SAD; how to prevent and manage symptoms through nutrition and lifestyle changes

SAD; how to prevent and manage symptoms through nutrition and lifestyle changes

SAD, which stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder, isn’t just a case of the winter blues. It is a form of major depression and can be seriously debilitating, causing symptoms such as chronic low mood, excessive sleeping, carbohydrate cravings, irritability, poor concentration, low libido and lethargy. SAD occurs most typically throughout the winter months and currently affects around 6% of the UK population, and between 2-8% of people in other countries of higher latitude such as Sweden, Canada and Denmark. 
 

Curiously, around 80% of sufferers are women, mostly those in their early adulthood. Scientists such as Dr Robert Levitan, professor at the University of Toronto, have speculated that this may be due to evolutionary purposes, which encourages women of reproductive age to slow down during the winter months to help preserve energy, leading to healthier pregnancies. 
 

Research has yet to come to a definitive conclusion as to what causes SAD, however, there are a number of underlying biochemical triggers that have been identified. 


A leading theory looks at serotonin production and how levels of this neurotransmitter in the body are significantly affected by the amount of available sunshine. Research shows that exposure to sunshine has an impact on the binding-capacity of serotonin to receptor sites in the brain, which essentially allows serotonin to work its magic, leading to feelings of contentment and happiness. 
 

Other research also indicates how those suffering with SAD tend to have a dysregulated production of melatonin, the hormone produced in the pineal gland in response to darkness, which induces sleep. Instead of being produced in the evening, helping the body settle for the night, studies in those that suffer with SAD show melatonin being secreted during the day, hence feeling the need to sleep all the time and lack of energy. 
 

There are a few other biochemical underpinnings in the pathogenesis of SAD, however, there are some key nutrition and lifestyle strategies based on these initial findings, which can help support mood throughout the winter months.  

1. Get your body clock in check 

Our body’s hormones and biological processes are majorly governed by a natural, internal circadian rhythm, which regulates our sleep-wake cycle and is programmed by daylight and night. A disrupted circadian rhythm can be caused by shift work, not enough exposure to daylight, stress, insomnia and too much exposure to blue light in the evening, which can lead to an imbalance in neurotransmitters such as serotonin and melatonin. 

This is why it is incredibly important to try and attune the body to these cycles as much as possible, by doing things like avoiding electronic screens at night and doing relaxing activities to encourage melatonin production, as well as exposing the face to daylight first thing in the morning, or if it’s dark, buying a light therapy lamp. Putting these strategies into place, can help the body recalibrate and realign to a healthy sleep-wake cycle. 


2. Check your vitamin D levels

Research shows that having sub-optimal levels of vitamin D3 can interfere with proper serotonin production. Whilst scientists don’t understand exactly how, there is a significant body of research that demonstrates a strong link between vitamin D3 levels and depression.In one particular study, scientists found that vitamin D3 helps to convert the amino acid, tryptophan, into serotonin. 

Check your vitamin D3 levels and make sure that they are above 75 nmol/L, for optimal serotonin production. 


3. Balance your blood sugar levels 

More than any other organ in the body, the brain is dependent on a constant supply of energy, which very much related to our diet. Eating foods that are high in sugar and simple carbohydrates leads to rapid fluctuations in blood sugar levels, which can have a significant impact on the brain and its neurotransmitters. Typical symptoms of imbalanced blood sugar levels are low mood, anxiety, brain fog and fatigue. 

This is why it is important to eat foods that provide the body and brain with a consistent and sustainable source of energy. This means making sure you’re eating complex carbohydrates that contain ample amounts of fibre, such as brown rice, starchy vegetables and tubers like sweet potato, butternut squash and beets, as well as eating protein-rich foods with every meal and snack. Avoiding refined grains like white bread, pastries, cakes, biscuits and white rice, as well as foods with added sugar like in processed foods, sweet yoghurts, fruit juices and cereals, is absolutely key to avoiding blood sugar imbalances. \


4. Get moving! 

According to a recent study published by JAMA Psychiatry, people are 26% less likely to become depressed with regular physical activity. It is well established that exercise can stimulate the release of endorphins such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine – all of which regulate mood and prevent symptoms of depression. 

We also know that exercise stimulates the release of protective molecules such as Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, which helps to trigger the growth of new brain cells. 

The key takeaway is to include some form of movement into your everyday life to help encourage the brain to produce its ‘feel-good chemicals’. Whether it’s fast paced walking or a more intensive exercise like HIIT, it is vital to be moving. 

What’s So Blue About Blue Monday?

What’s So Blue About Blue Monday?

It’s that time of the year again. It’s Blue Monday. We’re halfway into January, trudging through the deepest and darkest of the winter months, as we try to keep our heads high after the Christmas festivities with the motivation of our New Year’s resolutions. Some of you may have never heard of Blue Monday and let’s just say you’re not exactly missing out.

So where did the idea of Blue Monday come from? The concept of Blue Monday was originally coined by Dr Cliff Arnall in 2005 and distributed by the PR company Sky Travel. It has now become an annual event and can fall on either the third or the fourth Monday of January, using Dr Cliff Arnall’s original mathematical equation that measures a combination of factors such as weather, potential debt post-Christmas, the amount of time since Christmas, potential failure of New Year resolutions and motivation levels, that apparently conspire to make the date the gloomiest of the year.

Over the years, science has looked into the validity of this date being the most blue of all dates, however there is little evidence to prove this. There is some research that suggests how weekends are a time when people generally feel happier and less anxious, mostly for those that work full-time Monday-Friday, however there is little difference with subjective mood for other days of the week. Some charities such as MIND, have even said that Blue Monday, which is used mainly as a marketing tool to sell products and stories, can also be dangerously misleading and have even set up the hashtag #BlueAnyDay to help dispel the myth of this date.The idea that as a population we are more likely to feel down on the third of fourth Monday of the year can not only trivialise depression as a medical illness that can be life threatening but can also affect those that live with depression and know too well that feelings associated to this illness are not dictated by a single date in the diary.

Of course, work pressure, post-Christmas financial constraints and time away from family and friends can make us all feel low, however, this can happen on any date depending on our own personal circumstances. Rather than taking a ‘duvet day’ to bail out of commitments on Blue Monday, as the media is suggesting, why not take a more positive stance and engage in some activities that are tried and tested tools to help support better mood? After all, as the evidence suggests, the date or day of the week is unlikely to change these worries for the majority of us. For example, doing some exercise and eating a healthy meal with good company are both scientifically proven to support our mental wellbeing. Low-intensity exercise such as walking sustained over an extended period can help release proteins called neurotrophic factors that improve brain function and support mood, and nutrients such as B12 and Omega 3, are just two of many that have been shown to improve symptoms associated to depression. Our Nutrition Solutions offers more information on nutrition for depression if you want to know more about practical actions you can take yourself through nutrition to prevent or tackle depression.

For more in-depth personalised support, some people find nutritional therapy hugely beneficial. To find a suitable therapist, please head to BANT (British Association of Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy) or contact our not-for-profit clinic, the Brain Bio Centre (www.brainbiocentre.com), which offers expertise in nutritional therapy for mental health conditions including depression, on 0208 332 9600 or info@brainbiocentre.com. If you feel you need more immediate help, for whatever it is that you’re going through, the Samaritans helpline offer support 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and can point you in the right direction of getting further help.

Early Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s; Amyloid Protein vs Homocysteine Testing

Early Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s; Amyloid Protein vs Homocysteine Testing

Worldwide 46.8 million people have dementia and in the UK, 1 in 14 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s, the most prevalent form of dementia; and increasingly dementia sufferers are also struggling with other chronic conditions, such as diabetes and depression. Research on new strategies for earlier diagnosis is among the most active areas in Alzheimer’s science, as the majority of cases are diagnosed when irreversible brain damage or mental decline has already occurred. 

The amyloid protein test used for earlier diagnosis

new study released in August 2019 found that a blood test to measure amyloid beta, a protein found in the brain that is involved in the pathophysiology of Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline, is 94% accurate in identifying the developments of Alzheimer’s disease earlier, when in combination with age and genetics (testing positive for the APOE4 gene) as risk factors. Whilst this is a positive development for future considerations in treating Alzheimer’s, there has been no successful amyloid-lowering drug trial to date. In addition, it is well-known that the damaging clumps of amyloid protein can begin to develop and lead to brain atrophy decades before an individual even begins to experience symptoms of memory loss and cognitive function, so unless testing is given earlier on in life as a preventative measure, an amyloid-lowering drug when the damage has already been caused may not be very effective. 

To date, the majority of research into the treatment of Alzheimer’s has been focused on the “amyloid hypothesis”. In 2018 alone, the US National Institutes of Health spent $1.9 billion on Alzheimer’s research. However, according to a study carried out last year, there has been a 99% failure rate in the development of drugs that target this disease. Questions about the reliability of the amyloid protein hypothesis are being posed by scientists, after various studies discovering how amyloid plaques actually function as a type of sticky defence against bacterial invasion, lead to a different hypothesis. In one significant study, where mice that were genetically engineered to make Alzheimer’s proteins had bacteria injected into their brains, researchers found that amyloid plaques engulfed bacterial cells overnight, suggesting a protective mechanism. 

Why we cannot ignore the link between high homocysteine levels and Alzheimer’s 

According to a Consensus Statement released by an international panel of experts on dementia, research has shown, time and time again, that having high homocysteine (Hcy) levels, and low folic acid and B12 levels in the blood correlate with an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. An earlier review written by Professor David Smith in 2008, highlighted that there are a total of ‘seventy-seven cross-sectional studies on more than 34,000 subjects and 33 prospective studies on more than 12,000 subjects’…that…‘have shown associations between cognitive deficit or dementia and homocysteine and/or B vitamins.’

In a meta-analysis published in 2014 by BMC Public Health, raised homocysteine was considered to be one of the three strongest risk factors, along with low education and decreased physical activity. In addition, two further trials have clearly shown that lowering homocysteine, through the supplementation of B vitamins, reduced age-related cognitive decline in normal ageing and also slowed down both brain atrophy and cognitive decline in people with Mild Cognitive Impairment. In one of the studies, 270 people over 70 with Mild Cognitive Impairment were recruited to trial the efficacy of B vitamins to prevent the progression of Alzheimer’s. MRI scans were done at recruitment and half the participants were given high doses of three B vitamins (B6, B9 and B12), half took a placebo tablet. After 2 years, participants were scanned again and scientists found that the rate of brain atrophy in those treated with the B vitamins was on average 30% slower than those taking placebo. In addition, in those that had the highest homocysteine levels at baseline, the effect of B vitamin treatment was even more potent, helping to slow down brain atrophy by 53%. This result fits all the criteria for a disease-modifying treatmentand so is especially important.

There is, therefore, ample evidence to propose that lowering homocysteine by giving appropriate supplemental levels of homocysteine lowering nutrients, including B6, B12 and folic acid, would reduce risk. However, last year, in a commission published by the Lancet, 9 modifiable risk factors were outlined, clearly excluding homocysteine: 

Mid-life hearing loss – responsible for 9% of the risk

Failing to complete secondary education – 8%

Smoking – 5%

Failing to seek early treatment for depression – 4%

Physical inactivity – 3%

Social isolation – 2%

High blood pressure – 2%

Obesity – 1%

Type 2 diabetes – 1%

Ignoring homocysteine is surprising, since a meta-analysis from the National Institute of Aging estimated that about 22% of Alzheimer’s disease may be caused by raised levels of homocysteine. It’s about time health authorities like the NHS took into account the evidence concerning the significance of homocysteine in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s. Integrating homocysteine testing and inexpensive B vitamin-based treatment into the heart of mainstream health strategies on Alzheimer’s could potentially play a vital role in the prevention of dementia, if caught early enough. Every 3 seconds, someone in the world develops dementia and the International Alzheimer’s Society estimates that by 2050 there will be 131.5 million people living with this disease. This is not something we can ignore.

Food Intolerance, the Gut – Brain Axis and Mental Health

Food Intolerance, the Gut – Brain Axis and Mental Health


We recently held an informative event in London with Dr Gill Hart, a biochemist and expert in the field of food intolerances and their global effect on health and we wanted to share some of the highlights of what Dr Hart covered. Based on some of her recent research (1), the talk offered some interesting insights into how food intolerances may have a role to play in our mental health. It honed in on the differences between food allergies and food intolerances within our immune system; some of the ways that our immune system, gut and brain are believed to influence each other, and how food intolerances, therefore, can play a role in mental health symptoms. She also spoke about how to go about testing and managing these intolerances through elimination diet strategies.

The ‘Brain-Gut Axis’ is a term used to describe the two-way communication system between our digestive tract and the brain. A growing body of research into this axis demonstrates how much influence the gut can have over the brain and vice versa (1). When we speak about reactions to foods, we most commonly understand them as immediate and often dangerous allergic responses, such as the constriction of the throat and trouble breathing, or dizziness and fainting. It is usually easy to pinpoint the food that causes these reactions because of the immediate immune system response, caused by a type of immune cell known as IgE antibodies. In contrast to this, food intolerances are mediated by IgG antibodies and these reactions can take up to 48 hours to have an effect. Symptoms related to IgG reactions can often be manifested as chronic issues like joint ache, IBS and depression or anxiety, which are often overlooked and not associated with what we eat.

Dr Hart explained how communication between the gut and the brain is controlled via our immune system, our endocrine system (hormones) and our central nervous system, which are all under the influence of the bacteria in our gut. The types and amount of these bacteria, known as our gut microbiome, can be directly impacted by factors such as diet, stress, pollution and medications (2) and the composition of the microbiome is also understood to affect one’s susceptibility to food sensitivities and intolerances (3).  

To understand further about how food intolerances can impact our mental health, it is important to explain the relationship between our gut microbiome, the immune system and our brain in a little more detail. The walls of our digestive tract provide a barrier between what we eat and the rest of our body and an unhealthy gut microbiome can lead to increased levels of inflammation, leaving the walls vulnerable to structural damage (4). Our intestinal wall is composed of cell junctions that prevent bacteria and large food molecules from entering the bloodstream, however, if these become damaged, proteins from foods that should not be circulating in our bloodstream can enter and an immune response is mounted as a reaction. This response is mediated by IgG, an antibody, that helps to protect against bacterial and viral infections as well as food antigens and is the most abundant immune cell in the body. Whilst food antigens are usually quickly cleared by an intelligent system called the reticuloendothelial system, with structural damage and a poor gut microbiome, this immune response can keep reoccurring. It is suggested that a chronic immune response such as this can have a negative impact on the brain, damaging its own structural barrier, called the Blood Brain Barrier (5). 

The Blood Brain Barrier (BBB) is similar in structure to the intestinal barrier (6) and is usually highly selective, allowing certain required metabolic products such as short chain fatty acids and amino acids to pass into the brain from our wider circulation but protecting the brain from potentially damaging components. When the BBB is compromised, unwanted translocation may occur such as allowing a bacterial invasion, which can alter the function of immune cells that are responsible for regulating inflammation. Chronic inflammation is associated with many mental and physical health problems, so it is therefore suggested that poor gut health can have a direct correlation to poor mental wellbeing, as a result of a compromised intestinal barrier and the negative impact this has on our brain’s own structural barrier (BBB) and resulting inflammation.

Large scale studies have shown the association between chronic low-grade inflammation and depression (8). For example, in a study that examined data from 14,275 people who were interviewed between 2007 and 2012, they found that people who had depression had 46% higher levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammatory disease, in their blood samples (9). Studies like these are paving the way towards a new understanding of the pathology of mental health conditions and how diet and stress can alter bodily systems, such as digestive function and consequently impact mental wellbeing. Measuring IgG antibodies in food intolerance tests has been implicated as a popular strategy to tackle symptoms related to sensitivities such as IBS, joint pain, fatigue, migraines, anxiety and depression. A recent survey on 708 people commissioned by Allergy UK, demonstrated how 81% of those with elevated IgG levels, as well as psychological symptoms, reported an improvement in their condition after following a food-specific IgG elimination diet (9). Taking this all into account, health professionals and those with poor mental health may want to consider the potential role of food intolerances in mental well-being and in managing common mood-related disorders, such as depression and anxiety.

Dr Hart talked through food intolerance tests that are available through a number of well known companies, including York Test for whom she is Scientific Director. A possible strategy could be to use such testing to identify intolerances, follow an elimination protocol, temporarily removing on foods triggering an IgG response; and then work to improve your gut health to support longer term well-being. Foods that are rich in collagen and its amino acids, like glycine and proline, are great for healing connective tissue, which is what the intestines are made up of. A traditional food, rich in these amino acids, that has made its way into our kitchens again after rediscovering its therapeutic properties is bone broth. Another example of a group of traditional foods that can be used therapeutically in building digestive health, are fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi. These are abundant in probiotics, which are the ‘good’ bacteria our digestive system needs to help keep a good balance and protect the intestinal barrier from pathogens, toxins and parasites. Once these foods have been introduced on an everyday basis along with eating a healthy nutrient-dense diet and the possible use of supplements to help restore balance, you may be able to reintroduce foods that were previously triggering an IgG response carefully, one at a time, whilst monitoring symptoms.

It is important that this type of approach is discussed with a qualified health professional, such as a registered nutritional therapist, to ensure it is an appropriate strategy for you, as well as to help you avoid missing out on vital nutrients, whilst eliminating certain foods. They can also provide advice on improving your longer term health, which over time may allow for foods to be reintroduced without negative symptoms occurring.

To look for a suitable therapist, please go to BANT (British Association of Nutrition and Applied Nutritional Therapy), or alternatively, our clinic the Brain Bio Centre, has a nutrition team that specialises in mental health. 

  1. https://www.yorktest.com/uploads/pdfs/mental-health-white-paper-2017.pdf
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5641835/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5222858/
  4. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/09/160907125125.htm
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4604320/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29169241
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23818514
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29169241
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2680424/
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/articles/27337107/
  11. https://www.yorktest.com/uploads/pdfs/hardman-and-hart-5000-survey.pdf
The Building Blocks of Optimal Mental Wellbeing; How official dietary guidelines may not be enough to prevent poor mental health

The Building Blocks of Optimal Mental Wellbeing; How official dietary guidelines may not be enough to prevent poor mental health

As you are all well aware, our mission at Food for the Brain is to raise awareness about the importance of nutrition for mental health. Our monthly articles are normally geared at specific conditions, nutrients and topics under the umbrella subject of nutrition and mental health. However, this month we’d like to draw attention to the challenges we all face in ensuring we can adequately nourish our bodies and brains and the importance of us all thinking a little more about what we ‘fuel’ ourselves with. Modern food manufacturing and farming techniques are making it harder to get the nutrients we need from our food and current dietary guidelines can confuse our understanding of what we actually need to be eating. As a population that is increasingly suffering with poor mental health, many of us may need more nutritional support than we’re getting.1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year and it isn’t just an issue in this country; mental health problems constitute the largest single source of world economic burden and it is estimated that the global cost is £1.6 trillion greater than cancer, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease and heart disease on their own. In the UK, the NHS prescribed a record number of antidepressants in 2016, approximately 64.7 million, which is 108% increase from the 31 million that were dispensed in 2006. Despite the upward trend in prescribing medication for poor mental health, numbers of people suffering with anxiety and depression are continuing to increase. These statistics may also be showing how more people are accessing treatment such as antidepressants and it is clear that medication can play an important role in supporting people who are vulnerable. However, there is a growing body of research that is showing how nutrition can be a key modifiable risk factor in mental health. Currently there are big gaps in investment for research in prevention, in which nutrition would play a significant role. The majority of today’s research is focused on examining the underlying causes and treatment of mental health, however in March 2015 the independent Mental Health Taskforce brought together health and care leaders, people who use services and experts in the field to create a national strategy report to make prevention a priority for mental health titled the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health.Governments around the world have defined what are known as ‘Dietary Reference Values or Intakes’, which include figures known as either the RDA’s (Recommended Daily Allowances), for example in the US, or NRVs (Nutrient Reference Values) in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, that state the average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all (97-98%) healthy people. Many countries have also created labelling systems for packaged foods; in the UK for example we have a ‘Traffic Light System’ that gives shoppers a quick and clear reference of the nutritional value of foods. This was put in place in 2007 to help guide people in making more healthful choices to prevent the rising levels of obesity. However, whilst these guidelines have been useful to support people in understanding how processed foods can be extremely high in sugar, salt and unhealthy fats, they do not emphasise the importance of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. As an example, here are two traffic light representations of two different products found in a supermarket. Which one would you choose based on the colours shown?
The one with all green, right? However, despite being given ‘the green light’ for having a coke as a seemingly healthier choice, the drink has almost no nutritional value, whilst the mixed bag of nuts and raisins is packed full of micronutrients such as copper, manganese, vitamin E, B vitamins, fibre, antioxidants like resveratrol and monounsaturated fatty acids that help increase HDL, our ‘good cholesterol’.So why should we focus more on the micronutrient value of our foods rather than pay attention to the macronutrient (carbohydrates and fats) content that the traffic light system represents? Quite simply, micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, are what help our body create essential things for our health such as enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters and many other chemical processes that the body goes through to keep the body and brain healthy. For example, neurotransmitters such as serotonin depend on copper, iron and B6 to be produced and released in the brain and GABA, a neurotransmitter that helps to reduce anxiety, needs folate, B6, vitamin C and magnesium for its production. The brain is a very metabolically active organ; despite it only being 7% of the body’s weight, it can take up to 20% of the body’s metabolic needs, meaning that it is very energy hungry. This is why it is important to nourish the brain with foods that are rich in micronutrients that will provide the body with the building blocks it needs to produce neurotransmitters and keep us healthy. In addition, it is important to note that many people aren’t aware that NRV’s are given to help prevent serious illnesses like scurvy (caused by vitamin C deficiency) and rickets (caused by vitamin D deficiency), and are not necessarily representative of what you need for optimal health.It’s safe to say that the food we have access to in today’s supermarkets is significantly different to 50 years ago, with many of our food choices being driven by profit-driven food manufacturers and marketers encouraging convenience, for example, over nutrition. It wasn’t long ago that we were getting the majority of our food from natural sources such as fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, wholemeal grains and meat/fish, whereas nowadays the majority of the aisles in supermarkets are taken up with processed and pre-packaged foods. There are also serious concerns today that even our fruits and vegetables are becoming less nutrient rich, due to both a ‘dilution effect’ with modern crops being chosen for their carbohydrate yield without the proportional increases in micronutrient content. Scientists are warning how the impact of intensive farming that encourages the heavy use of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, are having on the nutritional value of our food. In 2014, researchers at the University of Sheffield, highlighted their concerns over the lack of biodiversity and nutrient depletion in the UK’s soils, and warned that urgent action needed to be taken to reverse this depletion or else we will be facing an agricultural crisis. A landmark study, published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2004, analysed nutrient content data in 43 different vegetables and fruits in 1950 to 1999. The study revealed how there has been markable declines in the protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C value in these foods over the past half century.Could the change in our dietary choices, which have been influenced by processed food markets, along with nutrient depletion in our fresh fruits and vegetables be related to the rise in in mental health problems? There are a multitude of influences in the pathology of poor mental health, however, knowing how certain nutrients play an essential role in maintaining our brain chemistry is important to take into consideration and reminds us that we need to pay more attention to the micronutrient content of food. By choosing food that is more likely to be rich in vitamins and minerals, we make sure that we are nourishing ourselves more, providing healthier amounts of these key building blocks and helping to prevent the development of poor mental health, as well as physical health.
Managing Stress and Anxiety with Nutrition

Managing Stress and Anxiety with Nutrition

 It’s safe to say that the lead up to Christmas can often be more stressful than joyful, what with the panic to buy the long list of presents, the cards we have to send before it gets too late, the turkey that should have been ordered two weeks before and the parties we are expected to attend. It’s no surprise we end up feeling frazzled at a time of the year when our body’s are more than anything craving rest. 

In 2016, stress accounted for 37% of all work related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health.  But how many of you are suffering in silence?  And to what level do you let your health deteriorate before you feel it’s justifiable to take time off?

Stress is part and parcel of life and in balance can actually be healthy.  It keeps us motivated, helps us get out of bed in the morning and can be a good warning sign that things aren’t working for us in our current everyday lives.  It can encourage us to make positive changes.  However, what happens when we simply can’t turn that switch off and stress turns into something chronic?

Our body has a very efficient way of dealing with stress.  We release hormones like cortisol and adrenalin, which raise our blood pressure and heart rate and shift glucose from the liver into our bloodstream ready for our muscles to use.  This is also known as the “flight or fight” response in our nervous system, the opposite to the “rest and digest”, which is associated with metabolising and assimilating the nutrients in the food we eat as well as regenerating and repairing cells.  Despite this intelligent response system, our prehistoric bodies are not used to being in a constant state of stress, which depletes our body of vital nutrients that are necessary for optimal health.  The constant elevation of cortisol, our body’s stress hormone, can lead to prolonged levels of inflammation as well as weakening of the immune system’s defences.

There are two key steps you can take right now to help manage and prevent symptoms of chronic stress:

Balance your blood sugar levels

The human brain weighs just 2% of an average body’s weight, however it is the organ that sucks up the most energy in the human body.  The brain’s preferred source of energy is glucose, a simple sugar that most of our food gets broken down into, to create a sort of energy currency in our body.  20% of the glucose travelling round our body gets directed to the brain and its functions.  Now you can imagine why our brain is so sensitive to fluctuations in our blood sugar levels.  When cortisol is released due to stress, our blood sugar levels are increased as our body prepares itself for “fight or flight”, which is why it is even more important to stabilise our blood sugar levels when we’re chronically stressed to avoid fatigue, anxiety and low mood.  Avoid refined foods like white bread, white pasta, white rice, pastries, cakes, biscuits, confectionery and fizzy drinks and replace with wholemeal bread and pasta, legumes such as lentils, chickpeas and red kidney beans and other whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice and oats.

Watch your caffeine intake

Coffee in the morning is sacred for a lot of people.  But when it feels like you can’t get up unless you have one and you begin to rely on it to get you through the day, you may have a problem.  To put it simply, caffeine exhausts the “fight or flight” response by encouraging the release of cortisol, which as mentioned previously, leads to heightened blood sugar levels.  Stick to one a day in the morning, or maybe go decaf for a while before you switch onto healthier choices such as green tea.

Increase your intake of Omega 3

Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid that is found mainly in oily fish, nuts and seeds and some green leafy veg.  It’s called an essential fatty acid because it is exactly that, essential.  Our body does not produce this type of fatty acid, which is why it is important we consume it in our diets.  Our brain is the fattiest of all the organs in the human body; nearly 60% of it is made up of fat.  Research has shown that our intake of these types of essential fatty acids can determine the integrity and performance of our brain due to the significant role they play in the health and synthesis of neurotransmitters, our brain’s messengers that determine how we feel.  Not only that, Omega 3 also has some unique and powerful anti-inflammatory properties.

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