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Nutrition and mental health

By Nutritionist Amanda Callenberg

As our interest in health and wellness grows, so too does our focus on brain health. Many of us are well aware of the benefits that eating a balanced diet has on our physical health, but the understanding of how diet affects our mental health is less well known. More research is showing the impact food has on both our overall mental wellness, as well as specific mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.

A little bit about the brain

Our brain is an organ. It’s not just any organ, it is the most important organ in the body and is very resource hungry. Despite being only around 2% of our total body weight, our brains consume about 20%-25% of our daily energy intake, 20% of our oxygen and requires a huge amount of nutrients to stay active and functioning.

When we don’t provide it with the fuel it needs to carry out its jobs, it can start to suffer. Short term depletion of energy and nutrients can leave us feeling irritable, difficulty concentrating, moody, dizzy and light headed, whereas a depletion of these key nutrients over a long period of time can have an effect on both the brain’s structure and function which can lead to conditions such depression, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease and autism. 

How does your gut affect your brain?

The link between our gut health and our state of mind is becoming clearer. Not only is the brain talking to the gut and the rest of the body, but the gut is also constantly talking to the brain. All of the microbes living in our gut communicate with the rest of our body via the enteric nervous system, which has a huge influence on how we think and feel day-to-day. This two-way communication pathway known as the ‘gut-brain axis’.

Our gut bacteria are also responsible for producing neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine (our ‘happy and feel good hormones’), so when these bacteria are imbalanced, our production of these crucial neurotransmitters might be affected which may influence our mood, anxiety, energy, sleep patterns, memory, concentration and more. Our gut can also affect immunity and resilience to stress, which can both have an effect on our mood.

So, having a healthy gut microbiome is key for optimised brain health and moods. If there is any imbalance in our gut bacteria and digestion, then our ability to break down foods and absorb nutrients in our guts will be impaired, starving us of crucial brain power nutrients. We will also not be able to produce enough neurotransmitters to keep us feeling uplifted, motivated and driven.

Food can be a powerful way of supporting gut and brain health. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Focus on high quality, fresh, whole foods.A balanced diet that is rich in whole foods such as fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, lean animal protein, oily fish, fibre rich whole (unprocessed) grains and legumes has been shown to help support brain health. It provides the body with protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber which nourish our brain, reduce inflammation, support the gut-brain axis, provide natural antioxidants, phytonutrients and improve the health of the microbiome. It has been said that 3 weeks on a healthier ‘Mediterranean’ style diet, can drastically improve moods, reduce inflammation and improve overall health.  
  2. Eat healthy fats - Our brains are made up of around 60-70% fat, mostly DHA, which is an ‘essential fatty acid’. There are two types of essential fats, EPA and DHA (also known as Omega-3), and are called ‘essential’ because we cannot make them in our bodies, so we need to get them from our diet. These fats play an important role in the brain because they form the structure of the cell, which acts like a barrier helping to keep what should be inside the cell inside, and preventing what should not pass through, out. DHA also helps to support cell signalling, allowing brain cells to communicate with each other, while EPA reduces inflammation. Include lots of healthy fats in your diet, including oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), avocados, olives, nuts and seeds to nourish your brain. Supplementing with Omega 3 Zooki is a good way to ensure you get your daily requirement of omega 3 if you're not eating two servings of oily fish per week.
  3. Focus on fermented foods:Many fermented foods contain a variety of beneficial bacteria, so it is beneficial to try and consume a variety of these foods on a daily level to keep up species numbers, their diversity and support a happy, healthy microbiome. Fermented foods include; sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, live yogurts, miso, tempeh

Maintaining optimal brain and gut health is crucial so we want to make sure we're doing everything in our power to support our moods, memory and intellect, so we can stay sharp-minded, happy and healthy throughout our lives.

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