The Impact of Nutrition and Lifestyle on Mental Health
by Melissa Bradbury
It is estimated that 45% of Australians aged between 16-85 years will experience a mental health disorder within their lifetime. The most prevalent mental health disorders being anxiety and depression, with approximately 14% of the population diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and 6.2% with depression (Australian Government, AIHW, 2019).
These statistics are, quite frankly, terrifying. But they are real. So, what we can do about it…
Recognising and managing our mental health isn’t simply about fulfilling a prescription from the chemist, or something we ‘think about’, but don’t say out loud. When it comes to avoiding, managing or seeking treatment for a mental health condition, it is essential to take a holistic approach. From better understanding what a ‘smart’ food choice might be, to scheduling in a half hour walk in the sunlight, through to actually making that appointment with a medical professional, we can all permanently shift our lived-experience for the positive. But it really does all start with what we put in our mouths.
It’s true that mood and mental health disorders result from any number of factors such as genetics, stress, hormonal imbalance, prescription medications, recreational drugs, and other health conditions such as obesity, hypothyroidism and hypoglycemia. But what we eat and drink has a direct psychological impact on our everyday mood, our behaviour, and our physical performance.
I think this Australian Parliamentary briefing summary, on the role of nutrition and exercise as preventative health sums it all up:
“Australia has long defined itself in terms of sporting achievements, and flowing from that is a vision of a strong, healthy and athletic nation. The reality is different. The majority of Australian men and women are either overweight or obese and 23 per cent of children aged between five and 17 are considered overweight or obese. Young Australians in particular are ignoring advice about nutrition, smoking and alcohol and they are increasingly inactive.” (Improving the health of all Australians: the role of preventative health; Amanda Biggs and Dr Rhonda Jolly, Social Policy Section, https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/BriefingBook43p/preventativehealth).
When it comes to making healthy food choices, we should be leaning towards a nutrient-dense, wholefood diet. Just think of the Mediterranean diet – rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and whole grains. It’s been directly linked to reduced incidence of depression and anxiety, as it provides a high amount of key essential nutrients that are important to stimulate our neurotransmitters – serotonin and dopamine. These ‘caretakers’ of our brain pathways are responsible for regulating mood and cognitive function. And all these key nutrients are only a trip to the supermarket away!
B vitamins: are great for energy production and serotonin synthesis, which help improve symptoms of fatigue, improve sleep and stabilize mood. Try wholegrain breads, brown rice (instead of white), legumes like chickpeas, lean meat and the simple egg!
Magnesium: plays an essential role for energy production, regulating blood pressure and cholesterol. Try dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Protein: is required to provide essential amino acids, which are the building blocks for our neurotransmitters. A plus is that protein also helps reduce sugar cravings! Try lean fish, chicken, pork, nuts and, again, the simple egg.
Essential fatty acids: are also referred to as ‘good fats’, and include Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, that are essential for healthy brain development. Choose oily fish like fresh salmon, or even tinned mackerel and sardines from your supermarket. Avocado and a good quality extra virgin olive oil are brilliant sources too.
Our mood influences our food choices and our instinct (particularly kids) is to lean towards choosing foods with higher amounts of processed carbohydrates and sugars. Try to step away! These foods accentuate symptoms of poor mood, anxiety and depression, insomnia and fatigue.
Sugar and artificial sweeteners: should be avoided. Soft-drinks, cordials, fruit drinks, energy and sports drinks, sweets and processed bakery goods. The odd take-away (term: a processed meal) is OK but don’t make it a nightly occurrence.
Alcohol and Caffeine: It’s true, most of us can’t live without indulging in these two at some point or another, but it’s not unusual that a high consumption of alcohol and caffeine is common amongst individuals suffering from a mental health condition. Both can be a depressant. And caffeine is widely seen as a psychoactive drink, which alters normal neurotransmitter function and depletes essential B vitamins, resulting in sleep disturbances and major depressive disorders. Perhaps, every odd day, think about swapping a coffee with a herbal tea or freshly squeezed juice.
Physical exercise: is about just moving for an hour a day and is critical for physical and mental health. We don’t need to be athletes. A simple walk outside, jogging, cycling, getting involved in a team sport, or even gardening is recommended to reduce incidence of mental health (Australian Government: NHMRC, 2013). Participation in physical activity also helps improve social networks and increases community cohesion and connectedness. It reduces the sense of isolation many people experience. This is a core tenet of what Twalk is all about.
Sleep hygiene: Up to 80% of individuals with mental health disorders experience sleep disturbances. Aiming to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night and limiting screen time at least one hour prior to bedtime is a must.
Mindfulness and relaxation: Relaxation therapies, guided mediation, spending time in nature or a swim in the ocean can have a positive effect on reducing stress, anxiety and help to lift our mood. One hour of daily exposure to natural sunlight significantly improve symptoms of mental health as well as providing you with a daily dose of vitamin D, an important hormone regulator.
While that all sounds good in theory, is it really achievable? The answer is “yes”. A client of mine recently made some food and lifestyle choices and dropped over 25 kilograms in just over a 6 month period (15 kilos in the first 12 weeks). They had had enough of being lethargic, unmotivated, depressed and had been diagnosed as pre-diabetic. They saw and felt the impact within days – less bloated, clearer mind, better sleep, more energy, higher motivation, increased muscle tone from exercise, the list goes on. And it wasn’t only the physical weight loss, from a mindset perspective they became more engaged in both work and family activities. What they realized was that this “diet” was in fact a lifestyle shift and something they needed to commit to daily, and for life. Of course, they still indulge for celebrations and have “bad” food choice days, but they now have the tools to reel it back in and get back on track as soon as they feel sluggish, unmotivated or clouded in the mind. At their next annual medical, rather than the usual lecture about all the things they should be doing, they were simply told to keep on doing what you have been doing, as it is clearly working.
You don’t need to be a nutritionist, a chef, an organic gardener or wear the badge of Hunter-Gatherer. No. Just simple, incremental changes to food and lifestyle choices in our everyday can make a huge difference to mental wellbeing.
It is a change you can start tomorrow. Or, what the heck, start today!!
Here is an example day to get you started:
2 eggs scrambled with avocado served on a slice of good quality stone ground whole-wheat sourdough.
1 cup of greek yoghurt with fresh mixed berries and a sprinkle of chia seeds.
Grilled chicken salad with mixed salad greens, avocado, cucumber, cherry tomatoes and feta.
Vege sticks with hummus dip
Baked salmon with ginger, garlic, shallot and a dash of tamari served with steamed broccolini and bok choy.
1 square of Lindt 99% dark chocolate.
– Melissa Bradbury, (Nutritionist)