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Mental Health – Food is Mood!

Dr Hina Naveed

By Dr Hina Naveed

Hina is the Marketing Manager at the Middle East Medical Portal. She is an experienced Pharmacist, writer, and speaker. Hina lives in the United Arab Emirates.

A mental illness is a condition that causes mild to severe disturbances in mood, feeling, thought and/or behaviour, resulting in an inability to cope with life’s ordinary demands and routines.

There are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness. Some of the more common disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders. Such conditions may be occasional or long-lasting (chronic) and affect someone’s ability to relate to others and function each day.

Mental health problems may be related to excessive stress due to a particular situation or series of events. It may be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of these. With proper care and treatment many individuals learn to cope or recover from a mental illness or emotional disorder.

From the wider view, treatment of, and attitude toward mental health disorders in the Middle East is an ongoing journey as it has been in the rest of the world.

Man leaning against a wall. The outward signs of a mental illness are often behavioural
The outward signs of a mental illness are often behavioural

Mental and physical health are equally important components of overall health.  Mental illness, especially depression, increases the risk for many types of physical health problems, particularly long-lasting conditions like stroke, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Similarly, the presence of chronic conditions can increase the risk for mental illness.

The outward signs of a mental illness are often behavioural. A person may be extremely quiet or withdrawn.  Conversely, he or she may burst into tears, have great anxiety or have outbursts of anger. Even after treatment has started, some individuals with a mental illness can exhibit anti-social behaviours.

Therapy can be beneficial for both the individual with mental illness and other family members.  A mental health professional can suggest ways to cope and better understand your loved one’s illness.

When looking for a therapist, be patient and talk to a few professionals so you can choose the person that is right for you and your family.

Nutritional Psychiatry

Think about it. Your brain is always “on.” It takes care of your thoughts and movements, your breathing and heartbeat, your senses — it works hard 24/7, even while you’re asleep. This means your brain requires a constant supply of fuel. That “fuel” comes from the foods you eat — and what’s in that fuel makes all the difference. Put simply, what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.

Like an expensive car, your brain functions best when it gets only premium fuel. Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress — the “waste” (free radicals) produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage cells.

Unfortunately, just like an expensive car, your brain can be damaged if you ingest anything other than premium fuel. If substances from “low-premium” fuel (such as what you get from processed or refined foods) get to the brain, it has little ability to get rid of them. Diets high in refined sugars, for example, are harmful to the brain. In addition to worsening your body’s regulation of insulin, they also promote inflammation and oxidative stress. Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function — and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.

It makes sense. If your brain is deprived of good-quality nutrition, or if free radicals or damaging inflammatory cells are circulating within the brain’s enclosed space, further contributing to brain tissue injury, consequences are to be expected. What’s interesting is that for many years, the medical field did not fully acknowledge the connection between mood and food.

Today, fortunately, the burgeoning field of nutritional psychiatry is finding there are many consequences and correlations between not only what you eat, how you feel, and how you ultimately behave, but also the kinds of bacteria that live in your gut.

How the foods you eat affect how you feel

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain. Since about 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, and your gastrointestinal tract is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, or neurons, it makes sense that the inner workings of your digestive system don’t just help you digest food, but also guide your emotions. What’s more, the function of these neurons — and the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin — is highly influenced by the billions of “good” bacteria that make up your intestinal microbiome. These bacteria play an essential role in your health. They protect the lining of your intestines and ensure they provide a strong barrier against toxins and “bad” bacteria; they limit inflammation; they improve how well you absorb nutrients from your food; and they activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain.

Studies have shown that when people take probiotics (supplements containing the good bacteria), their anxiety levels, perception of stress, and mental outlook improve, compared with people who did not take probiotics. Other studies have compared “traditional” diets, like the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet, to a typical “Western” diet and have shown that the risk of depression is 25% to 35% lower in those who eat a traditional diet.

Scientists account for this difference because these traditional diets tend to be high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and fish and seafood, and to contain only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy. They are also void of processed and refined foods and sugars, which are staples of the “Western” dietary pattern. In addition, many of these unprocessed foods are fermented, and therefore act as natural probiotics. Fermentation uses bacteria and yeast to convert sugar in food to carbon dioxide, alcohol, and lactic acid. It is used to protect food from spoiling and can add a pleasant taste and texture.

This may sound implausible to you, but the notion that good bacteria not only influence what your gut digests and absorbs, but that they also affect the degree of inflammation throughout your body, as well as your mood and energy level, is gaining traction among researchers. The results so far have been quite amazing.

Here are some of the facts and figures on how you can manage your routine and mind:

1.      Eating regularly

If your blood sugar drops you might feel tired, irritable and depressed. Eating regularly and choosing foods that release energy slowly will help to keep your sugar levels steady.

Quick tips:

  • Eating breakfast gets the day off to a good start.
  • Instead of eating a large lunch and dinner, try eating smaller portions spaced out more regularly throughout the day.
  • Avoid foods which make your blood sugar rise and fall rapidly, such as sweets, biscuits, sugary drinks, and alcohol.

2.      Staying hydrated

If you don’t drink enough fluid, you may find it difficult to concentrate or think clearly. Water detoxifies the body and help remove toxins, it cleanse the body and also the mind. You might also start to feel constipated due to decreased level of bowl movement and also slows down the metabolism.

3.      Looking after your gut

Sometimes your gut can reflect how you are feeling emotionally. If you’re stressed or anxious this can make your gut slow down or speed up.  For healthy digestion you need to have plenty of fibre, fluid and exercise regularly.

Healthy gut foods include: fruits, vegetables and wholegrains, beans, pulses, live yoghurt and other probiotics.

4.      Managing caffeine

Caffeine is a stimulant, which means it will give you a quick burst of energy, but then may make you feel anxious and depressed, disturb your sleep (especially if you have it before bed), or give you withdrawal symptoms if you stop suddenly.

Caffeine is in: tea, coffee, chocolate, cola and other manufactured energy drinks.

Quick tips:

  • If you drink tea, coffee or cola, try switching to decaffeinated versions.
  • You might feel noticeably better quite quickly if you drink less caffeine or avoid it altogether.

5.      Getting your five a day

It means five meals a day. You can divide different meals in different span of the day.

Vegetables and fruit contain a lot of the minerals, vitamins and fibre we need to keep us physically and mentally healthy.

Eating a variety of different coloured fruits and vegetables every day means you’ll get a good range of nutrients.

6.      Getting enough protein

Protein contains amino acids, which make up the chemicals your brain needs to regulate your thoughts and feelings. It also helps keep you feeling fuller for longer.

Protein is in: lean meat, fish, eggs, cheese, legumes (peas, beans and lentils), soya products, nuts and seeds.

7.      Eating the right fats

Your brain needs fatty acids (such as omega-3 and -6) to keep it working well. So rather than avoiding all fats, it’s important to eat the right ones.

Healthy fats are found in: oily fish, poultry, nuts (especially walnuts and almonds), olive and sunflower oils, seeds (such as sunflower and pumpkin), avocados, milk, yoghurt, cheese and eggs.

Quick tip:

  • Try to avoid anything which lists trans fats or ‘partially hydrogenated oils’ in the list of ingredients (such as some shop-bought cakes and biscuits). They can be tempting when you’re feeling low, but this kind of fat isn’t good for your mood or your physical health in the long run.

And last but not the least;

8.      Meditate/exercise:

‘Once you block physical and digital distractions the real challenge begins.’  –Tomas Laurinavicius, lifestyle entrepreneur

Our minds are designed to seek dangers for survival and our monkey mind doesn’t like the present moment. That’s why it’s hard to block mental distractions. Thoughts about the past and the future make us worry. Worries become anxiety and we can no longer relax, no matter how relaxing the environment is.

Regular meditation practice is proven to reduce blood pressure and lower cortisol, the stress hormone levels, which in turn helps to increase focus and make you happier.

Stretching and doing yoga can enormously improve your health while sharpening your mind through mindful breathing exercises. The key here is not to overdo it. If your “me” time allows you just one hour every morning, spend five to ten minutes sharpening your mind.