Understanding the Link Between Diet and Mental Health

On this page I will try, to the best of my ability, to explain what I experience and  grasp about the link between nutrition and our mental and physical well being. I will outline possible other factors to depression and anxiety. I will then outline the basic foods, vitamins and minerals you should include in your diet for mental, emotional and physical balance. I will then provide a basic list of foods that include these. All of the recipes on this blog include these essential vitamins, foods and minerals.

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You may not have consciously made the link between diet and depression or anxiety. I would like you to sit and take a moment to go through some things – what have you been taught about diet and physical illness? What foods would you eat if you wanted to build muscle? What would you eat if you had a cold? What would you eat or drink if you feel exhausted?

If you have suffered with, or are currently suffering with depression or anxiety, think about what your body craves and experiences during this difficult time.  Headaches? Weakness? Exhaustion? A craving for sweet foods, or filling carbohydrates? Or barely any appetite at all? When our body is telling us it wants these things, what could it truely be craving – a huge slab of chocolate, or what you find in the chocolate: magnesium, the natural muscle-tension relaxer, and tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin?
I ask of you to step back from these cravings and see what could be behind them.

We are very aware of the effect that food has on our body and mind, yet I feel that these days society has lost the connection between nutrition and healing, in the physical, mental, spiritual and emotional sense. I also feel that this is a huge cause for the imbalances that we have with our physical and mental well being.

Therefore I have created this little safe haven for you to access this connection, this knowledge, and to be able to make decisions for yourself, your way of eating, and your way of healing yourself.


POSSIBLE FACTORS TO DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY

Candida

If you know about candida already, that’s possibly because you have suffered with a yeast infection (thrush), and let me say – dude, I am so sorry. It’s awful, isn’t it.  It makes you feel really miserable.
Candida Albicans is a fungus, a group of micro-organisms that lives in your mouth and intestine (1). We all have these micro-organisms, but when Candida Albicans is fed with all of the stuff it thrives on, like sugar, alcohol, lack of sleep, stress, or antibiotics (yes, antibiotics – while they rid the body of bad bacteria, they also rid the body of good bacteria, which is what fights this stuff), the microorganisms multiply into thousands of little bastards and take over, causing you to experience symptoms similar to depression such as fatigue, headaches, exhaustion, pessimism, digestive disorders and irritability.
What Candida does is it weakens the immune system, making it more difficult for our body to naturally fight off infections. We experience symptoms that are similar to the flu both when we are suffering from candida overgrowth and depression. I have mixed the two up before – thought I was suffering with depression yet actually I had a candida overgrowth. I promise I am not trying to invalidate or demean your suffering, I am offering what could also possibly be the case. We may have a candida overgrowth without knowing.
There are many ways to treat candida without antibiotics:

  • Natural yoghurt (MUST include the live ingredient Lactobacillus Acidophilus)
  • Coconut oil
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Tea tree
  • Bicarbonate of soda
  • Garlic (taken internally, used in foods or as a pessary)

But most of all, you need to greatly reduce your intake of refined sugar. I know – you were probably dreading me saying that. But this will make a difference on your mood, energy and stress levels as well as the level of candida micro-organisms in your body. I am currently writing a how-to-quit-sugar post, so watch this space. In the meantime, replace your sugar cravings with frozen berries, peanut butter, liquorice tea, and cacao hot chocolate (WITHOUT SUGAR!)

Anaemia (iron deficiency)

This is a condition that causes a reduction of the production of red blood cells, due to a lack of iron in the diet.
There are several types of anaemia, but iron deficiency is the most common (1).  The symptoms of an iron deficiency includes weakness, heart palpitations, fatigue, dizziness, tingly hands and feet and a pale complexion. If you are identifying with these symptoms, you may have low iron levels – make an appointment with your gp now. For all of you vegans and vegetarians out there, anaemia can cause moral difficulty as there are two types of iron that we need: heme iron, and non-heme iron. Non-heme iron can be found in foods like green leafy vegetables, beetroot, millet, pumpkin seeds, tofu e.t.c. Meat contains both irons, yet nuts, seeds and plants only contain traces of heme iron: not enough to make a difference. And we really need heme iron. Unfortunately for us veggies and vegans, the best source of heme iron is in red meat.
The causes of low iron levels vary from heavy periods and pregnancy to simply a lack of both irons in the diet. To keep your iron levels in check, provide yourself with both heme and non-heme iron. This means more consumption of:

  • Leafy greens
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Pulses and beans
  • Dried fruit
  • Meat, fish, tofu

For us vegans and vegetarians, fear not – Floradix to the rescue. This is the best iron supplement I have ever taken. It is really important that you are picky with your iron supplements as the supplement you take must be iron glucomateThis is because not only is it better absorbed, it won’t cause you digestive issues.
Floradix do both pills and liquid supplement and you will most likely find it in your local health store. Alternatively, you can buy it online.


Diet

paleo-diet-590x442-junk-food

When I think of the Western diet, I think of our supermarkets and am completely underwhelmed and unexcited. We have so much choice, yet it isn’t of the right choices. We stock our cupboards with processed, packaged, premade products with very little nutritional value. The classic british diet does not contain enough fruits, vegetables and wholefoods.

The problem with the Western diet is that the lack of nutrition and the huge amount of stress put on us by our lifestyle causes physical, mental, emotional and spiritual imbalance. We need a huge range of vitamins and minerals in our diet, to energise and fuel us through our long days, and these are simply not accessed enough through eating coco pops for breakfast, crisps and a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner. We need balance, people! Therefore, below you will find brief explanations about the nutrients, vitamins and minerals that we need in our diet for good mental health, and where you will find them.


Omega 3 fatty acids

  I feel that we’re a little afraid of fat in our diet. The grossly unfair modern western media and societal expectations of women and men puts a lot of stress on how we perceive ourselves, how we speak about our bodies, what we feel we should eat, and the amount of stress that we put on our bodies through over-exercising. ‘Fat’ feels like a swear word, an insult, a derogatory term. It isn’t. We need it. We need it especially here in England, where the winters are cold, and the summers are cold. But we need it in balance, and we need to consume it through healthy, good fats.
A diet that is too high in bad fats (trans or saturated fats) can generate mental/emotional balances – cravings, a cloudy, foggy mentality, emotional attachments and ‘inflammatory extremes’ such as anger (Pitchford, 2002). Cramps, aches and pains can also be linked. To keep ourselves in balance, we need to choose healthy fats, such as polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and omega 3 (1).
Omega 3 fats are known to play a huge role in brain function; memory, for example. They are fast becoming reknowned for their role in mental and emotional health, too. A diet with a balanced amount of Omega 3 could result in increased sharpness, less brain fog, mood stability and a general reduction in low mood.
You can find Omega 3 in the following:

  • Avocado
  • Chia seeds
  • Olive oil
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Soy milk
  • Nut butters
  • Dark leafy greens

Magnesium

If you have been following my blog, you will already know about the wonders of magnesium. For those of you that don’t, this could be a game changer for you. Symptoms of a deficiency in magnesium could mean a higher sensitivity to noise, insomnia, high levels of stress, irritable bowel syndrome, tension headaches, depression, anxiety, restlessness and muscle soreness. Does this sound familiar? Possibly. Magnesium is incredible, and my life was turned around the moment I began taking a magnesium citrate supplement and doubling the amount of foods rich in magnesium into my diet.
What magnesium does it it regulates the nervous system and calms the brain (1). Magnesium rich foods are additionally frequently useful for reducing high blood pressure (Pauling et al. 1979). It reduces tension headaches, is incredibly relaxing, it improves insomnia and it regulates symptoms of stress.
Most of my recipes on this blog are high in magnesium, and here are some foods that are incredibly rich in this fantastic mineral:

  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Buckwheat
  • Millet
  • Cashews
  • Almonds
  • Avocado
  • Figs
  • Dates
  • Brown rice
  • Beans and pulses

Tryptophan

You may not have heard about tryptophan, but I am sure you’ve heard of serotonin, our brain’s natural happy maker. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin – when we eat foods rich in tryptophan, the body immediately converts it into 5htp, it reaches the brain, and then is converted into serotonin (Jones et al. 2004). Deficiencies in tryptophan range from skin and digestive issues to emotional imbalance, with symptoms like poor appetite, hopelessness, insomnia, reduced self confidence and a general feeling of doom. These sorts of emotions and feelings can really result in the onset of depression and anxiety if left unchecked. This is you without serotonin. Kind of similar to the effects of a dementor, right? We really, really need this stuff.
Foods rich in tryptophan are:

  • Nuts and seeds (Chia, almonds, cashews, walnuts)
  • Soy foods
  • Dairy products
  • Oats
  • Beans and pulses
  • Poultry

Curcumin

Curcumin is mainly found in turmeric and is used to treat both physical and mood disorders. Curcumin is highly beneficial for inflammation, cramps and aches, which can make you feel miserable. It increases the blood flow around the body, making you feel more energised. Like tryptophan, curcumin is also a precursor of 5htp, which is converted into serotonin in the brain. However, curcumin is difficult for the body to absorb – but you can counteract this by simply adding black pepper. To increase the amount of curcumin in your diet, eat more foods with turmeric in regularly such as my Fig, Turmeric and Banana Smoothie and Ayurvedic Spiced Butternut Stew.


Betaine

Betaine is generally used in the body to process fats. It increases muscle mass and strength, and helps to sustain your energy and endurance. It doesn’t sound like there is a link between this and mental health – but like tryptophan, betaine is another precursor. It enhances our brain’s ability to maintain levels of serotonin, keeping us balanced. Betaine does wonders in helping us absorb all kinds of nutrients and well as maintaining our happy hormones.
You can find high levels of betaine in the following foods:

  • Beetroots
  • Quinoa
  • Spinach
  • Sweet potato

Coming soon: beneficial herbal remedies for mental health

Sources

Jones HE, Johnson RE, Bigelow GE, Silverman K, Mudric T, Strain EC (2004).  Safety and efficacy of L-tryptophan and behavioral incentives. Am J Addict.

NHS. (2014). Iron Deficiency Anaemia. Available: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Anaemia-iron-deficiency-/Pages/Introduction.aspx. Last accessed 18 Aug 2015.

Pauling, L., Cameron, E (1979). Cancer and Vitamin C. Menlo Park, CA: Linus Pauling Inst. of Science and Medicine, p. 190

Pitchford, P. (2002). Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition. California: North Atlantic Books.

Sircus, D. (December 2009). Magnesium in Neurological Diseases and Emotions. Available: http://drsircus.com/medicine/magnesium/magnesium-in-neurological-diseases-and-emotions. Last accessed 18 Aug 2015.

Smith, M., Paul, M., Robinson, L. (August 2015). Choosing Healthy Fats. Available: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-eating/choosing-healthy-fats.htm. Last accessed 18 Aug 2015.

The Candida Diet. (2014). What is Candida?. Available: http://www.thecandidadiet.com/what-is-candida-albicans/. Last accessed 18 Aug 2015.

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