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Food and Mental Health

Just like the fuel you put into your car can influence the performance of that car, our diets can impact our mental health and wellbeing. Mental health difficulties often go hand-in-hand with compromised gut functions and there is strong evidence of a bidirectional relationship between mental and gut health.

The gut-brain connection is often talked about but it may be poorly understood. Serotonin, often known as the “happy hormone”, is a neurotransmitter that helps maintain sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain. It is estimated that up to 90% of your serotonin is produced in your gut. The gut is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, it makes sense that maintaining a healthy gut is likely to support healthy brain functioning.

The function of these neurons in the gut is highly impacted by the billions of "good" bacteria that make up your intestinal flora. These bacteria serve a variety of roles not just with digestion and absorption of nutrients but also impact things like mood and energy.

We are often told to consume probiotics and increase “good” bacteria, these can be supplemented or consumed in the form of foods. Fermented foods such as kimchi, kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, and miso to name a few can be beneficial.

Chronic inflammation is a common denominator amongst almost all neurological and neurodegenerative disorders, including anxiety. Individuals suffering from anxiety and anxiety-related disorders – such as panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), present with higher levels of inflammatory markers. It is largely agreed upon that the two most metabolically challenging foods are refined sugars and processed vegetable oils, both of which can contribute to inflammation through multiple ways. Limiting these is likely to lead to an improvement in physical and mental health factors.

We hear the term “balanced diet” often, however this is often vague and can be confusing. It is recommended to consult with a dietician or naturopath to gain a deeper understanding for your unique needs. While it is difficult to tease out a certain group of foods or a food that contribute to better mental health, it is likely that extreme limitations on certain food groups such as carbs, fats, and dairy, can create problems in itself. A Mediterranean style diet is often hailed as the “perfect balance” - rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, whole grains, and lean protein. It has been linked with lower blood pressure, improved cognitive function, and lower rates of diabetes and heart issues.

Other than the type of food you consume, there are other factors to consider around eating. For instance, sharing meals carries many psychological, social and biological benefits. Eating with others give us a sense of rhythm and regularity, an opportunity to reflect on the day, and feel connected to others. Talking and listening also helps us maintain a steady pace. Make the most of mealtimes – allowing at least one day a week to eat with family and friends.

Namrata Makhijani

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