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The best diet for mental health

Banish the blues with these 5 science-backed nutritional game changers

If you're sticking to social distancing recommendations, it means you're spending a lot of time inside. Whilst virtual meetup apps like Zoom can go some way to bridging the isolation caused by lockdown, there is plenty more we can be doing to boost our happy hormones.

For anyone that hasn’t jumped on the home workout band wagon, get jumping. Working up a sweat will do wonders for your mental health by triggering the release of endorphins, which trigger a feeling of positivity akin to morphine. But exercise alone isn’t enough to keep your mental health in check. To maintain that steady supply of “feel-good” signals, our brains need fuelling. But what's in that fuel can make or break your mental resolve, directly affecting the structure and function of your brain and your mood.

To work at its optimal capacity, your brain needs premium fuel. Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress. The more junk, pre-packaged, sugary food and drinks that you ingest, the more likely your mood will be negatively affected.

These 5 science-backed dietary changes can help your body deal with those lockdown lows and tackle stress and anxiety head-on. 

1. Ditch the processed foods

Switching to a whole food lifestyle may seem intimidating and overwhelming at first, especially for the busiest of families, but with some careful planning it is easily achievable. Just as with any big change, it takes some getting used to but the rewards are immeasurable.

By ridding your diet of junk food, which has zero redeeming nutritional value, you will be well on the way to taming issues such as inflammation, oxidation, and insulin resistance, which have also been shown to be strongly linked to many mental health disorders.

Certain key nutrients such a B vitamins and vitamin C have been shown to play a key role in easing anxiety and depression symptoms. On the other hand, consumption of refined, processed and sugar laden foods can make depression and anxiety worse as they deplete these essential nutrients.

In a study published in the journal Open Heart, researchers found that whilst sugar may provide quick bursts of energy, it does so at a cost. Not only does it deplete valuable nutrients from other nutritionally superior foods that have been consumed, but it can drain existing nutrients in body stores as well. The consumption of added sugars also damages the mitochondria - the parts of the cell that release energy, ultimately hindering energy production in the long run.

A good starting point for eliminating processed foods is reading the ingredient list on any potential purchases. This is the only way to truly know what your food contains and how processed it is. As a general rule, if you’re buying packaged food, you want it to have no more than five whole ingredients.

2. Load up on leafy greens

When it comes to leafy greens, you have your pick of the crop. Spinach, kale, cabbage or watercress? All have amazing anxiety-reducing powers, thanks in part to their levels of the B-vitamin folate, which has consistently been associated with having anti-depressant qualities in research. A meta-analysis of studies in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that people with depression had lower blood levels of folate and lower dietary intake of folate compared to those without depression.

Some studies suggest that spinach has both anti-anxiety and anti-depressive properties, while the antioxidants found in kale have been shown to help keep anxiety at bay. For other leafy greens high in antioxidants and vitamin C, try:

  • cabbage

  • lettuce 

  • mustard spinach

  • swiss chard

3. Boost your diet with vitamin D rich foods

Known as the sunshine vitamin, this nutrient is made naturally in the body when skin is exposed to the sun's ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. According to national surveys, one in five people in the UK have low vitamin D levels, and in these lockdown days it is likely that intake of this sunshine vitamin will be further impaired. If you have darker skin, your risk for vitamin D deficiency is greater because the extra melanin blocks ultraviolet rays.

Unlike other vitamins, vitamin D behaves more like a hormone in your body and low levels spell disaster for many internal systems. Over the years, research has suggested that vitamin D may increase the levels of serotonin, one of the key neurotransmitters influencing our mood, and deficiency may be linked with mood disorders, particularly seasonal affective disorder. In one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, researchers found vitamin D deficiency to be associated with a significant increase in the likelihood of developing depression in later life.

So if our sun time is limited, what foods can we turn to? Salmon is a great choice as not only does it have a healthy amount of vitamin D, it is also packed with other beneficial fatty acids that promote brain health such as omega 3. For the best gains, go for wild over farmed salmon. A study published in The Journal of steroid biochemistry and molecular biology found that farmed salmon has approximately 25% less vitamin D than wild salmon.

Herring, halibut, mackerel, sardines and other fatty fish are also good sources of vitamin D. But if fish doesn’t float your boat, try mushrooms, cheese and whole eggs as other excellent sources of vitamin D.

To maximise the amount of vitamin D that you get from your eggs, opt for organic, free range. Sun exposure of the chickens and the vitamin D content of their feed has a huge role in the amount of this vitamin that is bioavailable to us when eaten. When given the same feed, pasture-raised chickens that roam outside in the sunlight produce eggs with 3–4 times higher levels of the sunshine vitamin.

You can also dramatically increase the Vitamin D content of your mushrooms by laying them on a sunny windowsill. Researchers from Penn State University found than when white mushrooms are exposed to UV light, they go from containing virtually no vitamin D to a whopping 824% of the RDA. When they conducted the same experiment with shiitake and oyster mushrooms, their vitamin D content skyrocketed way over 1000 times the daily required intake. Now that’s some magic mushrooms.

Vitamin supplements are also widely available to help you get your daily requirements but make sure your supplement is in the D3 form rather than D2. According to findings published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vitamin D3 is far superior for sustaining adequate levels in the body. Another study from Creighton University in Nebraska also found that D3 was 87% more potent than D2.

4. Power up on Probiotics

We all have a trillion or so microbes within our gut. The logic behind taking probiotics is that consuming more good bacteria helps keep your microbiome balanced, which supports many processes in your body, including digestion and healthy immune function. When that balance is thrown out of whack, a handful of things can go wrong, including the way our body deals with stress.

Since about 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gut, it makes sense that a happy gut leads to a happy mind. In the past few years, researchers studying people with IBS, anxiety and depression have consistently shown that probiotics can play a role in decreasing anxiety symptoms and balancing mood. According to a 2015 study in Current Opinion in Biotechnology probiotics, researchers established a link between gut microbiome and stress-related behaviours, concluding that probiotics can help alleviate stress and anxiety.

Another study in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition looked at 67 individuals and found that the group which consumed probiotic yogurt daily was better at coping with stress. To increase your intake of probiotics with foods, try:

  • Yogurt

  • Coconut Kefir

  • Buttermilk

  • Sauerkraut

  • Kimchi

5. Go Keto

The ketogenic diet is a very low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet (LCHF) and is a popular weight loss strategy, with research showing that it could be more effective for dropping pounds than other weight loss plans. This is in large part due to its ability to reduce blood glucose and insulin levels. But the benefits of this way of eating don’t just end with your waistline. The mental health benefits gained from switching to a ketogenic lifestyle are as equally prized.

Going keto switches the body from using glucose (sugar) as its primary fuel and it begins to burn fat for energy instead, a state which is often referred to as “being in ketosis”. During ketosis your liver turns fat into molecules called ketones, which can supply energy for the brain.

Many proponents of the LCHF or ketogenic diet report improvements for conditions such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and even schizophrenia. The ketogenic diet has been used since the 1920s for the treatment of childhood epilepsy and in many cases has cured children of this condition. In a study from the journal Nutrition in Clinical Practice, more than half of the children on a ketogenic diet had a greater than 50% reduction in their number of seizures, nearly a third experienced a greater than 90% reduction in seizures, while 16% became seizure-free.

Whilst more research into the diet and its effect on mental health in humans is needed, preliminary animal studies on ketones’ impact on brain function are promising. In a study from the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, ketone supplementation reduced anxiety-related behaviours in rats and significantly reduced depression-like behaviours in both rats and mice.

A 2018 study in Neuroscience & Biobehavioural Reviews also found that preclinical studies, case reports and case series have demonstrated the antidepressant and mood stabilising effects of the ketogenic diet. The researchers also conclude that the ketogenic diet should be “considered as a promising intervention in research in mood disorder therapeutics.”

To go keto you want to make sure your diet is high in fats – think avocados, seeds, oils and butters – along with a moderate intake of protein, and a very low intake of carbohydrates. The suggested ratios of macronutrients on a keto diet can vary among individuals but the classic ketogenic diet, which was therapeutically used in the early treatment of childhood epilepsy, is about 90% fat, 6% protein, and less than 4% carbs. A more moderate approach, which may make this way of eating more sustainable, would be to aim for 65-85% fat, 15-35% protein, and up to 10% carbs.

As with any major dietary change you may wish to consult your doctor, dietician or nutritionist first (ideally one who is well versed in using low-carb diets with their patients) before implementing a ketogenic diet.

Of course, whilst food is a highly effective treatment for mood, it is also important to seek treatment or other therapeutic outlets during this time.

Some recommendations include:

📖 Get writing - This can be in a digital format or even with as simple as putting pen to paper. Journaling is a proven method for reducing stress and anxiety and as a bonus you will have a record of your thoughts and feelings during this moment in our history.

💻 Get online- It may not be quite the same as face-to-face hangouts, but virtual meetups can be just as energising and rewarding if done right. Apps like Zoom are great for hosting group quizzes thanks to the ability to share your screen with participants and the multi view function allows you to see everyone in your chat simultaneously.

🙏 Meditate- Even just 10 minutes in the morning can make a huge difference and there are a multitude of apps available to help with this, such Headspace, Breathe and Calm.

#mentalhealth #anti-anxietyfoods #lockdown #coronavirus

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