This year’s Mental Health Month is being held in May, with a special focus on fitness, diet and nutrition for mental health.
You’re worried about your finances. Things aren’t going the way you’d planned at work. The person in front of you is just walking too damn slowly. Whatever it is that’s making you stressed – know you’re not alone, and there’s something you can do about it.
In fact, research has shown that two-thirds of us have or will experience mental health problems like depression at some point in our lives – with stress being a key factor in the development of poor mental health.
More than 90% of the 50,000 suicides committed in the USA every year are found to be associated with mental health disorders – the highest rates associated specifically with depressive disorders.
Plus, a large research study has recently confirmed that people who have just one major depressive episode have a higher risk of all-cause mortality.
So, what can you do when life starts to rub you up the wrong way? OK – you probably can’t give your boss a personality transplant (if only), but there are things in your life that you can control, like what you put in your stomach.
Better Diet, Better Mind
It’s easier to understand the link between nutritional deficiencies and physical illness, but fewer people are aware of the connection between diet and mental health. However, researchers have long understood that there’s a relationship between our minds and what we eat, known as the ‘gut-brain axis’.
In fact, a recent study found that one-third of participants with depression felt the complete relief of their symptoms after they improved their diet1.
Getting the right nutrients into your system can go a long way to support your mental health, so we’ve rounded up 5 major stress-busting nutritional tips, backed by research, so you can make every bite count.
1. Eat Your Omegas
As well as a whole host of health benefits, the two omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, found mainly in fish oil, have been found to produce antidepressant effects in humans. It’s thought that this might be because of the bioconversion of EPA to chemicals that are required by the brain, or that EPA and DHA influence neuronal signaling.
Where do I find Omega-3?
2. B Vitamins: Folate and B12
Research has shown that long-term consumption of the B vitamins, folate and vitamin B12, may have the ability to both decrease the risk of onset or relapse of clinical depression, and also enhance antidepressant response. This is thought to be as folate and B12 are determinants of metabolism of a particular carbon (S-adenosylmethionine, or SAM) which is crucial for neurological function2.
Where do I find folate and B12?
You can find folate in a whole range of foods, like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, breakfast cereals, and fortified grains and grain products. However, it’s not as easy to get high doses of folate from food only.
Likewise, B12 can be found in lots of foods like animal products, fortified breakfast cereals, and enriched soy or rice milk. But some people are at increased risk of not being able to absorb vitamin B12 properly, such as over 50s (around 10-30% of over 50s have inadequate stomach acid). Also, those who don’t consume animal products are recommended to supplement their diet with B12.
Researchers have suggested that daily folic acid doses should be at around 800µg and daily vitamin B12 doses should be at around 1mg to improve treatment outcome in clinical depression.
3. Carb Up
This probably isn’t the advice that you’re used to hearing, but carbs aren’t always the bad guy. In fact, anyone that’s ever been on a low-carb diet will tell you that carbohydrates are well-known to influence mood and behavior.
That’s because consumption of carbohydrates triggers the entry of tryptophan to the brain, which in turn promotes the feeling of well-being.
Which carbohydrates are best?
Researchers suggest that carbohydrates with a low glycemic index (GI) like whole grains and vegetables tend to provide a lasting effect on brain chemistry and mood, while high GI foods like sugary sweets and processed products like white bread tend to provide only temporary relief.
4. Pack in Protein
Protein is an essential component of any healthy diet, but you might not be aware that consumption of protein is important for mental health, too.
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and many neurotransmitters that are essential for brain functioning and mental health are also made up of amino acids. For example, dopamine is made from the amino acid, tyrosine – and a lack of dopamine is associated with aggression and low mood.
Where to get the right protein?
It’s important to get all 8 essential amino acids in your diet, which a diet rich in high-quality proteins like meat, fish and other animal products like eggs and milk will provide.
If you’re vegan or cutting down the number of animal products you eat, legumes, soy, nuts and seeds and other sources like textured vegetable protein and jackfruit are great sources. Some vegan sources are lower in certain amino acids, so it’s important to get a good variety of protein sources in your diet.
5. Think Zinc
The essential micronutrient, zinc, has plenty of roles in the body like helping with cell growth and metabolism and regulating hormone and immune functions. But low levels of zinc have also been implicated in the development of depression, as zinc is known to help to regulate neuronal functions, too.
Research has specifically shown that circulating levels of zinc are lower in those with depression and that oral zinc supplementation may influence the efficacy of antidepressant therapy3.
Where can I find zinc?
Meat, fish, milk, cheeses, seeds, cooked dried beans, peas, and lentils are all good sources of zinc and are easy to get into your diet. If you think you might not be getting enough zinc in your diet, zinc supplements can be a quick and easy way to increase your intake.
Remember, if you think you have depression and you’re not sure about your nutrition, talk to your doctor first before making any major changes to your diet.