Blue Monday: Henlow man explains how nutrition can impact mental health

Paul Harris Henlow

Paul Harris from Henlow offered advice about the impact nutrition has on mental health for Blue Monday. - Credit: Supplied

Blue Monday - which this year falls on January 18 - is supposed to be the most depressing day of the year. Henlow man Paul Harris explains how eating nutritious food can help beat the blues.

When we think about mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, we automatically think about the brain - spending time trying to relax or focus the mind - but what if there is more to mental wellbeing?

For years, the mind and the body were seen as separate, but more recent research has shown that there is a mind-body connection, especially where the gut is concerned.

What we consume has a direct impact on our brain.

Our mood and physical reactions are altered by chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, and these are key to understanding anxiety and depression. There are a number of different neurotransmitters, which ones are released depends on what our senses are taking in at the time, excitement, danger or calmness.

The most important neurotransmitter for mood is serotonin, our ‘happy’ chemical messenger. The more we boost serotonin levels, the better our mood. When we struggle with stress and anxiety other neurotransmitters come into play, such as adrenaline (linked with fight or flight), and our serotonin levels drop, lowering our mood.

The brain is made up of billions of neurons (the building blocks of the brain) and it’s these neurons that release neurotransmitters.

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What if I told you that your gut contains around 100 million neurons and it produces as many neurotransmitters as the brain? And that the gut produces around two-thirds of the body’s serotonin!

How we treat our gut has a direct impact on our brain and our mood! It’s like having two brains!

Unfortunately, when we’re stressed or anxious, we tend to turn to the food and drink that has the biggest, negative impact on the brain; caffeine, alcohol, sugar, trans-fats (fried foods) and additives. We use them to boost energy, relax, and make us feel happier; the problem is that the effects are short lived and, if consumed regularly and at great quantity, can cause long-term problems in the brain and the body.

Caffeine can spike your adrenaline levels; sugar can change the blood sugar levels, which can lead to depression, it also uses up the bodies vitamins and minerals without providing any! Trans-fats can block the conversion of essential fats in the brain, and some additives have been linked to hyperactivity in children.

Part of the problem is that we have trained our brains into believing that these things are what we need when we get stressed or our mood is low and need a pick-me-up. We associate a glass of wine with relaxation; how many of you have trained your brain to think that you can’t function in the morning until you’ve had coffee?

I’m not going to tell you to quit these things (I love tea, and enjoy baking cakes), it’s about reducing the amount we have and most importantly, retraining the brain, changing the associations, replacing them with something more beneficial to our mind and body.

There’s a general consensus on which foods are good for our brain, foods that give us energy for longer and can help raise our mood - oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, berries such as blueberries, strawberries and blackberries, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and, finally, dark chocolate - which needs to be a good quality and above 70 per cent cacao content.

What about the gut? Go easy on spices, unhealthy fats (including fried foods), processed foods, caffeine and some fizzy drinks (they can boost acid in the stomach and cause bloating).

Good gut foods include fermented foods such as natural yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir and kombucha, and foods high in fibre, including vegetables, legumes, beans and fruit.

These foods don’t just help your brain, some can help boost your immune system, something we all need right now.

The best thing to do is to speak to a qualified nutritionist, who can help you to create a diet that works for you. You may also benefit from some supplements; I take vitamin B complex with magnesium which helped stop my alcohol cravings.

We have a lot of independent health food shops in the area, and most will give you some basic advice for free.

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