In the past few years, November has been marked by a sudden rise in an unusual amount of men embracing their moustaches as they campaign for men’s health throughout the month. Since 2003, November has been coined ‘Movember’ by the Movember Foundation, originally a campaign that was launched to tackle issues related to prostate cancer and now raising awareness and funds for the biggest issues in men’s health, one of which is mental health and suicide prevention. The statistics related to men’s mental health are alarming and here at Food for the Brain, we feel that it is important to draw some attention to them. According to the latest figures, 3 out of 4 suicides are men and it is the leading cause of death in England and Wales for men aged between 20 and 34 years. This may be of no surprise considering that men are less likely to access psychological therapies than women; only 36% of referrals to IAPT (Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies) are men. In addition, men have measurably lower access to the social support of friends, relatives and community. This indicates that there may be a serious epidemic of men that have not been diagnosed, in comparison to women.
Mental health is tough to talk about. However, many people don’t realise that a diagnosis does not mean you have to live with it for the rest of your life. Recovery is possible. At Food for the Brain, it is our mission to generate awareness about how nutrition and lifestyle changes can make a big difference to mental health. Whilst there may not be obvious biochemical differences between mental health in women and men, statistics show how men are more at risk of suffering from mental health issues caused by addiction to alcohol or drugs, which is an area that diet and nutritional therapy can play a significant role in, supporting recovery and potentially reducing the risk of relapse. Recent figures show that men are nearly three times more likely than women to become alcohol dependent, are three times as likely to report frequent drug use than women and more than two thirds of drug-related deaths occur in men.
Nutritional therapy can be highly effective in supporting mental wellbeing by preventing cravings for substances such as alcohol and illicit drugs through optimising brain health. The brain uses up more energy than any other organ in our body. It consumes about 20% of the body’s energy requirements and therefore requires a consistent supply of fuel. Even when we may not appear to be using it, such as when we’re sleeping, there is still a high baseline consumption of glucose, which is our body’s main source of fuel. Two thirds of the brain’s energy are used to help neurons, our brain cells, send signals, but the remaining third is used for basic housekeeping, or in scientific terms cell-health maintenance. When our brains are healthy, the rest of our body is healthy, plus we also feel great. Those with mental health conditions and/or addictions often have issues with blood glucose dysregulation, meaning the brain is getting an inconsistent supply of energy. According to NICE, depression is the most common psychiatric disorder witnessed in the diabetes community and people with diabetes are 3 times more likely to have depression than those that don’t. This indicates that blood sugar control is important when treating depression and other mental health conditions.
A key way to prevent this is by eating foods that are low in glycemic load, meaning they have little impact on your blood sugar levels. Foods that are high in glycemic load include refined grains such as white bread, pastries, baked goods, white rice, desserts, sweets, chocolates, fizzy drinks, alcohol and fruit juices. These are important to avoid and replace with a diet that is rich in vegetables, whole grains such as wholemeal bread and brown rice, legumes, whole fruits, healthy fats like olive oil, nuts and seeds, and finally good quality protein from eggs, chicken, fish and some red meat, all of which have little impact on our blood sugar levels and provide sustainable sources of energy for the brain and body.
Another key area to look at is increasing intake of Omega 3. This important nutrient is an essential fatty acid that we need to include in our diets as we cannot make it in our body. Omega 3 plays an important role in supporting nerve conductivity in the brain and for regulating inflammation. Depression is now being considered by western medicine as a symptom of chronic and systemic inflammation, so much so that anti-inflammatory drugs commonly used for rheumatoid arthritis are now being used successfully in trials to treat depression. Oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, anchovies and herring are great sources of Omega 3, however, it can also be found in some nuts and seeds such as flaxseeds, walnuts and chia seeds.
Men have different nutritional requirements than women and have a higher metabolic demand.Therefore, it’s important that foods containing empty calories, i.e. those poor in nutritional value, are replaced with healthier alternatives. Making small changes such as swapping foods that are high in sugar, like those listed above, for a diet that gives you more nourishing sources of energy, can be highly effective in stabilising mood and supporting mental wellbeing.