What does food mean to you? Is it sustenance? Fuel? A source of pleasure?
Food means different things to different people, but we rarely consider it as medicine, least of all when it comes to mental health. The brain and central nervous system are such complicated structures that when there’s anything wrong, we tend to think that high-tech medicine and drugs must be the only options. We readily accept that pharmaceutical drugs that tinker with our brain chemistry can make us feel better but find it hard to imagine that something as simple as food could possibly have an impact.
And yet it does, and in this blog we want you to consider feeding your mind.
A healthy mind and brain rely on chemistry. We need neurotransmitters to feel happy, relaxed, rewarded, and content. Those neurotransmitters are made using nutrients which we get from food. Some, such as glutamate, acetylcholine, and GABA are actually in food already, and others we synthesise using vitamins and minerals. Conversely, other chemicals we expose our body to can negatively impact on our brain chemistry by overstimulating, slowing down or cutting off chemical pathways.
We are not suggesting food as an alternative to drugs; sometimes, medication is indispensable to get us back on track. If you have a diagnosed mental health condition or suspect you might have, speak to your doctor. If you need medication, then optimum nutrition provides essential support during recovery alongside your medical treatment. However, the sooner you switch to a healthy, natural food diet that provides the nutrients your brain and nervous system need, the better your chances to avoid mental health issues in the first place.
When it comes to brain chemistry and mental health, what you don’t eat matters as much as what you do eat. Almost exactly a year ago, we published a blog on Good Mood Food. At the time, we focussed mainly on the four steps that would have the most immediate impact on mood:
1. Blood Sugar Balance
2. Healthy Fats
3. Gut Health
4. Traditional, real food diets
In this blog we would like to focus on some of the vitamins and minerals that affect brain function and mental health.
The vitamins of the B-group are eight essential vitamins that work closely together at a cellular level. They are crucial for every aspect of brain function. One study found that deficiency in vitamin B6 doubled the likelihood of depression in older adults. Another noted that low levels of folate (a B vitamin) and vitamin B12 were common in patients suffering from depression.
B vitamins are ubiquitous in food. You’ll find them in anything: meat, egg, dairy, grains, pulses, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds. And yet, even in developed countries, deficiencies in one or more B vitamins are common.
B vitamins are depleted by stress and sugar. Both significantly rev up the requirement for B vitamins, which are needed to counteract the adverse effects of sugar and stress. If they are not replenished, deficiency is unavoidable. In that case, even the best diet, consisting of the freshest foods, may not be able to satisfy demand, and you may have to supplement.
Vitamin D has received a lot of attention in recent years, and it turns out that it is involved in countless processes from bone formation via hormone synthesis to heart health. Vitamin D has also been associated with depression, although more research is needed.
Vitamin D is the only vitamin synthesised within the human body. It is made in the skin, under the influence of sunlight. In the Northern hemisphere, sunlight is scarce, and in the winter months, there isn’t enough of it to produce enough vitamin D. Add to that our indoor lifestyle. It comes as no surprise that vitamin D deficiency is common. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of it in food, but oily fish and egg yolks from pasture-raised hens contain decent amounts. The only plant food providing vitamin D are mushrooms, although that is a type known as vitamin D2; we need D3. Vitamin D2 does increase your blood levels of vitamin D, but not as efficiently as D3.
Whether you are vegetarian or not, whether you like oily fish or not, if you live in the Northern hemisphere, you may want to get your vitamin D level tested to see if you need to supplement. As a fat-soluble vitamin, excess vitamin D is not excreted but stored in the liver, and toxicity is possible. For that reason, we recommend supplementing only if you know you need to.
Patients with depression are often low in magnesium. This essential mineral is required for nerve signal transmission and other crucial functions within the nervous system. It is a natural relaxant and may help alleviate anxiety. Just like B vitamins, magnesium is everywhere, but we still manage to be deficient. There are many good food sources: green leafy vegetables, above all, but also bananas, fish, nuts, seeds, pulses, and whole grains. Even dark chocolate contains significant amounts of the mineral.
Evidence from animal and human studies suggests an association between zinc levels and mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Zinc activates hormonal, neurotransmitter and signalling pathways in the gut, which modulate brain functions like appetite, sleep, nerve formation, cognitive function, and mood. It is abundant in food, including whole grains, nuts, seeds, pulses, vegetables, fruit, meat, shellfish, eggs and dairy.
If these essential micronutrients are ubiquitous, why are deficiencies still so common, even in countries where fresh food is abundant?
One likely reason is that the way we grow, harvest, transport, and process food causes the loss of too many vitamins. Another, related one, is that we are not eating enough fresh, ripe, local, minimally processed foods that are rich in not just B vitamins, but other vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients as well. Convenience food, which is devoid of micronutrients, crowds out the real, natural food we need to supply not just the brain but our entire body with what it needs.
Some vitamins and minerals are lost in cooking. B vitamins are water-soluble and leach into the water when food is boiled. The same is true for minerals. If the cooking water is thrown out, so are the vitamins and minerals. They are retained in soups, stews, and broths. If you are not planning to eat the liquid, steaming is the better option.
However, the most nutritious food won’t do us any good if we can’t absorb the nutrients. Alcohol, caffeine, and certain medications can interfere with that. The absorption of minerals and vitamin B12 requires adequate levels of stomach acid. We have seen in our clinical practice time and time again that low stomach acid levels are widespread. A common symptom is acid reflux or heartburn, which unfortunately is often assumed to be caused by the opposite problem – too much stomach acid – and then treated with antacids or proton pump inhibitors. These drugs further reduce stomach acid, making nutrient absorption even more difficult.
Sometimes nutrients are not absorbed because there isn’t time. Digestive health problems such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease cause food to pass through the small intestine too fast, resulting in micronutrient deficiencies in the long term.
If you are concerned about your nutrient status, give us a call. There is a range of excellent functional tests that can provide you with clarity. As nutritional therapists, we can help you track down and, where possible, eliminate the underlying reason for deficiencies.
Or why not book our webinar “Eating for Great Mental Health” for your team? Call us now on 07966 478974 to check availability.