Thursday 22 April 2021

HOW TO improve your mental health through diet and nutrition

Do you want to improve your mental health, whether it be anxiety or depression? Do you, like me, want to solve the problem without taking pills? Well, I will tell you how you can SIGNIFICANTLY improve your mental health through diet and nutrition.

Right now, we have a mental health crisis on our hands, not helped by the pandemic and its restrictions. Many see the solution as medication (anti-depressants etc), and as much as that helps a lot of people and I don’t necessarily disagree with them, they’re not for me as I don’t feel like they are a sustainable long term solution.

From the age of 13, I suffered from bad anxiety: I didn’t want to go to sleepovers or even leave my house sometimes. After years of struggle and some therapy, I found a more holistic ‘healthy’ lifestyle and this has really helped me. My story is on my ‘about me’ page. The way I eat now and the awareness I have of my body, really helps to control my anxiety and I haven’t had a panic attack in quite a while. I have reaped the benefits of eating this way, so I really want to share it and hope it can help you! It is the inspiration for writing this blog. I improved my mental health through lifestyle changes, not anti-anxiety medication.

What saddens me is that we don’t hear in the mainstream about the studies and data highlighting the significant impact that nutrition and diet has on our mental health.

The smile trial conducted in Australia divided a group of moderate-severely depressed people into 2 groups. Half had their diet changed (I will discuss later what was involved in this diet) and half used talking therapy. Those that changed their diet showed much better results: over 30% went into FULL remission. I’m sorry but FULL remission of severe depression through changing diet….why do more people not know this?! 8% of those in the social support group went into full remission, so you can see why there needs to be more of an emphasis on diet and nutrition as well as therapy.

The theory: Gut health
Our GI tract is home to billions of bacteria that influence the production of neurotransmitters; chemical substances that constantly carry messages from the gut to the brain. For example Dopamine and serotonin – the happiness hormones. Our gut-brain axis is a bidirectional link between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system so we feel better when our gut is healthy but also when we feel nervous, our gut can react (we’ve all been on the toilet before something nerve-wracking, for example).

1: Eat a whole food diet with a variety of plant-based foods
The flora in your gut needs to thrive so you need to feed it a variety of foods. You should aim for 30 different plant-based sources a week. It is easier than you think because I don’t mean full portions. For example, a sprinkling of seeds on your cereal would class as one portion. Eating this way will also ensure you reach those micronutrients, which make your body and brain work better, and give you more energy in the day. In turn, you will sleep better at night, which is a huge contributing factor in mental health. This post is just about diet and nutrition but I am going to talk about sleep another time.

So what is involved in this way of eating? Well, the diet used in the Smile trial was described as a modified Mediterranean diet consisting of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, extra virgin olive oil, and fish. This is what I refer to when I say ‘wholefoods’ – foods in their natural form. Food that has been taken from the land – no emulsifiers, additives, etc.

When I eat this way, I literally feel less anxiety in my body. It makes SUCH a difference to how my body and brain feels – it’s amazing. For me, my anxiety can happen when I don’t feel well and I rarely feel sick or dizzy when I eat this way.

On my food Instagram page, @alicesgoodmoodfood , I post whole food recipes every week: curries, stews, stir-fries, chillis, sliders, salads, risottos, etc. I will keep adding to it, so check it out if you are in need of inspiration! I do admit that the photography needs to improve, though. Also on this blog every Sunday I will be posting a recipe.

Alternatively, I think Hello Fresh is really amazing. They provide whole food recipes along with the exact ingredients so that you don't waste any food. You can choose whether to have veggie dishes if you prefer.

2: Reduce processed foods
The diet used in the Smile trial was void of processed foods. This is because they cause inflammation in the brain and body, which can contribute to mood disorders. They often contain a lot of sugar, which in the short term, can give you a high, but with any high comes a big CRASH. This happens to me: I become lethargic and more on edge or moody.

The problem is that it is a cycle. When we’re tired, we reach for junk and sugar. When we’re stressed, we reach for highly processed foods. BUT if we can break the cycle and eat something nutritious and filling, we will feel better and in turn, will not reach for those junk foods.

I really feel the positive effect on my body when I eat whole foods, so it puts me off eating junk. Don’t get me wrong, I still eat processed food now and again, and I am a sucker for Doritos. And chocolate is just the best. But what I prefer to do, and a tip for you is to try junk food that is less processed and has fewer ingredients. For example, some crisps (chips if you’re American) can be made with only potato, oil, and a little sea salt. This is much much better than crisps with ‘natural’ flavourings, ‘natural’ colourings, emulsifiers, etc. I will come on to these in another post because there is a lot to unpack as just about anything can be described as ‘natural’.

I love websites that help you eat more natural products. I love iherb because it has healthy snacks on there and it is a great website if you don’t have any health food shops near you. It's also great for expats like me because sometimes I find it difficult to find all the natural healthy things that I used to buy so regularly in London. Natural collection is also a great website for natural things for body products too.

3: Take probiotics
A variety of foods can help our gut but sometimes it may need a little more help and this is where probiotics come in. Signs such as regular bloating, gas, and funny toilet habits may insinuate that you need this extra help. You may have taken antibiotics that have killed the good bacteria or you may eat a lot of meat or processed foods.

Once your gut is flourishing, your brain will follow suit and I really believe they are a worthwhile investment in your health. I took the 12-week programme of Symprove your life because it is so easy: you just take a shot every morning. It’s a water-based bacteria so more bacteria can reach your gut hence making it more effective than probitoic pills. I first saw Deliciously Ella talk about this, so I bought it and it was honestly amazing. Seriously. I was amazed at how good I felt. Less bloating and I felt mentally more clear-headed.

If you would rather take a pill, I like these ones from Amazon or alternatively, you could you go to iHerb as previously mentioned – they have everything! 

4: Eat regularly to keep blood sugars stable
From my experience, my anxiety and panic increase if I am in public and I don’t feel well. This often happens if I haven’t eaten in a while because my blood sugars are low. I feel dizzy and light-headed and it makes me feel very out of control. Feeling out of control is a large source of anxiety for many people, so this could be something to consider.

I don’t know about you but I have to snack regularly to feel balanced. Something I miss from England is the Graze snacks. You can sign up for a monthly membership, where you get posted a mixed box of snacks every month. I think it’s amazing because then you don’t need to worry about walking around different shops looking for healthy snacks.

5: Reduce caffeine if you have anxiety
Caffeine stimulates the body and if you suffer from anxiety, caffeine is not really a good idea. I personally don’t drink coffee but that is because I don’t like it (I KNOW, I AM CRAZY!) But, I remember in freshers week of university, I thought it was time to be an adult and I went for a coffee with a friend I had just met. I ordered a latte... yes a LATTE and I ended up in the toilets of Nandos having a panic attack. Choose caffeine free alternatives such as decaf coffee or peppermint tea. You can also get this instant herbal beverage with dandelion which also gives you antioxidant benefits.

6: Have a healthy relationship with alcohol
Alcohol is the WORST for my mental health. If I get drunk in the evening, the whole of the next day is a write-off and I can’t travel very far from home: I am an anxious mess. I am not necessarily anxious about what I said or did, but I get physical panic sensations in my body. Alcohol is a depressant and our brains rely on a delicate balance of chemicals and processes, which can easily be disrupted by alcohol.

Of course you don’t need to go tee-total but especially if you have anxiety, think bout your alcohol intake and whether this is a contributing factor to any poor mental health. I know that having alcohol-free days can really help some people.

I used to have the philosophy: get super drunk and suffer the consequences the next day or drink nothing at all. I have now learnt to have a more balanced approach to alcohol and I will sometimes drink a glass of wine with a meal, for example without much effect on my mentality. So thankfully it has improved! And I do get drunk now and again (albeit not often!)

I hope that I have convinced you how important diet and nutrition is to your mental health and that you will try even just one of those tips to improve your mental health. If you were to eat a variety of plant-based foods, reduce your junk food intake, take probiotics, eat regularly, and monitor caffeine and alcohol, I think you will be surprised what can happen! They all seem like big things but if your mental health is poor, you know that it is worth it. I know that if I knew this 10 years ago, I would have done anything!

Do you do any of these tips? If so, let me know in the comments below.

As always, I am wishing you a life full of health and happiness!


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