How we fuel our bodies is the third component to the mental health “house.” Since poor mental health does not just start in the mind, I’ve recruited the incredible, lovely and intelligent Natalia D’Abramo to share her thoughts on the mind/body connection. Not only is she a Registered Nurse, but she is also a circus performer, a health enthusiast, and an overall badass.
This is a great read kids! Have fun!
1. Don’t underestimate your gut’s influence on your emotional health
2. You are and you “feel” what you eat
3. An Eating Pattern is Just as Important as Food Choices
4. You might actually be thirsty!
The research encompassing nutritional psychiatry is still in its infancy. However, it has been well established that the health and state of our gut not only has been associated with physical disease but also neuropsychological conditions. Chronic inflammation and a disruption in the bacteria profile in our guts- resulting from factors like diet, lifestyle habits, and being overweight can negatively contribute to psychological state and behavior. Although diet alone is not the primary cause of mental health illnesses like depression and anxiety, it does have the potential to either reduce or exacerbate symptoms depending on the choices we make.
The Mighty Microbiome
The gut microbiome is made up of trillions of bacteria, fungi and other microbes. It seems to play a never ending role pertaining to health, including immune system health, chronic diseases and mental health. Along with many other factors, diet has a profound effect on your gut’s health. Studies have shown that the beneficial bacteria in our gut prefer fiber and the byproducts of plant food, while pathogenic bacteria thrive off of animal food, protein and fat. If we want to get a little geeky for a moment, let’s talk a bit about a couple neurotransmitters. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that influences not only psychological state, but also physiological and cognitive functions. About 95% of our body's serotonin is produced by enterochromaffin (EC) cells that reside in our gut. Consuming whole grains, starchy vegetables, legumes and fruits to feed the good bacteria glucose by carbohydrate breakdown can help achieve optimal Serotonin levels.
EC cells also respond to mechanical stimulation. Fiber helps food move through the GI tract faster and can stimulate these cells to produce higher serotonin levels. Studies have shown that taking a probiotic can also improve mental health, as it reduces depression and anxiety symptoms and improves neurotransmission of serotonin. If diet alone is not enough to improve gut health, a probiotic may be a desirable adjuvant to consider.
Nutrition for Better Mental Health
So what should we aim to eat more of? A diet composed primarily of whole plant based foods. If consuming animal products, consider limiting your consumption to two to three times a week, and choosing less processed options. Also, reserving treats (as delicious as they are) for special occasions can have a profound effect on overall health and well-being. Healthy staples should include legumes, whole grains, squashes, potatoes, root vegetables, and other vegetables and fruit.
Eating a poor diet can have an impact on fatigue and energy levels, which can contribute to depressive feelings. Eating well can have a direct effect on physical health by improving energy levels and chronic tiredness. This way of eating is supported and encouraged by Canada’s Food Guide, which recently had a massive shift in nutrition guidelines based on an overwhelming amount of evidence on diet and disease.
This dietary pattern does not ask for perfection. Indeed, striving for perfection often leads us back to where we started. It supports an “all or nothing mindset” when it comes to our efforts in bettering our diet. A huge takeaway should be that it is the overall dietary pattern that we need to focus on - not the fact that we had a piece of cake one night, saw this as a failure, and decided to deem all our previous healthy choices as pointless.
Eating Pattern is Just as Important as Food Choices
Research shows that what and how we eat influences our health too. Distorted eating patterns, where dieting restrictions are perceived as helpful (e.g., skipping meals, restricting calories) can lead to binge type behaviours and increase the likelihood of emotional eating. Eating regularly (5-6 meals/day) is an important step to maintain metabolism function, and to aid in sustainable/normalized eating. Eating with family instead of eating while watching TV is another healthy eating habit to choose more often. Developing valuable skills like planning and scheduling meals, grocery shopping, food journaling, and batch cooking can be learned with the help of a certified health professional if needed. Health improvement is maximized when good food choices are combined with optimal eating patterns.
Hydration for the Win
Staying well hydrated can contribute to better physical health, mood, and cognitive function. It is absolutely vital to our health as every cell in our body needs it! Studies have shown that even mild dehydration can cause physical symptoms, as well as memory impairment, fatigue, tension, anxiety and mood changes. The recommendation for adults is 64 ounces of water daily (more if physically active and out in the heat), and for children to drink half their weight in ounces of water daily. You’d be surprised by how many chronically dehydrated people there are walking around! An effective way to make sure you are drinking enough water is to measure your intake daily.
There is a significant amount of evidence highlighting a dietary connection to poor mental health. Therapies like CBT/DBT/CPT can be much more effective when combined with diet, exercise, hydration and other self-care strategies. It is clear that a person’s overall state of health can contribute to worsening mood, depression and anxiety. Addressing mental health should include an assessment of physical health, diet and lifestyle behaviours. It can be overwhelming at first, but small changes are a great place to start.
~ Natalia D’Abramo, RN
Messaoudi M, Violle N, Bisson JF, Desor D, Javelot H, Rougeot C. “Beneficial psychological effects of a probiotic formulation (Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175) in healthy human volunteers.” Gut Microbes. 2011 Jul-Aug;2(4):256-61.
Slyepchenko A, Carvalho A, Cha D, Kasper S, McIntyre R. “Gut emotions – mechanisms of action of probiotics as novel therapeutic targets for depression and anxiety disorders.” CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets 2014;13(10):1770-86