Our Top Tips on Nutrition for Mental Health

Our Top Tips on Nutrition for Mental Health

We are coming towards the end of Mental Health Awareness Week (8th -14th May), which this year is about encouraging the nation to have a conversation about why so many of us aren’t thriving with good mental health. Rather than looking at good mental health as simply the absence of a mental health disorder, the theme aims to ignite discussions and share stories around what contributes to mental wellbeing, and what we can be doing in our everyday lives and as a nation to support our happiness, as well as others.

At Food for the Brain, our aim is to raise awareness about the importance of dietary and lifestyle factors in mental health. We believe that good nutrition and the activities we engage with in our everyday lives can have an enormously positive effect, not just on one’s mental health but also their overall physical health, which are both closely related. There are a few key, simple and very practical steps anyone can start taking now, which we believe can have a positive influence on anyone suffering with poor mental health or for anyone who simply wants to optimise their brain health.

Increase your intake of vegetables and fruit:

Vegetables and fruit contain high amounts of nutrients, as well as antioxidants, which are vital for helping us fight against free radical damage, caused by things like environmental pollution, smoking, stress and processed food. These highly reactive molecules wreak havoc in our system if we don’t have our own internal defense system in good shape, which is supported by antioxidants. Nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin E, Zinc and Selenium are just a few of the incredibly important vitamins and minerals we need that perform antioxidant activities in our body. In order to prevent premature ageing and optimise cognitive health, it is therefore important to get these nutrients in your diet, through foods such as vegetables and fruit.

Healthy fats are key:

The brain is nearly 60% fat and the type of fat that we eat directly influences the health of the cells in our brain and the rest of our body. Our cell membranes, the outside lining of our cells, are made up of phospholipids, which are fats that hold the membrane structure together and support cell to cell communication, as well as the intake of vital nutrients and excretion of waste. When we eat fats from healthy sources such as nuts and seeds, oily fish and olive oil, we encourage the cell membrane to work optimally. However, when we eat fats that have been damaged, such as in processed foods due to hydrogenation or oils that have been heated at high temperatures, we risk the health of our cell membrane, which is vital for neurotransmitter signalling. Make sure you avoid cooking with refined vegetable oils, as well as avoiding processed food that inevitably contain unhealthy fats. Increase your intake of fats from healthy sources such as in oily fish such as sardines, mackerel and salmon, nuts and seeds, eggs, olive oil and avocado.

Optimise Gut Bacteria:

Latest exciting research is showing just how important our gut bacteria is for optimising brain function. The lining of our gut houses a complex network of neurons, more so than our spinal cord and peripheral nervous system. The bacteria that live in our gut protect this lining and help facilitate communication with neurons and even synthesise neurotransmitters, which are transmitted via nerve fibres to our brain. It is therefore crucial that we optimise our gut bacteria by eating foods rich in fibre, such as in vegetables and whole grains, to provide them with fuel to flourish, as well as eating fermented foods, which are rich in probiotics, or in other words friendly bacteria. These are traditional foods that we used to have a lot in our diet in the past and are now re-appearing in shops and supermarkets due to new food trends. Look out for foods such as sauerkraut, pickled vegetables and other products such as kefir. Make sure the vegetables are raw and there is no added sugar or salt in the jars.

Avoid processed and refined foods:

This may seem like an obvious one, but perhaps if you knew why these foods are so bad for your brain, you might be more inclined to say no next time you are tempted by burger and fries at a fast food restaurant. As mentioned previously, these foods often contain hydrogenated fats as well as being cooked in refined vegetable oils such as sunflower oil. These types of oils are highly sensitive to heat and light, meaning that they damage and become oxidised at exposure to high temperatures such as in cooking methods like frying. When we eat these fats they can cause free radical damage to our cells, causing premature ageing and potentially in the long term, can affect our brain function and mental health. Refined grains such as white flour, white rice and white bread are poor in nutrient content and can cause rapid spikes our blood sugar levels rapidly, instead of releasing energy from food gradually, which is what our brain needs to function properly. Switch refined grains to whole-grains such as brown bread, rice and pasta. These contain the outer husk as well as the germ in the middle of the grain, which not only provides fibre, but also essential vitamins and fatty acids that help release sugar slowly from food, offering more sustainable sources of energy.

Get enough sleep:

You may think that your brain is not active at night. However, there are certain parts of your brain that light up more at night than during the day. Researchers have discovered that our brain has its own filtering system, that clears the cells from toxic proteins throughout the night, helping to prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s. This is called the glymphatic system, our brain’s very own version of the lymphatic system, which does the same but throughout the rest of our body. Our body quickly uses up stores of nutrients such as vitamin c, zinc and magnesium when we are lacking in sleep, that can lead to low levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and melatonin, which are vital for our mental health. Get at least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night to help optimise your brain function and energy levels throughout the day.

Avoid too much caffeine and alcohol:

The jury is still out on the pro’s and con’s of caffeine. Some research suggests the antioxidant benefits of coffee are beneficial to our health, but other studies have also shown how too much caffeine-containing drinks such as coffee and others like energy drinks, can be detrimental to our brain and overall health. Drinking caffeine stimulates the production of our stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. These both lead to an increase in our blood sugar levels, as our body believes that we are getting ready for action-filled activities where our muscles need a quick supply of glucose, our primary energy source. However, this is often followed by a blood sugar crash, which leave us feeling fatigued and irritable, where we begin to crave sugary foods or more caffeine to wake us up and re-energise us. Our pancreas has the job of releasing insulin to transfer the glucose in our blood into our cells, however, when we are constantly spiking our blood sugar levels with caffeine, refined/processed foods and alcohol, our cells begin to lose our sensitivity to insulin, meaning that the glucose does not get transported properly into our cells. This means that our brain won’t be getting the energy it needs and we run the risk of developing insulin resistance, which can over time lead to Type Two Diabetes. Alcohol is a pure form of sugar, so drinking too much of it can also lead to problems with blood sugar regulation, as well as interfering with our sleep. Alcohol prevents us from entering REM sleep, which is necessary for helping our cells to regenerate and store memory efficiently. 

It can be easy to become dependent on alcohol and caffeine as they both have a significant effect on our brain chemistry by helping stimulate neurotransmitters such as dopamine and depressing other neurotransmitters such as glutamate. Over time, we can become more and more dependent on either caffeine to help wake us up or alcohol to help wind down after a stressful day at work. This is because our brain naturally wants to regain balance after having too many stimulants and depressants such as coffee and wine, and consequently slows down our own natural neurotransmitter reserves, meaning that you need increasing amount of these drinks to help you reach the same effect. In order to prevent this from happening, try to have these in moderation, such as coffee no more than twice a day and small amounts of alcohol on the weekend instead of throughout the week. 

Taking these steps are much easier than you think and you don’t need to do all of them all at once. For example, you could just start with increasing your intake of vegetables and fruit and then tackle the next step when you feel ready. It is important not to underestimate just how powerful integrating these rules into your everyday life can be. Have a go and keep us posted! Email us at info@brainbiocentre.com 

Autism and the Gut Microbiome

Autism and the Gut Microbiome

The gut microbiome, defined as the bacteria that colonises our digestive tract, seems to be a buzz word at the moment within the health industry, as a growing body of research is showing just how important quantity and quality of protective gut bacteria are for our health. But the most interesting recent discoveries concerning gut bacteria are how they interact with our brain, in a system that has been labelled the gut-brain axis. This axis represents a two-way relationship between the gut and the brain, whereby our bacteria help communicate messages to our brain and neurochemicals communicate from our brain to our gut. Not only have researchers found that gut bacteria are important for gut motility and nutrient absorption, but they are also finding that these 100 trillion microorganisms, that represent around 1000 different species, can actually modulate brain development and activity, as well as playing a role in conditions such as autism.

In the UK, there are over 700,000 people who are on the autism spectrum, which is a lifelong condition that can greatly impact the lives of those living with autism and their relatives. Research has continuously shown that those on the spectrum commonly have comorbidities related to digestive function, such as IBS. In a study of 1513 children of 20-60 months of age, those on the autism spectrum, compared to those that weren’t, were found to be 6 to 8 times more susceptible to experiencing symptoms of digestive discomfort such as constipation, diarrhea, flatulence and bloating. It is not yet understood why this is the case, however the research on how our gut microbiome can influence brain activity is providing the grounds for new therapeutic measures for conditions like autism. 

The composition of our gut bacteria and its diversity is often dependent on the food that we eat. Insoluble fibre such as cellulose, xylans and inulin found in foods such as vegetables and whole grains, provide fuel for our gut bacteria to flourish and ferment to create short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). These fatty acids, produced by protective bacteria, can reduce the production of proinflammatory molecules called cytokines and can enhance anti-inflammatory processes. SCFAs produced by certain strains of bacteria have also been found to be capable of producing neurotransmitters such as GABA, which is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps to regulate anxiety. Bacteria can also produce a set of neurotransmitters called monoamines such as dopamine, which helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres, serotonin, our mood stabilizer, and noradrenaline, a neurotransmitter that’s involved in our fight or flight stress response. The vagus nerve, which travels from the intestine to the brain, enables neurochemicals produced by the gut bacteria to be signalled to the brain.

SCFAs produced by pathogenic bacteria, such as the Clostridial species, have on the other hand, been shown to be elevated in those with autism. Disrupted gut bacteria has been frequently associated to autism in studies showing unfavourable amounts of pathogenic bacteria in stool samples and in biopsies of children on the autism spectrum. A variety of drivers such as early weaning from breast milk to infant formula, which was related to increased fecal concentrations of SCFAs produced by pathogenic bacteria, and genetic alterations that can negatively impact how food is digested, have been shown to play a role in symptoms associated to autism. 

Research has also shown how psychosocial stress can negatively impact our gut, by altering the composition of gut bacteria and thereby increasing inflammation. This is further evidence for the two-way relationship that exists between the brain and the gut, whereby externally-perceived stress can have a direct influence on the health of our digestive tract. A study measuring lactic acid bacteria (protective bacteria) in college students undergoing the stress of final examinations, found a significant decrease in this type of bacteria after the examination. In addition, studies observing the behaviour of bacteria-free mice, showed a wide range of deficits in brain and gut biochemistry, social behaviour and stress responses compared to mice inoculated with gut bacteria, again giving strong evidence for the role of gut bacteria in modulating brain activity. 

In children with autism, the presence of dysfunction in the gastrointestinal tract is commonly associated with aggressive behaviour, tantrums, anxiety, irritability and sleep disturbances. Research on probiotics (supplements containing protective bacteria) and their beneficial effect on gastrointestinal conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and diarrhea, is well-established. Considering this, it is not surprising that the use of probiotics as an integrative therapeutic approach to autism, is now being extensively investigated. Although the exact mechanism of how probiotics can modulate behaviour and mood in those with autism is not yet fully understood, researchers have posited that this may be due to how protective bacteria target circulating neurotransmitters and neuroimmune responses within the gut-brain axis.Probiotics have been found to reduce certain metabolites that have been associated to autism and gastrointestinal symptoms that are strongly correlated with the disorder. 

Achieving optimal nutrient intake is additionally more difficult for those with autism. This is due to a higher rate of food allergies and/or intolerances to certain foods such as dairy, nuts and wheat, as well as a tendency to towards picky eating and food selectivity. There is no one-size-fits-all diet that is right for everyone, each person is biochemically unique, with a variety of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors that can influence health, which is why it is important to work with a trained professional. However, there are certain key dietary factors that have shown to be beneficial for those on the autism spectrum, which you can begin integrating into your child’s or your everyday life now. If you’d like to see these steps, click here to go through to our Nutrition Solutions page on Autism. 

The British Association of Applied Nutritional Therapists (BANT) has a register for qualified Nutritional Therapists in Britain. The Brain Bio Centre, our not for profit clinic, offers face to face in London and Skype appointments to enable consultations from across the UK and overseas.

Could the way in which we are eating be affecting our health?

Could the way in which we are eating be affecting our health?

When it comes to improving our health, nutrition is of course one of the first things we should look at. Having a balanced diet, which includes optimal amounts of all the essential micronutrients as well as avoiding refined and processed foods, is key to ensure we are getting what we need. However, what if not only what we eat but how we eat could make a significant difference to our health? The awareness we bring to each mouthful and the surroundings in which we sit down to have our meal can play a large role in how we digest and metabolise our food. Studies show how our digestive processes are especially sensitive to chronic stress, demonstrating changes in blood flow to intestinal tissues, gastric secretions and gut motility [1].The popular saying ‘you are what you eat’ may not ring so true after all… This should perhaps be swapped for ‘you are what you absorb’. After all, you could be eating a relatively good diet, but what if you weren’t actually assimilating the nutrients properly due to eating whilst in an anxious state?

For a lot of us, the luxury of being able to eat our lunch away from our desk or not rushed whilst traveling in between meetings is rare. How many of us who have a busy work schedule actually take time to sit down and fully enjoy our midday meal? There is increasing evidence to show how mindfulness-based practices can have a big impact on stress reduction, awareness of hunger and satiety levels in studies performed with people who suffer with disordered and emotional eating [2]. Mindfulness is becoming more and more popular in helping to address mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders, as an alternative to Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, as well as other popular medications. The ancient practice that dates back to 2500 years ago can be traced to Buddhist psychology, although it is also found in other eastern traditions. Its underlying purpose in its ancient context was to eliminate needless suffering by cultivating insights into the workings of the mind, and it was believed that by doing so one could remove deep rooted negative internal dialogues, which ultimately lead to unhappiness [3].

When we eat it is imperative that we are relaxed. In order to optimise our digestive function, our parasympathetic nervous system should be activated. In other words, we must be in a “rest and digest” state where our digestive system is ready to receive food as it has had the correct signals from our brain. These signals cue the lining in our stomach to secrete hydrochloric acid, our pancreas to release its digestive enzymes and the liver to secrete bile into the intestines. All these functions are essential to correctly metabolise our nutrients as well as kill off pathogenic bacteria and other toxins in the food we eat. When we are stressed or anxious, our sympathetic nervous system activates, this is our ‘‘fight or flight” mode, when all the blood travels away from our intestines to our peripheral muscles, glucose is released from tissues into the bloodstream to deliver energy and our heart rate increases. This gets us ready to engage in adrenalin-filled activity. Not exactly useful when we are eating.

Mindfulness based practices such as bringing our awareness to our breathing or sensations in our body have been proven to be successful relaxation methods as well as having the ability to improve markers of health. In a recently published study, these techniques were introduced to a community of adults who were stressed and unemployed. The study revealed how mindfulness exercises decreased a marker of inflammatory diseases called Interleukin (IL) – 6, which has been strongly associated to chronic conditions such as Major Depressive Disorder [4]. A review of 14 studies that investigated mindfulness meditation as the primary intervention for eating disorders, also demonstrated a significant reduction in binge eating and emotional eating in populations engaging in this behaviour [5]. Lastly, there are countless studies demonstrating mindfulness as a successful method to reduce IBS symptoms, in particular its ability to teach people ‘nonreactivity to gut-focused anxiety and catastrophic appraisals of the significance of abdominal sensations’. The therapy allowed them to refocus their attention into the interoceptive awareness of the body without allowing emotions to interfere, which ultimately prevented the symptoms from becoming worse [6].

It’s safe to say there is no shortage of evidence to show how this simple ancient technique and other relaxation techniques can help us manage stress and therefore improve digestion. It’s time to listen to our bodies, take an hour away from our computers and phones to really engage with what we are eating so we can optimise our chances of assimilating the nutrition in our food. Our digestive system is essentially an interface between the external world and our internal environment, so it is no surprise that many health problems, including mental health conditions, are significantly affected by the health of our gut.

The Benefits of Nutrition as an Adjunct Therapy for Schizophrenia

The Benefits of Nutrition as an Adjunct Therapy for Schizophrenia

Food for the Brain supports a better understanding of how nutritional protocols can be beneficial across a arrange of mental health conditions, one that is a less understood condition and therefore is often more difficult to raise awareness about, is nutritional therapy for Schizophrenia.  In 2014 we published a systematic review of nutritional approaches in Schizophrenia and we are currently working within our not-for-profit clinic, where we see a large number of clients suffering with psychosis, to introduce recognised measures to understand and share more widely how clients benefit from these nutritional protocols. 

Schizophrenia is a highly complex mental health condition that affects 21 million people worldwide and 1-3 in every 100 people within the UK . The condition encompasses a collection of different mental disorders causing two main groups of symptoms known as positive and negative. The positive group includes symptoms such as paranoia, hallucinations, changes in personality and delusions, and the negative group includes symptoms like lethargy, apathy, social withdrawal, impaired attention and anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure). The result of both is often a lifetime of suffering for not just the person experiencing schizophrenia but also family and friends, as well as engendering a high societal burden with the estimated total financial cost of £11.8 billion per annum in England alone. 

Due to the variety of presenting symptoms, schizophrenia has been considered a spectrum disorder that is a complex interplay between a range of altered physiological mechanisms. Since the 1990s, psychiatrists began to introduce medication called atypical antipsychotics, which all share the common ground of targeting serotonin and dopamine receptors, and whilst they have shown to be effective in reducing psychosis symptoms in most people, one-third of the patient group find that they are not effective. Moreover, the side effects of medication can be severe and debilitating causing symptoms such as movement disorders, cognitive impairment, weight gain, sedation and diabetes. These often require further pharmacological treatment and can lead to a discontinuation of medication, which can consequently lead to subsequent relapse. Some research has even concluded that long-term use of atypical antipsychotics can induce brain shrinkage over time and have also been shown, for many, to be ineffective for treating the negative symptoms. Negative symptoms of schizophrenia are not well known or spoken about as much as the positive symptoms. We often hear about the dramatic symptoms of hallucinations, delusions etc, but research has shown that the social exclusion, lethargy and depression that are associated with the negative symptoms can often be more disabling for the person’s quality of life, preventing them from having long-term relationships, employment and financial stability.

Nutrient therapy for schizophrenia, and other mental health disorders, is an area that is poorly understood. However, health practitioners adopting this strategy as a method to help improve symptoms associated to mental health disorders, as well as reducing side effects of medication, have had positive results. This type of strategy aims to target the underlying drivers of symptoms, such as poor methylation, severe oxidative stress and atypical immune-mediated responses. Due to the nature of schizophrenia’s heterogeneity and our fundamental nature as human beings of being unique biochemically-speaking, there is no one-size-fits-all approach in nutritional therapy. However, It is a low risk strategy which can complement pharmacological interventions without negatively interacting with medication.

Methylation is a biochemical system that each of our cells in our body undertakes to complete a range of complex reactions for processes such as synthesising DNA, regulating our genes, synthesising neurotransmitters, regulating our hormones and many more. In those with certain genetic variations of methylation, high levels of homocysteine, a metabolite protein that can be found in the blood, are often found in many patients with schizophrenia. Homocysteine is produced by the metabolism of an amino acid called methionine and is in normal circumstances recycled back into the methylation cycle to be converted back into methionine. At high levels, homocysteine has been shown to cause oxidant stress, fibrin deposition (leading to atherosclerosis), cytokine release, inflammation and other mechanisms. The recycling process of homocysteine is dependent on a variety of co-factor nutrients, which are in turn dependent on your dietary intake, lifestyle and genetic factors. Those with deficiencies in nutrients such as folate and B6 have been shown to benefit from supplementation, helping to reduce homocysteine and therefore decrease factors such as oxidative stress, which has shown to play a role in the symptoms of schizophrenia.

Oxidative stress, a process that occurs when the balance between cellular defense mechanisms and endogenous Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) and Reactive Nitrogen Species (RNS) becomes compromised, has been found to be present in high levels in those with this mental health condition as well as others. Oxidative damage to DNA, lipids and proteins can negatively impact the functioning of cells, specifically leading to membrane dysfunction, which can alter the structure, fluidity, permeability and capacity for optimal signal transduction. Antioxidants such as N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC), Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) and vitamins C and E, have been researched as adjunct therapies for schizophrenia and shown positive results. Studies have demonstrated how these antioxidants can help support Glutathione production in the brain, another antioxidant that is a powerful free radical scavenger, found to be lower in patients with schizophrenia. Both NAC and ALA proved to help support attenuate side effects of medications as well as decrease the severity of negative symptoms. 

In a study carried out in 2006, it was revealed that patients with autoimmune diseases such as celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis were 45% more at risk of having schizophrenia. A number of studies have found positive outcomes for patients on an exclusion diet where gluten has been eliminated. It is thought that by excluding gluten-containing foods, the health of the intestinal mucosa is restored, thereby reducing permeability in the digestive tract and preventing immune-mediated responses that lead to psychological symptoms. There is a subset of schizophrenic patients where a dramatic reduction, and in some even full remission of symptoms, has been recorded after removing gluten from the diet. 

Aside from these specific dietary strategies, there have been a number of others researched such as vitamin D, omega 3 fatty acids and L-Theanine, which have also shown to have positive results. It is clear that due to the multifactorial nature of schizophrenia’s underlying drivers, which can be different from one person to the next, there cannot be a no one-size-fits-all approach in treating this condition. A more integrative, holistic strategy whereby nutrition and supplementation are offered as adjunct therapies alongside pharmacological treatment, could be a very effective and inexpensive way of helping to improve not only the patient’s quality of life but also for those that are caring for them.

If you’re interested in hearing a real life story on how nutritional therapy can help reduce symptoms of schizophrenia, listen to Eddie’s experience below of our programme at our not-for-profit clinic, the Brain Bio Centre.

 

The Sugar Rush: How to Balance Blood Sugar to Support Mental Wellbeing

The Sugar Rush: How to Balance Blood Sugar to Support Mental Wellbeing

At this time of the year, many are either making their new year’s resolutions, challenging themselves to a dry January or trying out new diets in an effort to re-calibrate after the Christmas splurge. The festive period undoubtedly comes with over-indulgence in sugary treats and alcohol and it’s no wonder we all feel the need to regain control over our health in January, especially as a way to lift our mood and help start the year positively. But how sustainable are these changes and how long do they last before we crash and burn again? If there’s one change you can make to your diet this year that can have a positive impact on your mental health but is also very simple, it would be to stabilise your blood sugar levels.

Diets high in sugar (both refined and unrefined) have not only been linked to the western world’s biggest killers like type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and now Alzheimer’s, but it is also linked to worsening symptoms of anxiety, depression,schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  This is no surprise considering the evidence that shows how excessive sugar in diets can rapidly alter blood glucose and insulin levels, which leads to an increase of free radicals as well as pro-inflammatory cytokines. These inflammatory molecules can damage tissues and wreak havoc on the immune system, that consequently have a negative impact on the brain.

The human brain is the most energy-hungry organ in our body, stealing about 20% of the body’s energy requirements. It needs a constant, steady supply of fuel, which is mostly sourced from the food that we eat. The brain is therefore sensitive to drops in blood sugar levels and despite our body’s intelligent mechanisms to keep levels stable, when we eat foods that are high in sugar, these levels will fluctuate causing fatigue, poor concentration and anxiety. If you are already suffering with a mental health disorder such as depression, bipolar disorder, chronic anxiety or schizophrenia, where symptoms caused by fluctuations in blood sugar may normally go unnoticed, already present symptoms related to these conditions can be magnified.

So what can we do to help keep our blood sugar levels even and promote mental wellbeing? Well, it’s easy to say avoid all refined sugar and added sugar in the most obvious foods such as biscuits, cakes and chocolates. But what about the hidden sugars in savoury foods or foods that are even labelled as healthier options? Sugar can be identified under a vast variety of different names, sometimes due to varying molecular structures or if the sugar comes from other sources like rice. This means that it is easy to consume food, which appears to be low in sugar or is outwardly a savoury food, but has hidden sugar in it. This can be commonly found in food items such as breads, sauces, cereals and dressings. Nutritional labels are by law required to list ingredients by order of content amount, starting with the ingredient with the most amount first. Manufacturers are therefore able to spread out the sugar by using a variety of different types of sugar and can as a consequence place the sweetening ingredients at the end of the list, making the product look like it is lower in sugar than it really is. You may be asking what are these hidden sugars called? Look out for names such as dextrose, dextrin, maltose and galactose. These are just a few commonly found forms of sugar in food that often go unnoticed. If you’d like to have a comprehensive list please click here.

There are a few things you can start doing right now to help your blood sugar levels stabilise. One of the most crucial steps you can take is to switch from refined to complex carbohydrates. This means avoiding ‘white grains’ such as white bread (as well as pasta/spaghetti) and white rice. These foods have gone through a process where the grain’s outer husk has been removed, which is where all the fibre, nutrients and fatty acids are, leaving a refined version of the original grain that mainly contains sugar. Replace these foods with wholemeal/brown bread (wholemeal pasta/spaghetti or even with brown rice pasta or buckwheat pasta) and brown rice. You can also start including other grains such as quinoa, kamut, teff and buckwheat to introduce more variation.

Combining any form of carbohydrate with healthy fats and lean proteins can also really help in slowing the release of sugars in the bloodstream, so think about having a handful of seeds alongside your fruit and if you do eat a plate of pasta, make sure you are including vegetables and a source of protein such as salmon or pulses.

Another key step is to avoid drinking your fruits and eat them instead. Similarly to refined grains, in the juice-making process the fruits have had their fibre taken away, leaving mainly the sugar component of the fruit. This means that by drinking a bottle of what may seem like a healthy drink option may contain up to 60g of sugar, which is an incredible amount to have in one sitting! Apart from the avoidance of obvious sweet foods such as confectionery, cakes, biscuits, pastries and fizzy drinks, another effective step to take is to increase your fibre by eating foods such as vegetables, pulses and nuts and seeds, as well as making sure you are eating protein with every meal. These steps are seemingly simple, but incredibly effective because the fibre content will prevent the food from being broken down too quickly, leading blood sugar levels to peak and crash, and instead maintain a steady stream of energy for the body and brain.

Taking these steps can encourage better sleep, improve concentration and memory as well as help stabilise mood. If you would like more support in your diet for specific mental health conditions, why not visit our ‘nutrition solutions’ page, which has comprehensive guidance on steps you can take to help support and manage symptoms related to conditions such as depression, anxiety, psychotic disorders and more. Another very useful tool is the NHS’s ‘Sugar Smart’ app, which allows you to scan bar codes when shopping and will give you information on how much sugar there is in the product.

Seeking the Underlying Cause of Depression

Seeking the Underlying Cause of Depression

The rising amount of research displaying clear links between high levels of inflammation in the body and depression is revealing how the serotonin model, which purports that low mood is caused by a deficiency in serotonin and therefore supports the use of anti-depressants, is becoming defunct. A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry, found a 30% increase in inflammation in multiple brain regions in those suffering from depression.

Around 350 million people around the world have been affected by depression, suffering symptoms that are nothing short of debilitating. Many respond positively to treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy and anti-depressants, however, many do not, which has led to scientists exploring new frontiers of mental health and other possible causes.

Research in the field of Psychoimmunoneurology, which studies the interaction between the immune and nervous system, is finding how an overactive immune system causing persistent elevated levels of inflammation in the body can alter mood and lead to depression. At the University of Cambridge, Dr Golam Khandaker and his colleagues, reviewed data from 20 clinical trials in which patients suffering from depression positively responded to anti-cytokine drugs, which are commonly used to treat conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis. 

Dr Khandaker, who led the study, says: “The current approach of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ medicine to treat depression is problematic. All currently available antidepressants target a particular type of neurotransmitter, but a third of patients do not respond to these drugs. We are now entering the era of ‘personalised medicine’ where we can tailor treatments to individual patients. This approach is starting to show success in treating cancers, and it’s possible that in future we would use anti-inflammatory drugs in psychiatry for certain patients with depression.”

When we are exposed to an infection, in normal circumstances, immune cells will identify the foreign pathogen and mount an inflammatory response to eradicate the infection. This causes levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, cell-signalling proteins, to rise. However, some suffer from errant immune responses where immune cells are no longer able to distinguish between foreign pathogens and the body’s own tissue cells. This leads to an autoimmune response where the immune system begins to attack the body’s own cells, which can consequently lead to chronic low-grade systemic inflammation.

New types of anti-inflammatory drugs called anti-cytokine monoclonal antibodies are now being researched for use in mainstream psychiatry. However, we must ask ourselves, why is our immune system acting in this way in the first place? What is driving our cells to behave in this way and cause these symptoms? Can we use nutrition and a functional medicine approach to try to understand the underlying drivers causing this inflammatory state? 

The gut-brain link is currently a hot topic in the medical world due to fascinating research being published on the strong correlation between our gut flora and our health. It is well known that our gut houses about 60% of our immune system and more than 80% of antibody-producing cells are located in the mucosa of the gastrointestinal tract. Studies have shown how our gut microbiome is profoundly impacted by the food that we eat, which in turn has a direct effect on the well-being of the immune cells in the gut.  Our T-regulatory cells, found in the mucosa of our digestive tract, are critical for immune tolerance in the intestines through active control of innate and adaptive immune responses. In other words, these cells help to prevent the immune system from hyperactivity, which can lead to chronic inflammation.

Refined flours, high levels of sugars, trans fats, rancid fats as well as pesticides and preservatives, have all been shown to have a negative influence on our gut microbiome leading to dysbiosis. As a consequence, an inflammatory response is mounted, which at a persistent level can lead to tissue damage and systemic inflammation. So how can we reduce inflammation and prevent mental health disorders, such as depression, using personalised nutrition? There are key nutrients that have been shown to have anti-inflammatory benefits on the body, such asomega 3 fatty acids, B12 and Vitamin D, which have been well researched for their positive impacts on symptoms of depression. Studies have shown how fish oil is able to suppress neuroinflammation, reduce oxidative stress, and protect neurons from injury. Vitamin B12 deficiency is common, which may be due to use the increase of antacids, proton pump inhibitors, as well as gut dysbiosis, all of which prevent proper absorption and assimilation of this important nutrient. This nutrient is essential for making our red blood cells and nerve cell membranes, also regulating our DNA expression that plays a vital role in synthesising neurotransmitters and maintaining the function of our immune system. Studies have shown how deficiency can cause symptoms of depression, as well as in extreme cases, psychosis. Lastly, research has shown how vitamin D modulates immune responses to infection, including reducing pro-inflammatory cytokines like TNF-α and IL-1 that are associated with depression.

There are many other factors that have been shown to be influential in symptoms of depression such as obesity, lack of exercise, chronic sleep deprivation, hypothyroidism and stress. This shows how there is much more to depression than the simplistic ‘chemical imbalance’ model that supports the theory that depression is caused by a deficiency of serotonin, which is still being followed by western medicine. It is clear that in order to move forward, there must be a radical change in perspective. The research is there. It is now time that mainstream psychiatry started listening to what it is saying.

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Free eBook on '10 Foods to Boost Mental Health'

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