The phrase ‘you are what you eat hasn’t always been something that has been particularly helpful in understanding our food choices. Perhaps the simplicity negates the other reasons for feeling the way we do before we pick up the foods we choose.
We know that consciously, we get excited and tend to enjoy the foods higher in sugar, salt and fat as they usually provide a quick boost of energy and excite taste buds. They can also have a long term effect on moods being that we later feel tired, sluggish or hungrier afterwards.
How does food relate to mental health issues?
Food can be a factor that is becoming more correlated towards improved or deteriorated mental health.
The most prevalent nutrient deficiencies in those with a diagnosed mental health disorder are:
- Omega 3 fats
- B vitamins (particularly B12 and B2)
- Vitamin D
(Penckofer et al., 2010 and Sathyanarayana et al., 2008)
How about our hormones?
Hormones like serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline are very much a key part of regulating emotions of optimism, motivation and positivity.
These hormones are regulated by neurotransmitters that are controlled by molecules found in the diet, and those within individuals struggling with managing mental health problems can be due to a hormone imbalance.
Tryptophan is found in essential amino acids, which are found in proteins we need to consume through the diet as the body cannot make them. Tryptophan is a helpful tool for serotonin to release within the brain, when low levels of tryptophan cannot produce enough serotonin this is when symptoms of low mood can be triggered in individuals. Not only is the essential amino acid important for serotonin to be signalled, zinc, vitamin D and some B vitamins are also key for these conversions to happen making the process able to unfold.
This is one example of thousands of processes for hormones and neurotransmitters that are key to ordering moods and emotions in harmony.
How about our Gut?
Gut health has been a product of interest for some time within the health community. As health professionals, we would like a lot of clients to establish a better understanding of the different functions of gut health and also particularly with regards to mental health too. The brain and gut work together, a team that can learn information both from top to bottom or vice versa. The 3 components that have an active network of signalling is made up of
- Serotonin cells (up to 90% of serotonin production is made here)
- Cytokines in the immune system
- Metabolites (bacterial molecules)
Because food is transitioning in the digestive system through the gut, this is when the intake of food consumed but how does this affect long term mental health?
Gut bacteria was observed in those with anxiety and depression, which saw a result in an increase in the production of glucocorticoid, this hormone regulates the immune system as well as emotional processing. Gut microbes prefer and work better when there is a balance of minerals and vitamins as this keeps mood stabilised and the body can learn to monitor emotions and adjust accordingly.
Less of the science lecture and let’s look at the bigger picture. As we read at the start, the phrase ‘you are what you eat is frankly, too simple to really give merit. Nevertheless, it is a good place to start with. A balanced diet is recommended because, within every bite we take, we know that it has an important role in the body and brain that is significant to not only our energy levels, fuelling the body but also hormones and moods that contribute towards mental health. When we eat well, we have more of a fighting chance to make ourselves feel good, interact well with others, be more active, reap the rewards for the quality of life. It gives the body a chance to work correctly, allow it to make the chemicals we need to function as best as it can. Mental health is something we can fuel correctly for as well as do practical things like socialising, exercise routines, finding hobbies. That can all be possible when the foods we choose give us the head start to becoming the mentally healthiest person possible.
Martha is a Registered Associate Nutritionist (AfN) as well as a Personal Trainer and mental health writer with over 3 years’ experience. Martha’s philosophy is to keep the mind healthy and happy, this encompasses a bridge between mind, nutrition and movement. To book Martha please visit her profile