Go with your gut: How diet can improve mental health.

It’s just not for me”. This was the response I had recently when asking a family member why, after considering health coaching, they decided not to go ahead. I get it. This was me too for many years until I reached desperation point! But I wish I’d taken the holistic route sooner. I didn’t realise just how ill I felt, or that the potential for better health and happiness was right under my nose, quite literally.

I’m well aware of the stigma surrounding ‘holistic’ or natural therapies – holistic, for those who don’t know, refers to a ‘whole body’ approach. It’s not necessarily crystals, mediums, smudge sticks, chakras and the like. Respect to those who find solace in these fields, it’s just not my approach. Addressing health holistically however, through nutrition, fitness and lifestyle changes can be powerful. Unaware of this potential, so many are living with chronic conditions without realising the answer could lie in their kitchen cupboard, and with science to support it.

Mainstream discussion on mental health, specifically anxiety and depression, often concentrates on mindful approaches, breathwork or counselling therapies. These ‘top down’ remedies address the mind first and foremost. It’s true that this can have a positive knock-on effect for our gut health. Why? Signals travel between the brain and body via the Vagus Nerve, allowing the two to communicate. In stress state, your mind can tell your body to prepare for fight or flight by amping up your heartrate, directing blood to your muscles and increasing your alertness. However, around 80-90% of fibres that make up the Vagus Nerve are from the gut to the brain. This means that a hell of a lot more communication comes from what you’ve eaten, the movement of your intestinal muscles and the bacteria living in your digestive tract.

So let’s talk bottom up. How can we use dietary interventions to hack into better mental health?

I know just how daunting it can be to consider cutting out sugar, junk food, alcohol – all the things we’re told are ‘bad’, yet make us feel so good. In order to make progress, we need to think about why they feel good. Are we comfort eating? Is it habitual? Are we looking for that next dopamine hit as glucose hits our bloodstream? Ironically, it’s possible these foods are creating a cycle of negative emotions leading to more biscuits, booze and burgers.

Let’s take sugar for example. A refined carbohydrate, it can send us on a rollercoaster of blood sugar highs and lows. When our blood sugars drop, our body tells our brain to search out more sugar or carbs to raise the levels again. Fructose (fruit sugars) feeds the sugar-loving bacteria and yeasts in our gut, in particular Candida (yes, it lives in our intestines too, plus many other nooks and crannies!). When lacking in sugar, these yeasts send chemical signals up through the Vagus Nerve, leading to cravings. Refined carbs, in the form of white bread, pasta and rice for example, can have the same effect. Sugar also releases dopamine, the reward hormone, in the brain. The same hormone that makes gambling or shopping so addictive. The effect sugar has on our hormones and blood can lead to systemic inflammation, resulting in chronic pain, poor mental health, migraines, asthma or (for women) PMS symptoms.

Aside from sugar being a key ingredient in many ‘junk foods’, these nutrient-poor meals are packed with trans-fats and additives. Trans-fats are fats that have been created through industrial processing, to make the oils solid and increase shelf life. They have often been linked to higher LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol levels, but due to the amount of inflammation they create through the body, studies suggest they could also increase levels of depression.

Junk and excess sugar can be linked not just to poor mental health and mood swings, but also headaches, aging skin heart disease and cancer. Similarly, alcohol and coffee are stimulants and increase toxicity in the body, signs of which include fatigue, skin breakouts, digestive issues and cellulite, to name a few.

If you’re still reading, you’re probably wondering why I’m trying to sap all the joy from your life! Is this fearmongering? Perhaps, but the evidence is out there. The good news is happiness can be found elsewhere. Exploring why we keep reaching for these foods is a good starting point to finding balance.

Happiness can be found through our stomach.

I’m talking the sort of happiness that takes you through the day, rather than just the meal itself. We’ve been told endlessly to ensure we get our five-a-day, but knowing which particular foods and their constituting nutrients can enable us to hack our biology.

Chronic stress? Potassium can support adrenal function to help balance stress hormones. Find this in avocados, spinach, sweet potato, salmon, apricots and bananas. Magnesium reduces cortisol (another stress hormone), found in almonds, dark chocolate, tofu, seeds and salmon. Omega-3 also lowers cortisol levels, a personal favourite of mine – sardines, flaxseed and walnuts are Omega-3 rich. When in stress state, Vitamin C is excreted from the kidneys, so upping your intake from foods like citrus fruits, bell peppers and strawberries can ensure adequate supply.

If you’re worried ‘healthy food’ will have no flavour, you’re in luck. Herbs and spices are packed with nutritional benefits too. Cinnamon helps to lower blood glucose levels. Ginger is anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant rich. ‘Adaptogenic’ herbs like shiitake mushrooms and ashwagandha can help to regulate and restore balance throughout the body.

I grew up believing organic foods were a load of expensive hippie nonsense. However, choosing organic foods where possible can also help to reduce the inflammatory effects of toxicity caused by pesticides, one of these being poor mental health. If you’re not keen on going full organic, a list of the most highly affected foods can be found on https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php#dirty-dozen.

Recent studies have found that probiotic rich foods could also have a profound effect on mental health. Remember those sugar loving yeasts and bacteria sending cravings via the Vagus Nerve? These can be out-populated by good bacteria in sources such as kimchi, live yoghurt, sauerkraut and kombucha. Prebiotic foods like broccoli, asparagus, onions and garlic help feed and increase this good bacteria.

The gut is the gateway to the rest of the body and shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to our brains. Used in conjunction with exercise and ‘top down’ therapies like breathwork, mindfulness and CBT, we can drastically alter our biology and hack our mental health.

*Always consult with your doctor and/or nutrition specialist before making changes to your diet.

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