Life has changed dramatically this year and some of these changes have adversely affected our mental health. Isolation, for example, can be particularly challenging for those suffering with anxiety disorders and depression. These changes not only impact our mental wellbeing but also affect our physical health.
There is a growing body of evidence that depression is linked to increased levels of inflammation in the body which can be due to the immune system, gut bacteria, food intolerances, a heightened stress response and nutrient deficiencies. Gut bacteria are especially important to reduce inflammation in the body and to keep the immune system healthy. Inflammatory changes in the body can affect mental health through the gut-brain-axis and lead to a worsening mental state.
Gut microbes can influence our thoughts and emotions, so by manipulating them through what we eat, we can improve our mood and reduce the burden of depression. Hippocrates said, ‘Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food’ and it has become abundantly clear that a balanced nutritional diet can impact whether we develop depression, mood disorders, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even dementia. A diet that is less diverse can affect our mood as gut bacteria all have their own preference for food and unless we are eating a wide variety of especially plants foods, we are at risk of losing some of our resident microbes that are important for keeping our immune system and mood healthy.
We don’t necessarily have control over what life throws our way, but we can influence our response to stress with a balanced approach to nutrition. Here are a few ways that we can support ourselves when going through a stressful period, experiencing anxiety or feeling low:
1. Eat whole foods instead of processed foods. When we feel stressed, we can easily fall into bad food habits but keeping a balanced diet can be one of the most important ways we can support our bodies during times of stress. Our adrenals, tiny glands situated at the top of our kidneys, are producing cortisol in response to emotional triggers and food, which can keep us in the ‘fight or flight’ mode. The best way to support this cortisol response is by balancing blood glucose levels throughout the day.
2. A variety of foods is key when it comes to mental health. Especially anti-inflammatory and colourful fruit and vegetables. We tend to eat the same foods each day, however, by increasing diversity in what we eat, we can build a healthy microbiome which positively impacts our mood through the gut-brain-axis.
3. Limit caffeine. Caffeine after 12noon can affect how well we sleep. Caffeine also releases cortisol which can cause issues with blood sugar regulation leaving you feeling more anxious.
4. Moderate alcohol. Excessive drinking can adversely affect mental health.
5. Stay fit. We all know how much better we feel after physical exercise. Exercise can be one of the most important ways we can support our mental health.
6. Get eight hours of sleep each night and make sure it is in a dark bedroom. Optimal sleep is key to mental wellbeing as the brain does important clearing throughout the night helping us deal with emotions more effectively.
7. Practice mindfulness each day. This can be as simple as going for a walk in nature, doing ten minutes of meditation, reading a relaxing novel, playing an instrument, singing or dancing. Anything that brings you back in the moment can be great for calming anxiety about the future and positively impact our mood. Remember that solitude is not the same as loneliness. Spending 5 minutes a day in solitude can be an important component of a healthy mind.
8. Switch off. We are constantly bombarded with social media and negative news which can increase feelings of anxiety. Maybe it’s time to take a digital detox and practice being more present in our daily lives.
Hopefully with emerging evidence we can create a future where the importance of nutrition and food is used to optimise mental wellbeing and brain health.
The most important thing when dealing with depression and anxiety is to reach out and get support. Speak to loved ones or get in touch with a mental health professional if you need help. The sooner you reach out and get the right support in place the better your chances are of avoiding a crisis. Please be in contact if you would like more information.
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Lukic, I. (2019) Antidepressant affect gut microbiota and Ruminococcus flavefaciens is able to abolish their effects on depressive-like behaviour. Translational Psychiatry 9(1):133
Rea, K., Dinan T.G., Cryan J.F. (2020) Gut Microbiota: A Perspective for Psychiatrists. Neuropsychobiology 79:50-62.
Yano, J.M. (2015) Indigenous bacteria from the gut microbiota regulate host serotonin biosynthesis. Cell 161(2):264-276.