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 firstname.lastname@example.org