There are numerous studies showing the benefits of good nutrition, relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety, improving our physical health (which improves our mental health), and better brain functioning, which ultimately leads to a better ability to cope in life. But we might be thinking why? How? Prove it!
Although the relationship between food and mental health is complex - like pretty much anything when it comes to wellbeing - there is growing evidence that nutrition plays an important role in the prevention, development and management of diagnosed mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety and ADHD (attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder) .
We may not yet be able to fully explain why when it comes to our wellbeing, but we do know that there are risk factors to mental health conditions, and good nutrition can play a role in protecting us from those. Good nutrition generally leads us to feel better all-round and when we feel good we are more protected from developing mental illnesses. And we do have some interesting thoughts on how good nutrition impacts our mental wellbeing - think nourishing food as bubble wrap for the brain!
Bubble wrap for the brain
The brain is always on, even when we’re sleeping, doing its thing making sure the rest of the body is functioning as it should - keeping us breathing and important stuff like that. Our brains need fuel to maintain function, and we get this from the food we eat. In comparison to the rest of the body, our greedy brains consume a huge proportion of energy. Despite accounting for around 2% of the body’s weight it uses up to 20% of our total calories!
We might be thinking all food gives us energy (Skittles anyone?), which it technically does, however, what is in the food makes all the difference, and has a direct effect on our brain structure, functioning and therefore our mood. Two-thirds of the brain’s energy bucket is used for communicating which enables our mental processes or brain functioning. The remaining energy is used to keep our cells in tip-top condition.
Eating fresh foods that contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants actually nourishes the brain, and protects it from oxidative stress - that’s the waste product from using oxygen in the body, which can damage cells. The brain’s functioning can be diminished just by eating processed or refined (annoyingly, usually quite delicious) foods such as crisps, cake, and salt-laden ready meals. The fuel from these food types can be harmful to the brain, reducing its ability to remove oxidative stress, and even causing inflammation. So, it makes sense that our mental wellbeing is better when we eat better and provide the brain with nourishing fuel.
The mind-gut connection
Our gut or the ‘second brain’ as it’s sometimes called, is home to millions of neurons and neurotransmitters that are in direct communication with our actual brain pretty much all the time. Nutrients from our diets are absorbed and activate these pathways, and are responsible for regulating our appetite, producing serotonin and other functions that help us feel good. To do this effectively we need ‘good gut health’, and the best measure is to look at our microbiome - that’s the measure of good bugs and bacteria that we get from chowing down on nourishing, fresh foods as opposed to processed dishes, so in order to feel good generally, we need to eat well for a healthy gut.
"The gut is where 95% of serotonin is produced. Serotonin is one of the happy hormones that massively impacts our mood, therefore with a healthy gut from healthy eating, fuelling the production of serotonin, we are better equipped for a healthy mind." Grace McMahon, Life Coach
The convenience of fast or freezer food can be all too tempting when we don’t feel like slaving over a nutritious meal but how do we feel after? Slightly sluggish, more tired maybe, even craving a little more of the greasy stuff - but when we’re feeling motivated to try out a new recipe with a rainbow of colours we tend to feel much better in ourselves and the mind. It’s a good idea to start noticing how we feel after different food types, helping us understand our own mind-gut connection, and what makes us feel good.
Food for thought: We don’t have all the answers, but research suggests that a good, balanced diet that leads to better general health, protects us from developing mental health concerns. It can be difficult to maintain a healthy diet 24/7, and a burger and fries every so often isn’t likely to immediately spark a low mood. There is a difference between feeling well and feeling ‘meh’ and what we eat has a major impact on this.
Check out the difference between surviving and thriving for more info on good nutrition.
1. Mental health and nutrition briefing (2017). Mental Health Foundation.