Mental health is no longer the taboo it once was. Common mental health disorders are wide-ranging and can include generalized anxiety, depression, panic disorder and phobias.
Even before the current turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic, it is estimated that one in every six of us experiences a common mental health problem such as depression or anxiety in any given week. In these uncertain and unprecedented times however, with anxiety levels rising on a daily basis, we owe it to ourselves to do our utmost to keep calm and sane in the face of adversity.
At the end of this article, you will find my takeaway top tips for good mental health in these turbulent times of coronavirus.
What you eat is not only critical for your body, but also for your mental and emotional health. The food you consume supplies your brain with vital nutrients for optimum mental health.
So, let’s take a look at the relationship between food and your mental wellbeing. This may be particularly helpful if you suffer from conditions such as low mood, Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D), hormonal mood swings or anxiety.
To better understand how nutrition can help our brains, let’s look at how the brain works.
The average human brain contains around 100 billion neurons. Each neuron is connected to the ones around it and communicates with them by sending chemical messages called neurotransmitters. There are several different neurotransmitters - the one we hear most about is serotonin which is a “feel-good” neurotransmitter made from the amino acid tryptophan, found in protein. Others include dopamine and adrenaline which are involved in motivation and GABA, which helps us to feel calm and chilled.
Nutrition for a healthy brain is all about making sure that we have the components to build and protect the structure of the brain and the raw materials to make and activate the neurotransmitters. These include essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. The brain also needs a steady supply of glucose to keep it well fuelled so that it can accomplish this.
Serotonin is your “happy hormone”, lifting your spirits and boosting positivity, as well as influencing your sleep patterns. Serotonin is derived from the amino acid tryptophan which is found in foods such as turkey, chicken, cottage cheese, avocados, celery & bananas. With the help of B vitamins, vitamin C and zinc a series of chain reactions convert tryptophan to 5 HTP and then to serotonin. The absorption of tryptophan into the brain is improved by carbohydrate consumption and one theory is that, when mood is low, and carbohydrate cravings strike, this may reflect a subconscious need to increase serotonin levels.
If you have lost your get up and go it may be that your dopamine, adrenalin and noradrenalin aren’t at optimum levels. These are neurotransmitters made from the amino acid tyrosine which help boost motivation and drive, as well as alertness. Tyrosine is found in foods such as almonds, banana, chicken, turkey, cottage cheese, seeds and yogurt. Adrenalin, the hormone released when we are stressed, acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain – well-regulated it is a positive messenger that makes your brain sharper and improves focus.
Did you know that your brain is around 60% fat? Fats are vital to help your brain work properly and to protect its structure.The benefits of omega 3 fatty acids for mental health are well documented -these essential fats must be obtained from our diet and are found in oily fish, nuts and seeds and their oils. They also help with concentration and focus as well as supporting the ageing brain.
Whilst you can put in the building blocks for brain structure (fats) and neurotransmitters (amino acids), they still need to be activated and used in the best way.
To do this you need vitamins and minerals.
To convert the amino acids into neurotransmitters, you need B vitamins. A constant supply of these vital vitamins are needed in the diet as we cannot store them in the body. Whole grains and vegetables provide the majority of B vitamins, with eggs, meat and fish providing rich sources of vitamin B12.
Vitamin C is needed as an antioxidant to protect against damaging free radical molecules and to help the brain use glucose for fuel. It is quickly depleted by stress. Eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables provides not only vitamin C, but also a wide array of other protective phytonutrients to support brain function.
Vitamin D receptors are found all over the brain and in particular in areas linked to mood. People with low mood and S.A.D (Seasonal Affective Disorder) have been found to have low vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is made in the body by the action of the sun’s rays on the skin – something that is in short supply in the winter months. Other risk factors for low vitamin D levels include having dark skin, being elderly and spending a lot of time indoors.
There are 3 minerals that are particularly brain friendly: magnesium, calcium and zinc.
Magnesium helps you relax and sleep better. It encourages the production of GABA which helps to relax the nervous system. Your busy brain is often on overdrive and doesn’t have proper downtime but restorative sleep is really vital to help the brain sort itself out at the end of the day, store or delete useful information, and start the next day refreshed.
Calcium is another vital mineral, ensuring that messages are sent from neurons and nerve endings and low levels are thought to disrupt the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of the sleep cycle. Zinc is the most abundant trace element in the brain and low levels are associated with a number of mental health issues.
Sugar, as in so many health conditions, really doesn’t do the brain any favours. It is linked to depression, memory problems and learning disorders. Studies suggest that sugar may affect the brain in similar ways to addictive drugs! Certainly, the more sugar you eat, the more you crave.
Not only that - recent research has focused on the effect of inflammation on the brain and mental health. It is now understood for example that tackling inflammation in conditions such as depression may be beneficial. Inflammation in the brain appears to direct the use of tryptophan towards the production of chemicals that provoke anxiety and depressive symptoms rather than in the production of serotonin. So, getting your diet right, will help your brain work better and support a more balanced mood. An anti-inflammatory diet will include plenty of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats - especially, omega 3 fatty acids, whole grains, lean protein, herbs and spices. Inflammatory foods such as processed foods, red meat, alcohol and sugar should be largely avoided. The Mediterranean way of eating is a great example of an anti-inflammatory diet.
Have you become disconnected from your internal body clock?
Our body clock is the 24 hour clock that regulates our circadian rhythms - these include such fundamental things as the sleep/wake cycle, hormone release and the body temperature cycle. Research has shown that disruption to these rhythms are associated with mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disease as well as mood instability and lower happiness and slower reaction times. Shift work, jet lag and sleep altered sleep duration can all disrupt the internal body clock.
B vitamins - needed for neurotransmitter production. You need a constant supply, but these vital vitamins are easily depleted when under stress. If you are following a vegan diet, you should supplement vitamin B12 as the main dietary sources are meat, dairy eggs and fish.
Magnesium - this mighty mineral is needed to relax both the mind and the body but is depleted by stress and anxiety. Magnesium boosts stress resilience as well as contributing to reduction of tiredness and fatigue. If necessary, top up with a magnesium supplement, especially in the evening, if finding it hard to drop off to sleep.
Essential fats – particularly omega 3 found in fish oils. Alternatively, choose flax and walnut oils which are higher in omega 3 than other seed and nut oils.
Chromium – to help beat those sugar cravings! Chromium works closely with insulin to support uptake of glucose into the cells. Chromium may be particularly useful if blood sugar levels are imbalanced and low mood is accompanied by weight gain and cravings for refined carbohydrates and sugar.
Vitamin D - it is recommended to supplement at least 400iu (10mcg) vitamin D daily from October to the end of March, although more may be needed, depending on individual requirements.
5HTP – the precursor to serotonin and melatonin which may help to stabilise mood and reduce anxiety as well as promote healthy sleep.
Tyrosine - needed to make the neurotransmitters dopamine and noradrenalin, associated with happiness and motivation.
Turmeric – preliminary research suggests that curcumin, an important anti-inflammatory and antioxidant ingredient in turmeric, may play a role in improving mood.
At times like these, when anxiety levels are high, relaxing and taking steps to lower stress are important in helping us to stay well.
• Schedule some time every day to practice relaxation techniques whether it be deep breathing, yoga, meditation or Pilates - this can help to calm the body, lowering cortisol and adrenalin and bringing the nervous system into its relaxed parasympathetic state.
• Don’t spend all day indoors – exposure to natural daylight and fresh air reduces stress and supports overall well-being. Nature has a calming influence, so within current social distancing guidelines, try to take a daily walk in the open air or get stuck into some gardening! Exercise also promotes the brain’s release of endorphins, chemicals which appear to support natural immunity, reduce the perception of pain and may also improve mood.
• Why not relax with a soothing cup of green tea? Theanine, found naturally in green tea, has been found to aid alpha-wave production in the brain, associated with relaxation and calm, without causing drowsiness. Other calming teas include chamomile, passion flower and lemon balm.
• Finally, try this simple relaxing breathing exercise whenever you feel stressed:
Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your navel. Inhale into your chest then your upper abdomen, and finally puff out your belly like a balloon. Release the breath slowly in the same sequence, firstly exhaling the air smoothly from your belly, then from your upper abdomen and finally from your chest.
Over time we hope you will experience an improvement in your mood and mental wellbeing, but if you find that you are still feeling low, please consult your GP to talk through your symptoms