Albert Einstein sets the perfect theme for this article with his famous remark: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
We are all to a degree guilty of this.
I don’t want to make light of mental health, since it will have touched all of our lives personally or indirectly in some shape or form. It can be devastating for families and individuals.
What I would like you to consider, is that how you feel and think is impacted by what you eat. I didn’t really appreciate that the right food could improve your mood, emotional stability and keep your mind young. As a nutritionist, I now have a much deeper understanding of how nutrition and lifestyle can impact one’s mental health.
You may be surprised to learn that not only depression, but fatigue and some gut issues can be related to poor brain health. There is a link between the nervous and digestive systems. The brain and the gut communicate via the vagus nerve. Poor brain function can impair how the vagus nerve functions, which in turn can contribute to constipation and poor digestive function.
Another consequence of the vagus nerve not working properly is intestinal permeability, also referred to by some as ‘leaky gut’. This allows undigested proteins, bacteria, fungi and other nasties to enter the blood stream. This activates the immune system, which causes inflammation. Symptoms may include food sensitivities, rashes, mental health issues and other imbalances. Since inflammation contributes to leaky gut, it keeps fuelling the fire and a self-perpetuating cycle is created between the two.
Conversely, if your gut isn’t working well, it could be a sign that your brain isn’t functioning optimally. The good news is that the vagus nerve can be improved through exercises, similarly to how you would work to improve your muscular strength.
One cannot look at the brain, our gut or bodies separately. They work in synergy with each other. Nutrition, together with lifestyle changes, counselling and the right support can help to improve mental health and physical wellbeing. We are complex beings after all.
Nutrition is one of the components that can be overlooked. If you are fuelling your body with coffee, energy drinks, take outs and processed foods, it’s likely that your brain won’t be working as well as it should. This will have an impact on your emotions and your gut.
You can change what you put into your mouth. The right foods can make you feel happy, and the wrong foods can make you feel anxious and depressed.
Let’s look at ways you can keep your gut and brain working optimally.
Don’t skip breakfast! Many of my clients start this habit because they are time poor, trying to cut their calories or don’t feel hungry. But after fasting eight to ten hours, we do need to refuel our body. Hence the name break…fast.This will help to improve your concentration and memory throughout the day. It has the added benefit of reducing the need to reach for sugary foods and caffeine to falsely fuel you through the day.
We also need to make sure that we balance our blood sugar. This is a whole topic on its own, but I’ll try and keep it as simple as possible. The brain is fuelled by glucose, so we need to eat carbohydrates. The trick is to eat those that best boost the body’s energy needs.
The other part of the equation is to ensure that you don’t have any dips in your blood sugar levels. You need to choose carbohydrates that are slow releasing. As a rule, whole unprocessed foods release sugar slowly into the blood stream.
You can also use a measure called glycaemic load (GL). This describes how much carbohydrate a food contains and how quickly it releases sugar into the blood stream. If you are having cornflakes, which have a high GL score, your blood sugar levels are going to spike quickly and then plummet, leaving you tired and cranky. A better option would be oats with chopped apple, which are both slow releasing.
Some ideas you might want to try to keep your blood sugar balanced. Choose whole grain bread over white bread. Replace spreads such as jam and honey with baked beans (no sugar added), sardines or seed and nut butters. Try brown rice and wholemeal pasta. Instead of chocolate, choose vegetable crudites with hummus or low GL fruit with a small handful of nuts.
The biggie is to start letting go of sugar in your diet. Honey is pure sugar, so go easy on it. Choose wholefoods such as lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, fresh fruit and vegetables. Aim to have two servings of fruit and five portions of vegetables per day. Bananas have a high GL, so eat them in moderation. Eat small amounts of dried fruit occasionally. Drink fruit juices sparingly and dilute with filtered water.
Try and combine your carbohydrates with protein and fibre to slow down their release outlined below:
• Fruit with seeds or nuts (small amount).
• Add seed and nuts to cereals.
• Serve salmon, chicken or tofu with brown rice.
• Add beans to pasta sauces with wholemeal pasta.
• Use cottage cheese or hummus as topping on oatcakes or rye bread.
The brain also needs good fats to keep it functioning well. Choose from nuts and seeds. Seeds can be ground and kept in the fridge to get all their goodness. Sprinkle onto cereal, soups and salads. Aim to have a tablespoon a day. Eat cold water fish such as wild salmon, mackerel, herring or sardines, two to three times a week. Use cold-pressed oils such as olive, hemp, avocado or flaxseed. Avoid canola and other processed oils. If you are not eating sufficient fish take a good quality fish oil. Supplements are not created equally, so get professional advice.
Aim to eat three servings of protein-rich foods a day such as quinoa, brown rice, lentils, beans, fish, nuts and seeds, eggs, yogurt, cottage cheese, broccoli and spinach. Vegetables contain protein too!
My mantra to my clients is to have variety to help them get sufficient amounts of vitamins and minerals.
Each of us can make changes to our lives or those of our children. Food is a great place to start to work on your brain health. Start making small changes over time, to make them sustainable and manageable.
Exercise too, its free and we live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. It will boost your happy hormones and your mood. You can change your life for the better. Doing things differently will bring different results.