Mental health conditions such as anxiety & depression are complex and multi-faceted for each individual, and so treatment needs to be tailored as such. We not only need to support ourselves through important strategies like meditation, self-care and professional support (psychologists, counsellor, kinesiologist etc.)
What we’re now coming to understand, is that a complete holistic approach to mental health should include dietary counselling and support.
As always, this blog post isn’t a prescription. It’s us wanting to break down and help you guys understand why nourishing ourselves is so important to not only our physical health but our mental wellbeing.
Please speak to your health practitioner or seek one to help you make the right decisions for you and your health.
If you are struggling, you can contact Lifeline on 13-11-14 for support or reach out to someone and know that you’re not alone.
The SMILES (Supporting the Modification of Lifestyle in lowered Emotional States) Trial was conducted by Felice Jacka, and demonstrated adults with major depressive disorder receiving dietary intervention (3 months of support from a clinical dietitian) had a much greater reduction in their depressive symptoms compared to those in the social support group.
The study used the MODiMED diet (modified Mediterranean diet) which promotes fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, olive oil, fish, lean red meat, low fat dairy, eggs, legumes, daily exercise, enjoying meals with others and plenty of water!
Some important ways this diet supports mental health in a number of ways, but I thought I’d just stick to and elaborate on a few important factors (otherwise we’d be here until Christmas!)
Includes good quality protein
What do you need to create happy brain chemicals?
The right building blocks of course!!
Proteins are made from chains of amino acids, and it’s these amino acids such as tryptophan, glutamate and tyrosine that help to provide the building blocks for brain chemicals like serotonin, gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) and dopamine. These are known to promote calmness, happiness and motivation. They also need co-factors like magnesium, B vitamins & zinc among others, to travel down the pathway that creates them.
Without the right foundations of these neurotransmitters, it makes sense that you may be struggling with your nervous system & emotional dysregulation.
For the average healthy person, generally 1g protein/kg/day will let you hit your recommended daily intake (RDI). Depending on your health status or physical activity, you may require higher or lower amounts than this so always talk to your health practitioner.
Best way to include protein in your diet:
Add a palm sized portion of protein to your main meals
Add 3 finger portion of nuts/seeds for a snack
Add ½ cup legumes or whole grains such as buckwheat or quinoa to your meal
Chicken/beef/lamb/fish (100g), 22-27g
1 egg- 6.3g
Peanuts, 100g 25.8g
Legumes/lentils, 1 cup 15-18g
Tempeh 100g, 20.0g
Quinoa/buckwheat ½ cup-3g
Spirulina 1 TBSP-4g
Nuts (cashews, almonds, pumpkin seeds etc.) ¼ cup- 5-8g
Is rich in Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs)
Now once you’ve made these important brain chemicals, your brain needs to be able to transmit them to have an effect.
An important dietary component that helps your brain to do this is dietary fat. Most notably essential fatty acids (omega-3), which helps to insulate your neurons and create that all important cellular membrane around every single cell in your body (See Heal Thy Fear of Fat II for greater explanation of this). So, not only are EFAs important for helping speed up travel time of these brain chemicals, but they’re also integral for receiving the message adequately.
Further to this, depression is often associated with other inflammatory conditions such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and metabolic conditions. And it has been demonstrated that systemic inflammation can cause neuro-inflammation and vice versa. Chronic stress, which is also characteristic of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, only further contributes and compounds this chronic inflammation.
Omega-3 fatty acids are incredibly important for dampening this inflammation which contributes to symptom occurrence and severity.
Aim for 2-3 servings of fish per week
Mackerel, 100g, 2070mg
Oysters (6), 565mg
Salmon ½ fillet (3982mg)
Tuna (100g) 1664mg
Prawns 100g 347mg
White fish, (1 fillet), 3167mg
Best Sources of vegetarian omega-3 fats (Alpha-linolenic acid-ALA):
Hemp seeds 1 TBSP 500mg
Chia seeds 1 TBSP 2457mg
Ground flaxseed 1597mg
Flaxseed oil 1 TBSP 7196mg
Cooked spinach (1/2 cup), 352mg
Mung beans (1 cup), 603mg
Walnuts (8 kernels), 2547mg
Helps to regulate blood sugar throughout the day
Blood sugar dysregulation can create mood disturbances.
When there are huge fluctuations in your blood sugar over the course of the day (due to eating irregularly, consuming foods high in refined sugars etc.) the body can create excessive amounts of insulin which pack away all the sugar quickly, leaving little to be used by the brain and other organs. Thus, leaving you in a huge energy slump.
Significantly low blood sugar can create a shortage of glucose to the brain. It also increases the production of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which the combo of these can create behavioural changes which are quite common in anxiety such as sweating, palpitations, or even confusion and fatigue.
Blood sugar dysregulation feeds inflammation levels in the body and as a result can also contribute to the development of mental health conditions.
One of the main ways to help reduce blood sugar dysregulation is to eat regularly. This looks a little different for everyone, and it may mean eating smaller meals throughout the day or bigger meals less often.
The composition of your meal also helps to reduce blood sugar highs and lows. The Mod/Medi diet is rich in protein, good fats, complex carbohydrates (from veg, fruit, legumes & wholegrains), which are the hallmarks of a nutrient dense and blood sugar stabilising diet.
Is rich in Magnesium
Magnesium is one of those all-rounder minerals, it’s involved in EVERYTHING.
Importantly it’s important for making energy, creating those happy brain chemicals we spoke about before, and helps to regulate the transmission of messages in the brain.
It also helps to protect against excessive neuro-excitation, which means reducing over-signalling in the neuron which can contribute to neuronal injury and neurological dysfunction.
Magnesium also helps to modulate the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA axis) aka our stress response, which helps to prevent feelings of stress and anxiety.
Our diets are notoriously low in magnesium, due to our high intake of heavily refined and processed foods (which strips all the magnesium and pretty much every other important nutrient out of the food).
The Recommended Daily Intake (RDI ) for healthy adult men & women between 320-420mg/day. You’ll find a tonne of magnesium in the Mod/Medi and traditional Mediterranean diet, most importantly from the sources below.
Dark leafy greens
Nuts & seeds: Pumpkin seeds, Almonds, Cashews, Flaxseeds, Sesame seeds
Grains & legumes: quinoa, peas, tempeh, red kidney beans, lentils
Other ways to increase magnesium intake:
Epsom salt bath, magnesium oil – this allows magnesium to enter our system trans-dermally (via the skin) which bypasses your digestion and could be helpful with improved absorption.
Recommends eating meals with others
To finish up, the last thing I wanted to mention was the importance of social connection.
Food brings people together, and I know that some of my happiest times is sitting around the table with family or friends sharing a meal.
If you’ve been struggling lately, reach out, share a meal with someone, know that we’re all in this together.
I’ve included the study and a link to the Food and Mood centre if you wanted to have a look into anything further or don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions.
Until next time,
Rom & Al
Rachelle S. Opie, Adrienne O'Neil, Felice N. Jacka, Josephine Pizzinga & Catherine Itsiopoulos (2018) A modified Mediterranean dietary intervention for adults with major depression: Dietary protocol and feasibility data from the SMILES trial, Nutritional Neuroscience, 21:7, 487-501, DOI: 10.1080/1028415X.2017.1312841
Bauer, M.E., & Teixeira A.L. (2019). Inflammation In psychiatric disorders: what comes first? Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1-11, doi: 10.1111/nyas.13712
Firth, J., Veronese, N., Cotter, J., Shivappa, N., Hebert, J. R., Ee, C., … Sarris, J. (2019). What Is the Role of Dietary Inflammation in Severe Mental Illness? A Review of Observational and Experimental Findings. Frontiers in psychiatry, 10, 350. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00350
Kirkland, A. E., Sarlo, G. L., & Holton, K. F. (2018). The Role of Magnesium in Neurological Disorders. Nutrients, 10(6), 730. doi:10.3390/nu10060730