Our mental health and emotional well-being are not always the easiest topics to discuss — and this may be one of the reasons why these topics are not always explored in a medical appointment. Strategies for managing anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions often include medications, stress reduction, and counselling. But, excitingly, there is new and emerging evidence showing that nutrition can also play a significant role in supporting our mental health.
You may have heard of the amazing neurotransmitter called serotonin, which helps to regulate sleep, appetite, and mood, and also helps to inhibit pain. Did you know that 95% of our serotonin is produced in our intestinal tract? This production is influenced by the kinds and amounts of different bacteria that live in that gastrointestinal tract, also known as the microbiome.
The gut is connected directly to brain processes via the gut-brain axis. This axis includes the vagus nerve and nervous system, chemicals called neurotransmitters, the immune system, and the chemicals produced by the microbes and bacteria living in the gut. Think of the microbiome as an amazingly diverse forest system where we want various species of trees, fungi, moss, grasses, and other plants to thrive.
We have been hearing about probiotics for at least the past decade, and we are now realizing the importance of not only eating foods rich in probiotics (e.g.: yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso) but also feeding these bacteria with fibre. In addition to fibre, there are also specific nutrients in our foods that support our mental health, which include our B vitamins, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Keeping blood sugars relatively stable can also be supportive for our mental well-being. We can keep these sugars stable by creating a balance of protein, carbohydrates, fats and fibre in our meals and snacks.
So, can nutrition support mental health? Yes, and in many ways!
Here are a few practical tips:
- Feed the bacteria in the gut with a good amount of fibre each day. Aim for 20-30 grams per day, unless you have been advised differently by your physician.
- Ground flax in your morning cereal
- Top your yogurt with berries and bran bud type cereal
- Swap your white or whole wheat bread product for whole grain or sprouted grain
- Incorporate more beans and lentils into your meals and snacks
- Get your nutrients from whole foods as much as possible and include foods with B vitamins, vitamin D, and omega-3 fats.
- B Vitamins: salmon, leafy greens, eggs, legumes
- Vitamin D: salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, eggs, fortified foods
- Omega 3: flaxseed, chia, walnuts, salmon, sardines, hemp hearts
- Create balance in meals and snacks.
- Like a smoothie for breakfast? Make sure there is enough protein by including foods such as nuts, seeds, nut butter, yogurt, or soft tofu.
- Soup or salad for lunch? Make a soup creamier and full of protein by blending soaked cashews. Add nuts, seeds, beans, or another protein source to salads.
- Balance your dinner. Try for half of your plate as veg/fruit, ¼ as your starch (rice, quinoa, potatoes, pasta) and the last ¼ as your protein source – fish, beans, tofu, poultry, etc.
- Add to your snack. When having a piece of fruit, try adding some nuts or nut butter (e.g., apple slices with almond butter) or try one of our delicious snack recipes from our website such as the spiced carrot cake globes.
***Book an appointment with an InspireHealth Registered Dietitian if you have any questions or would like help including these tips.