Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Today is World Mental Health Day! In 2014 in the UK, about 20% of people aged over 16 suffered from anxiety or depression (R). A recent report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) has found that the number of children and adolescent referrals to mental health services in England has increased by 26% over the past five years (R)!
If there is no doubt that depression can be caused by psychological factors (habitual feelings of pessimism, traumatic life events…), there is also a physiological aspect to it and many mental health symptoms can be prevented and managed through diet and lifestyle changes.
Whether you do suffer from depression or just want to protect your mental health, here are 7 nutritional and lifestyle tips to implement from today:
1. REDUCE YOUR SUGAR INTAKE
After eating sugary foods, we usually feel happier, our mood is lifted and we have more energy… However, this feeling doesn't last long and we soon feel low and hungry again.
Sugary food (and refined carbohydrates) make our blood glucose rise quickly, as a consequence our pancreas has to release insulin to shuttle this glucose in our cells. The higher the sugar intake, the more insulin will be produced, and often, that creates a rapid fall in blood glucose, leading to a state of 'hypoglycaemia' which can leave us feeling tired, anxious, weak, irritable and lethargic.
Constant snacking throughout the day can create ups and downs in our blood sugar levels, which often show as ups and downs in our mood and energy as a result.
It’s simple: the more uneven your blood sugar supply, the more uneven your mood! So cut down on sugars, swap your white flour and pasta for wholegrain alternatives and increase the amount of vegetables on your plate.
2. HAVE A SOURCE OF PROTEIN WITH EACH MEAL: beans, lentils, small fish, eggs, grass-fed meat
Proteins are made of little building blocks called ‘Amino acids’. Some amino acids are used by your body to produce 'neurotransmitters', which are the molecules used by the nervous system to transmit messages between neurons. Different neurotransmitters will have different effects on your body:
The amino acid ‘Tryptophan’, is essential to the production of Serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for our good mood, contentment and positivity (R). Tryptophan is found in salmon, prawns, eggs, white beans, kidney beans, oats, chia seeds and sesame seeds.
The amino acid 'Tyrosine' is a precurosor to Dopamine, associated with the feeling of enjoyment and motivation (R). Tyrosine is found in poultry, white beans, fish, eggs, spirulina and pumpkin seeds.
Increasing your protein intake will also help balance your blood sugar levels, which as you read above can help with mood.
3. CONSUME MORE OILY FISH: such as wild salmon, sardines, mackerel
Inflammation is a natural process of your body’s immune system in response to an injury, virus, chemicals, etc. It is a healthy process that allows us to heal. But in some cases, especially with a diet high in sugary and processed foods and low in vegetables, it can become chronic and your body sends inflammatory responses to a perceived threat that doesn’t require a response.
It’s been found that people with depression have higher levels of inflammatory markers in their body (R) and lower levels of omega 3 fatty acids (R)! Omega 3 are a type of fat that have been shown to reduce inflammation (R), they're found in oily fish, walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds.
4. Introduce NATURALLY FERMENTED FOODS in your diet: sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, kombucha...
Traditionally, humans have evolved on eating naturally fermented foods rich in benefical bacteria, as it was one of the only ways to preserve foods. With modern advances in chemical preservation and refrigeration, we have lost the habit of eating these foods and more and more people are now suffering with digestive issues.
Did you know that about 90% of serotonin (our good mood neurotransmitter) is produced in the gut under the influence of our good bacteria (R)? Some of these bacteria can also produce another neurotransmitter called gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), which has a calming and relaxing effect on our body (R).
A study has found that people with major depression had an imbalance of gut bacteria compared to healthy people, characterised by higher levels of 'bad' bacteria and lower levels of protective bacteria (R)!
Unpasteurised fermented foods are easily found in local markets and health food stores and are a good way to provide your gut with these desirable and beneficial bacteria. Alternatively, you can easily supplement with probiotics containing at least 20 billion live bacteria.
It is also important your increase the intake of a type of fibre called 'prebiotics' which help feed these good bacteria, and are found in oats, bananas, artichoke, leeks, onions, chicory.
5. SPEND MORE TIME OUTDOORS
When the sun rises and the UV lights enter our eyes, our body recognises that it is day time and our brain starts producing Serotonin. The serotonin produced by our brain will then regulate our mood and appetite throughout the day, and will also help us find sleep when the night comes.
Except if you’re a gardener or worker, it is very likely that you spend most of your time indoors: you probably commute in a car/train/bus to work, spend your day in an office and then stay at home after a long day of work. The truth is, most of us don’t spend enough time outside.
Low exposure to sunlight can reduce the amount of serotonin produced by your brain (R) and cause low mood and tiredness (R). This is especially significant as we are slowly entering winter and the days are getting shorter!
So try to spend more time outdoors, by going for a short 5-10 min walk in the morning for example, eating your lunch outside and going out in nature in the weekend. Additionaly, you can consider using a Light box which produces a similar light to the sun and can help alleviate symptoms of depression (R).
6. CREATE NOURISHING MOMENTS
How often do you take the time to pause and give your body and mind the opportunity to relax, heal and feel cared for? We often think we 'relax' by watching TV or scrowling down our instagram/facebook feeds. But these activities don't allow us to truly relax, instead they keep our brain alert when it has already been turned 'on' all day.
Create a list of activities that really leave you feeling relaxed and refreshed, and aim to have at least 3 every week (if not one every day!)
If you don't know where to start, here are a few ideas:
- Painting, drawing or practising any kind of art.
- Practice a gentle form of exerice such as yoga
- Practice a few minutes of mindfulness, guided by youtube videos or apps such as Headspace
- Walk barefoot in your garden or in a park, take notice of your surroundings
- Get a massage, by someone else or even by yourself! You can massage your arms, your legs and feet.
- Read a fiction book while sipping on tea
7. LIMIT YOUR USE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Social media apps are a great way to stay connected to our family and friends, but they also mean that we are constantly bombarded with an overload of information, perfect and fake lives and negative behaviours.
Results from a survey of more than 1700 adults showed that people who reported using the most social media platforms had
more than three times the risk of depression and anxiety than people who used the least amount (R).
I would suggest you try to limit your use, maybe by allocating a short amount of time each day to social media and having one day each week free from all screens! Take notice of your feelings when you scroll down your instagram or facebook feed: are you feeling happy about what you see? Jealous? Frustated? Demotivated? Change the way you use social media so it can educate and empower you instead.
And finally, remember to eat a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits! Many vitamins and minerals such as Magnesium, B vitamins, Iron, Copper, Vitamin C are needed for the production of the neurotransmitters discussed earlier and various other proccesses within our body.
Deficiencies of vitamin B12, folic acid or vitamin D can cause low mood and depression, so don't hesitate to talk to your GP to get a blood test done. A Nutritional Therapist can also help you investigate the possible drivers behind your symptoms and create a personalised protocol for you.
If you do suffer from depression and negative thoughts, I would urge you to discuss it with someone and ask help if required. There is no shame in needing support and we are lucky to have various charities doing amazing work out there to raise awareness about mental health, one of which is MIND: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/helplines/
Sending all the love and support needed,