 years ago I suspect they would say no.

As many of my clients are young adults it does make you think what is it in society is today that make these auto immune conditions so prevalent. All these conditions share something in common; they are triggered  attacks by the immune system against the cells in the body. Sometimes the acquired immune system goes rogue and instead of attacking invaders, immune cells attack their own host.  Unfortunately, current theories rely largely on speculation, but hopefully new data analytics will speed up scientific discovery and bring some more tangible answers.  

I encourage my clients to support their mental health via their gut as there is a constant two-way communication between our guts and our brain. This is known as the gut-brain axis. The latest evidence suggests that tapping into our gut brain axis could play a pivotal role in our mental health.  With one in four of us predicted to experience a mental-health event this year alone, our gut health is something more of us should take into consideration.

You’ve probably used the phrases “I have butterflies in my stomach,” “I have a gut feeling about this” or “there’s a pit in my stomach.” Have you ever wondered why so many of these sayings involve our brains and tummies?

As it turns out, it’s not such a coincidence. In fact, the more we learn about the human gut, or our gut microbiome, the more it’s clear that it really is our “second brain.” You’re probably already aware that leaky gut syndrome is linked to serious conditions and diseases. But science is discovering that the connection between our guts and our emotions is just as strong.

What Does the Gut Have to Do with How We Feel?

The gut is home to the enteric nervous system.  Separate from the central nervous system, the ENS is made up of two thin layers with more than 100 million nerve cells in them, more than the spinal cord. These cells line the gastrointestinal tract, controlling blood flow and secretions to help the GI tract digest food. They also help us “feel” what’s happening inside the gut, since this second brain is behind the workings of food digestion.

While the second brain doesn’t get involved in thought processes like political debates, it does control behaviour on its own.  Researchers believe this came about to make digestion more efficient in the body so instead of having to “direct” digestion through the spinal cord and into the brain and back, we developed an on-site brain that could handle things closer to the source.

What Role Does Our Gut Play in Mood?

Stress, for example, is intimately tied to our guts.  Our bodies respond to stress with a “fight or flight system,” related to our cortisol levels which is ruled by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.  When something scary or worrying happens, like someone unexpectedly jumps in front of you or you see a cockroach in the corner, you have a physical reaction: your palms might get sweaty and you might feel your heartbeat quicken.

Typically, if you’re in a stressful situation that is then diffused, your body goes back to normal. But if you’re constantly stressed, your body is stuck in that fight or flight phase over an extended period. The critical part is that our bodies are unable to distinguish between physical and mental stress. So, your body would respond the same way if a bear jumped out at you as it does when you realize you hate your job — it will try to combat the stress.

This constant state of stress causes chronic inflammation; the body reacts to the stress as a type of infection and tries to overcome it. Because inflammation is at the root of many diseases, this exposure to prolonged stress can have serious consequences for your health, ranging from high blood pressure to autoimmune disorders. The types of bacteria found in the gut — “good bacteria” — play a role in how our immune responses are regulated.

What do we need to eat to support our mental health?

The first thing we need to do is look at our protein intake.

  • protein - is an essential component of every cell in the body.  Our bodies use protein to build and repair cells and tissue. 
  • protein is also used to make hormones, enzymes and other body chemicals.  We need to eat some protein at every meal or snack.
  • the RDA is roughly 1 gram of protein per kilo of body weight. So, if you weigh 60 kilos (9stone 4) you need to eat approx. 60g of protein per day. So, what does that look like: 1 large egg = 7 grams of protein - a salmon fillet =22 grams of protein cup of chickpeas = 39 grams of protein - one tablespoon of flaxseeds 18 grams of protein.
  • if you are vegan/vegetarian you can also get your protein from plants, the chickpeas and nuts and seeds to name but a few.
  • we need to get more fibre into our diet – a recent study showed that people who suffered from mental ill health showed improvements in their mood when eating a Mediterranean diet which included 50g of fibre every day. This is more than RDA of approx. 30g per day. Fibre rich foods include wholegrain bread, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, oats, whole fruits, vegetables, beans and pulses, nuts, seeds.
  • vitamin B12 is incredibly important not only for energy production for our muscles but very important for our brain energy.  Vitamin B12 is a nutrient that our bodies cannot make on its own, so it needs to come from our diets or supplements.
  • We need more iron in our diets. We find iron in red meat, brown meat chicken and green leafy vegetables, lentils and beans, nuts and seeds.  Iron is incredibly important for the synthesis of haemoglobin, a substance in red blood cells which carries oxygen to the brain.  Iron is also essential for the synthesis of dopamine and serotonin, the happy hormones.  There is a sizable percentage of people with not enough iron in their diet.
  • omega three fats are found walnuts Olly fish, salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines, nuts and seeds, flaxseed, chis seeds and plant oils. Omega 3 is an important component of the membranes that surround each cell in your body. The brain is made up of 60-70% fat it loves omega 3.  The other wonderful thing about omega three is dampens down inflammation, a key predator in depression.
  • we need the smart slow release carbs, root vegetables, sweet potatoes, brown rice, all these healthy carbs are full of the B group Vitamins, which give us energy. 
  • We all have too much sugar. To me sugar is the biggest of all the food demons. I’m not talking about natural sugars, fruit and vegetables I’m talking about the abundance of sugar in our supposedly healthy muesli, our cartons of orange juice, in shop bought smoothies. Start to check the sugar content of your shopping trolley. When you start looking you will be very surprised. You check the sugar by looking at the table on the product. Underneath the carbohydrates it will say “of which are sugars “. As a rule you should try and keep to under 5grams. 

What we know to be true evidence-based research is that 95% of our serotonin our happy feel good hormone is created in the gut not the brain.  Does it not make sense that if we can clean up our guts it might help our brain?

Obviously everyone is unique, and one size does not fit all.  You should always talk to your doctor before making any drastic changes to your diet. 

“Mental illness is often invisible, always frightening and has many different root causes, many that we cannot control but what we now know to be true is foods, nutrition and nutrients can be connected to mental health disorders particularly depression and anxiety”.