Coming from a family that has been touched by a suicide, support of Mental Health Awareness Week is especially important to me.
There is often a lot of confusion about what we mean when we talk about mental health. Many people immediately start thinking about mental health problems or mental illness – but this is only one part of the picture. Some people call mental health ‘emotional health’ or ‘well-being’ and its just as important as good physical health. Everyone has ‘mental health’ and being mentally healthy is also about having the strength to overcome the difficulties and challenges we can all face at times in our lives – to have confidence and self-esteem, to be able to take decisions and to believe in ourselves.
Self-care, taking care of our bodies through nutrition, exercise, adequate sleep, learning how to cope with stress to seeking help when needed are just a few useful tips on how to keep our emotional health in check. Seeking help in particular is a sign of strength — not a weakness. And it is important to remember that treatment is effective. People who get appropriate care can recover from mental illness and addiction and lead full, rewarding lives.
There are several factors affecting the development of mental disorders including genetic factors, stress, diet, physical inactivity, drugs, and other environmental factors. However, few people are aware of the connection between nutrition and mental disorders such as depression, while they easily understand the connection between nutritional deficiencies and physical illness. Depression is more typically thought of as strictly biochemical-based or emotionally-rooted. On the contrary, nutrition can play a key role in the onset as well as severity and duration of depression. Nutritional neuroscience is an emerging discipline shedding light on the fact that nutritional factors are intertwined with human cognition, behaviour, and emotions.
So, what evidence is there to support suboptimal nutrition as a potential contributor to depression? Many studies highlight the common imbalances connected to nutrition that are known to worsen your mood and motivation:
- Blood sugar imbalances (often associated with excessive sugar and stimulant intake).
- Lack of amino acids (tryptophan and tyrosine are precursors of serotonin and noradrenaline).
- Deficiencies in neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, and γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
- Lack of B vitamins (vitamin B6, folate, B12).
- Antioxidants deficiencies (vitamin A, C, E).
- Lack of essential fats (omega-3).
Let’s take a look at these in more detail.
Blood sugar imbalances
One factor that often underlies depression is poor control of blood sugar (glucose) levels. The symptoms of impaired blood sugar control are many, and include fatigue, irritability, dizziness, insomnia, excessive sweating (especially at night), poor concentration and forgetfulness, excessive thirst, depression and crying spells, digestive disturbances and blurred vision. These symptoms often precede measurable abnormalities in blood glucose, manifesting instead as a decreased sensitivity to insulin, known as insulin resistance.
Some nutrients essential in maintaining blood sugar levels are magnesium, calcium, chromium, fibre and potassium. Choose foods that have a low or medium glycemic load (not to be confused with glycemic index) such as kidney beans, apple, orange, black beans, lentils, bran cereals, carrots, peanuts, cashews, brown rice, oatmeal, etc. Foods with Low or Medium glycemic load take into account both the amount of carbohydrate in the food in relation to its impact on blood sugar levels. Avoid refined sugar as it uses up the body’s vitamins and minerals. Every teaspoon of sugar uses up B vitamins for its catabolism, and adequate levels of B vitamins are vital for maintaining good mood.
Amino acids imbalances
Depression is often associated with imbalances in two families of neurotransmitters (the brain messengers that control mood):
- serotonin, thought to primarily influence mood
- dopamine, noradrenaline, and adrenaline, thought to primarily influence motivation.
SSRI antidepressants work by enhancing serotonin action by stopping the reuptake of serotonin, but alternative studies have shown that by providing optimal amounts of precursor nutrients the serotonin action can be enhanced naturally. And with approximately 90% of the body’s total serotonin located in your gut, this should come as no surprise.
Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan. Supplementing tryptophan is already proven to improve mood, but even more effective in improving symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia, is a derivative of tryptophan that is one step closer to serotonin, called 5-hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP for short. Various vitamins and minerals such as B12 and folic acid help to turn 5-HTP into serotonin.
Lack of B vitamins
As mentioned above, B vitamins can get depleted by processing our excessive sugar intake. B vitamins are needed to control both the production and balance of neurotransmitters. B vitamins deficiency is extremely common among patients suffering with depression and other mental disorders.
The brain is vulnerable to oxidative stress because it has lipid-rich area and is metabolically active. Tight balance between oxidative stress and antioxidant system is required for the optimal function of brain. Vitamins A, C and E are major antioxidant in foods, and there are emerging evidences that these antioxidant vitamins are protective against cognitive decline and mental disorders.
Lack of essential fats
Omega-3 FAs have been extensively studied with regard to the brain health. Omega-3 FAs’ action on brain is mainly as a structural and functional component of membrane phospholipids in brain. Alpha-linolenic acid, a plant-based omega-3 FA, is found in flaxseed oil and soybean oil, and main dietary source of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is fish oil. These omega-3 FAs are beneficial for regulating inflammation and they have direct influence on serotonin status by enhancing its production and reception.
Light also stimulates serotonin and most of us do not get enough of it. Now more than ever before many people rarely expose themselves to direct sunlight, and certainly not enough to maximise serotonin production.
It is well documented the incidence of mental disorders are increasing in Britain. According to a new NHS study nearly one in four young women has a mental illness and there has also been a slight rise in child mental illness. Body image pressures, exam stress and the negative effects of social media appear to be partially responsible, but nutrition also plays a significant role. It’s become normal for teenagers to live on sugary, refined and processed foods and we need to consider the impact of this.
In addition to simple lifestyle changes such as encouraging exercise and outdoor activity to maximise light, reducing stress and getting help when needed, there is a substantial evidence that optimum nutrition can be highly effective.