Thursday, 14 November 2013

You are what you eat: nutrition and its role in mental health

Here at Powys Mental Health Information Service we are really interested in the effects of diet on our mental wellbeing, so when Virginia Cunningham contacted us from California (our readers are spread far and wide it seems...) and offered to write a guest post for us, we asked her to look at this topic. Here is what she wrote for us.

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The cultural paradigm of healthy eating usually revolves around the body. As we mature, we are taught that our dietary habits will have a big influence over what we look like in the future.

Everything is covered, from how much we weigh to how glowing our skin is. The mental aspect of eating right is often ignored and presented in a simplistic manner that can be defined by the idea that when you eat well, you feel good. 

However, feeling good is only an oversimplified way of putting it. Food is an important aspect of mental well-being and, given that mental health is an integral part of overall vitality, we must investigate the way eating influences the mind if we want to strive for a better life.

The human brain, although it represents only 2% of our body weight, is responsible for at least 25% of our metabolic requirements, which means its function is tightly intertwined with nutrition. In that line of thinking, we are able to observe what the positive nutritional influencers are, and how they affect our mental health in a systematic, rigorous manner. 

This fatty acid has been in the spotlight for a few years, being advocated as a key ingredient in the fight against high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. Its mental health benefits are various, although less advertised. 

In both children and adults studies show that depression and bipolar syndrome are both improved after three to four weeks of using Omega-3. 

At the same time, scientists at the University of Oxford showed that lower levels of Omega-3 in otherwise healthy children lead to underperforming and behaviour problems, which could be translated into the idea that using Omega-3 might keep learning issues at bay, where no other health problem is involved. 

Furthermore, first-stage schizophrenia patients reacted well to Omega-3 treatments, as a particular study shows. What's more, the same study shows that fatty acids, particularly Omega-3 PUFA, may have a role in preventing schizophrenia. 

Research indicates that the Omega-3 might be better absorbed directly from food than from supplements, with ground flax seeds coming in first as dietary source, closely followed by walnuts. Fresh salmon is next, but keep in mind that smoked salmon provides only a third of what the fresh option delivers. 

Other Omega-3 rich foods include sardines, grass-fed beef, soybeans, halibut, scallops, shrimp and tofu. 

The Gut 

Just like the brain, the gut has a nervous system, which sends information to the brain by means of the vagus nerve. Recent findings show that microbiota are relevant for normal brain function, and they also contribute to keeping stress and anxiety related behavior at bay. 

A new study from UCLA and Danone shows that eating probiotics from fermented milk products can alter human brain activity, which, upon further research, could become important in discovering a way to modulate the gut flora so as to treat patients with stress responses. 

Keeping your gut healthy also involves knowing about bad bacteria, like the ones in the 
Clostridium family. These bacteria thrive on a Western diet of high fat, high sugar and processed foods, and, in turn, produce toxins that can reach our brain and alter its functions. 

Carbs are a wonderful source of energy, and they’re usually found in delicious forms - pasta, rice, wheat; all of these are packed with carbohydrates, which, as we ingest them, are turned into sugar - the energy provider. 

Anxiety and mood changes are known to be affected by fluctuations in in blood sugar, so a good way to escape the sugar high-sugar low vicious circle is to skip simple carbs (white flour, processed sugars and starches) and go for a complex carb diet that is rich in whole grains. 

In particular, selenium, which can be found in pasta and bread, contributes in keeping our mood stable. 

Lean protein is the second-most abundant substance in the body and it contributes to a good mental health. 

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Under stress, tyrosine, an important amino acid in lean protein, helps keep your brain more alert, active and enhances mental performance, while also having an effect on depression. 

Tryptophan, another essential amino acid in lean protein, is the basic ingredient in making serotonin, which, in turn, helps to regulate mood. Because the body can’t make its own tryptophan, it must be taken as part of a diet, and meat, eggs, dairy and seeds are all good sources you can go for. 

Opinions of which way is best to get this amino acid in your system are mixed, but supplements are considered by the medical community to be a sure way of doing so. If you’re a vegetarian, this last option is the best for you.

Vitamin B 
Vitamin B was proven to have a positive effect on people with
panic disorders, OCD and depression. Vitamin B1, with its capabilities of controlling blood sugar levels, helps with anxiety, while vitamin B3 helps with serotonin synthesis. 

Vitamin B5 is good for modulating stress, while folic acid (B9) and B12 are important in handling depression. 

Dietary sources for vitamin B include liver, turkey, white and red meats, whole grains, potatoes, bananas, chiles, nutritional yeast and molasses.

There are plenty of studies which show that nutrition is a key element in maintaining good mental health. As the media and the medical community have been focused on promoting nutrition as a valuable aspect of a healthy body throughout the last decade, it seems that the trend for understanding the link between food and the brain is on the rise, which could mean that more knowledge will soon be available to everyone looking for ways to improve their mental health. 

Virginia Cunningham is a freelance writer, mother and health enthusiast in Southern California. With an entire family to care for, she makes it a priority to ensure the best health possible by including the right nutrients her children need to grow, both physically and mentally.

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