In one day, two public male figures were featured in the press regarding their mental health. Both highlight how men are disgracefully poor at discussing their mental health, and how society views it. But can our diet ease the pain a little?
I have no authority to write about this, as I am neither a mental health specialist or have a history myself of mental ill-health. But I do know nutrition, and I’ve worked in the health field all my adult life.
So this is not about mental health itself, but how we can use the tools we have to ease the pain. Nutrition, tackling stress and having a good support network around you are all good foundations to managing mental health.
Mental ill-health is still a stigma – particularly among men. This has to stop.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, women are much more likely to have a mental illness than men. Yet the same statistics showed that 78% of all deaths through suicide were male.
What is this telling us? To me, it’s telling us that men do not talk about, discuss or admit that they struggle with mental health issues. And that’s why they’re not reported until it’s too late.
Why? Have a read of David Cox‘s experience – this must have a lot to do with it. I have no doubt that a massive chunk of his experience is down to dealing with attitudes in football – they still can’t deal with the fact that gay men, men of different faiths and ethnicities exist and live among us, what hope is there for men with mental ill-health?
Men are far more likely to harbour prejudices than women, be it race, religion, sexual orientation or health status.
Until men can face up to the fact that it is no longer about the survival of the fittest and it’s actually OK to be vulnerable, we don’t have a hope in hell’s chance.
So assuming you’re a guy who isn’t talking about your mental health, I’m reaching out to you. I can’t counsel you, but I can help you with some tools that may lessen the symptoms a little.
Before I go on..
If you want to read just about nutrition, skip to the next section. But please read this, recognising early symptoms can stop things getting out of hand.
If you relate to any of the following, please see your doctor (source: MedBroadcast):
- If you are feeling sad and hopeless nearly every day, for most of the day.
- If you have experienced a loss of interest or pleasure in things you used to enjoy (i.e. hobbies, sex, going out with friends etc).
- If you are feeling guilty, helpless, or worthless.
- If you have thoughts about death, self-harm or suicide, or have attempted suicide.
- If you have experienced changes in sleep patterns (i.e., sleeping too much or too little, early morning awakening, or difficulty falling asleep).
- If you have experienced unintended weight loss or weight gain, appetite loss, or overeating.
- If you are feeling tired nearly every day, for most of the day, and lack energy for daily activities.
- If you are suffering from frequent crying spells.
- If you are having difficulty concentrating, remembering details, or making decisions.
- If you are having persistent aches or pains, headaches, or digestive problems that do not get better with treatment.
- If you are feeling restless, irritated, or easily annoyed on a regular basis.
Nutrition and Mental Health
Breaking a cycle of poor relationships with food can sometimes feel as bad as splitting up with a partner – it’s much easier to stick with it than face it head on.
It’s probably not unsurprising that most people think that good nutrition can only affect our physical health, but science often has little surprises up its sleeve. There are plenty of research papers linking nutrition with mental well-being.
What we eat really can make a difference. But, of course, this is a complex area as our relationship with food also has pretty major bearing – do we turn to food when we’re feeling depressed? Does this make us gain weight and then add to the causes of depression?
What about the opposite, depression turns you away from food? You lose your appetite and have no interest in eating at all?
If either of these things rings true, then tackling this is the most important first step. Breaking that cycle that locks us into a bad relationship with food can sometimes feel as difficult as splitting up with a partner – you settle too easily for the status quo.
Therefore, the first step is to recognise it, then ask for help.
Best foods for good mood
Balancing blood sugar levels
This is a weird one as it affects everyone differently. But if this rings true for you, have a think about how and when you eat. There are two main ways in which our blood sugar can influence our mood:
1) Headaches or mood swings after eating sugary foods. If you are prone to a cycle of eating high sugar foods and then shortly after, experiencing a depressed state or headaches or dizziness, then you could be suffering from hypoglycaemia.
This occurs when a hormone called insulin rushes into the blood stream to clear out sugar molecules and push them into cells after we’ve eaten something high in sugar, such as cake or a chocolate bar.
But too much insulin can clear too much sugar, leaving little for the most sugar-hungry organ in the body: the brain. This could explain why your mood dips or you feel dizzy after eating sweet foods.
2) If you go hungry for too long, you might find yourself being irritable or dizzy or get upset or angry easily. This is commonly known as being hangry: hungry and angry. It’s caused by lack of sugar in the blood to feed the brain.
The antidote to this is keeping enough sugar at a consistent level in the blood all the time. The best way to do this is to cut down on sugary foods and switch to foods higher in protein and dietary fibre (examples include whole grains, lentils, beans, nuts, and seeds).
You also need to avoid skipping meals if this is something you have a tendency to do. Breakfast might be more important for you than most other people, because it is breaking the long fast you’ve had whilst sleeping.
Eating in the morning might help your mood for the day – some studies have shown a positive effect with breakfast consumption and cognitive function, which means that if you are able to think more clearly, it’s possible your mood will be better.
For some people with mental illness, breakfast just might set you up for the day!
If you go to the gym, you might have heard the gym bunnies and fitness warriors talk about “aminos”. We’ll talk about the dangers of broscience in another article, but for now, we’re going to talk specifically about one amino: tryptophan.
All proteins are made up of chains of amino acids. When we eat food, these amino acids are released and some will go off to make other amino acids and others will go and do a specific job our body tells it to do.
When the body cannot make an amino acid, it relies completely on our diet to get it. These are known as essential amino acids. Tryptophan is one of these!
Tryptophan is given the job of making serotonin, the happy hormone. But there’s a big challenge! Tryptophan is a large molecule and battles to get across the barrier our brain puts up to keep nasties out.
Worse, it doesn’t have just one job, it has two – it is also converted to the B vitamin, niacin!
And it gets even worse…of all the amino acids available in our diet, tryptophan is far from abundant.
So if our brain keeps it out, and we convert it into other molecules, and there’s not that much in our diet anyway, some of us may not be getting nearly enough as we should to make serotonin!
The best way to get tryptophan across this barrier is to eat more of it to give it a fighting chance! Studies have shown that eating foods high in tryptophan can help with mood and cognitive function.
Foods rich in tryptophan are listed below, but you can actually supplement with it if you feel like trying something alternative. If you explore this route, you’ll need to seek out a supplement called 5-HTP.
However, if you are on medication for depression – steer clear. Never ever take supplements without talking to your pharmacist.
|Non vegan Source||Vegan Source|
|Poultry (chicken or turkey)||Sunflower seeds|
|Lamb or beef||Oats|
|Dark chocolate||Rice, quinoa|
Another amino to consider is tyrosine. Tyrosine is used to make another happy hormone called dopamine.
Some studies suggest that consuming foods rich in tyrosine may also have beneficial effects on both on cognitive function and mood.
But nature has made this easy for us! Foods rich in tryptophan are also rich in tyrosine! It’s as if this was all pre-designed!
Feed your gut bugs
It works through a population of bacteria living in the lower gut (colon) called the microbiota. These bacteria feed on the food we’re unable to digest, predominantly fibrous plant foods.
Serotonin is not just produced in the brain, it’s also produced in the gut too! This hormone links the gut and the brain through the nervous system, as serotonin is a neurotransmitter (a hormone that communicates through the nervous system).
Gut bacteria appear to regulate the metabolism of tryptophan and influence the uptake of it through the gut and thus the manufacture of serotonin.
Clinical studies have found that people who suffer from depression often have a disadvantaged ratio of “bad bacteria” to “good”.
Our gut bacteria population is directly influenced by what we eat. A plant-based diet is preferable to a meat-based one, particularly for beneficial bacteria. Bacteria appear to prefer foods that are high in an oligosaccharide called inulin.
Inulin belongs to a group of foods called soluble fibre and is found in variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, including wheat, onions, bananas, leeks, artichokes, and asparagus.
But – there is a downside! Inulin is a fructan, which means it belongs to a group of foods called FODMAPS – and this could be bad news for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) sufferers.
One of the major downsides to a plant-based diet is getting enough omega-3 oils into our diet. But this is also true of many meat-eaters too – it’s a general problem in the general population.
Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid. This means that the body cannot make it itself, and must obtain it through the diet. The largest source of omega-3 for most people is from oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sprats, trout and tuna.
But it is also available in organic, grass-fed meats (the pricey kind) and some dairy and some eggs. The amount of omega-3 available in animals and animal-products is largely down to the animal’s diet.
In plant-based diets, there are two main options: seeds (mainly flax and chia) and algae. Getting omega-3 from algae requires supplementation. Vegan omega-3 tablets are now widely available in health foods shops. Until only recently, sourcing them was like tracking down a unicorn!
The science behind omega-3 and mental illness is by no means conclusive. Some studies have shown a positive effect, others show none at all. A review done in 2017 showed some cautious positive findings for using omega-3 supplementation, but it appears very individual.
That is, it might work for you but not for your friend! Like everything in nutrition, it’s all experimental. It might be that some people with depression display higher signs of inflammation than others, and so it could be beneficial for them.
Omega-3 is known for it’s anti-inflammatory properties, and also plays a critical role in the central nervous system – so it may benefit via a number of different pathways. It’s just too early to say.
That said, most of us don’t get enough omega-3. In the typical modern diet, we get much more omega-6, and we desperately need to balance this for general good health. So if you don’t eat fish, and you’re a flexitarian/vegetarian and eat little or no fish – you could consider either a quality fish oil or a vegan alternative – preferably algae oil.
I’ve deliberately not recommended krill oil despite its superiority over all supplements. The ethics of using it rankles me too much, there are better ways of getting this nutrient into our cells.
Eat a rainbow
Findings revealed that the
happiness of vegetarians was significantly higher than non-vegetarians Aslanifar et al (2014)
If you’re a nutritionist or dietitian reading this, I can see you rolling your eyes at this cliché! We hear it everyday – but it’s true isn’t it guys! You cannot deny that choosing a wide variety of fruit and vegetables from all manner of colours is a good thing.
Why? You might have heard this expression and still don’t know why it’s important.
It’s simply down to nature’s way of colour coding its nutrients – specifically, its phytochemicals.
All fruit and vegetables are more than just vitamins A, B, C and a bunch of others including minerals. We’re now researching the chemicals they produce that do several things for the plant: give it colour, give it flavour (often pretty nasty to stop bugs from eating them), give it smell and a host of other things we don’t yet know.
There are hundreds if not thousands of these phytochemicals, most not properly studied regarding human health.
But, what we have studied is revealing this: many phytochemicals appear to have pretty strong antioxidant properties. We’re constantly exposed to toxins or free-radicals that wreak havoc with our health.
Thankfully, nature provided us with some pretty awesome defence mechanisms including our own chemicals that have an antioxidant effect, a liver, a pair of kidneys, skin, a pair of lungs and a host of other clever tricks.
So why do we need anything more than this? Simply put, people who eat more fruit and vegetables are generally healthier. The group of people that tend to eat the most are vegetarians and vegans.
And guess what? Studies have shown that vegans and vegetarians rank among the happiest too (you might not believe me if you know a moody vegetarian, but generally speaking, it’s true).
This rather long article can be summarised as thus (with additional hints and tips):
- Don’t skip meals and avoid high sugary foods. Blood sugar dips can cause irritability.
- Ensure you get enough tryptophan through eating a high protein diet everyday. Choose foods such as seeds and grains – a good breakfast is a perfect start: try an oats and seed (grounded) porridge.
- Eat for gut bugs too, plenty of soluble fibre in your diet such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and lentils
- Don’t forget omega-3 fats. Consider supplementing if you don’t eat fish (plenty of vegan options widely available now)
- Don’t stick to the same fruit or veg – mix it up! The more colour, the better.
- Choose a mostly vegetarian diet. If you eat meat, try and cut back a little – you’ll feel so much better for it. Why not try flexitarianism?
Some other hints and tips not nutrition-based:
- Never cut back on sleep – get between 7-9 hours every day. Go to bed earlier if you have to.
- Your brain needs water, stay well hydrated.
- Exercise is a great mood booster, even if that’s just a brisk walk in the fresh air
- Pets are wonderful at keeping our mood stable, whether it’s a cat or a dog
- Take more notice of your partner if you have one. Depression can often make us ignore our partner. Sex is fantastic at alleviating stress and releasing endorphins that make us feel good.
- Try a meditation app on your phone. Take just 5-10 minutes out every day, plug in your headphones and listen to a guided meditation track.
- Try mindfulness – it keeps us focussed on the here and now and not on our troubling thoughts. If you find yourself getting anxious, focus your attention on your breath.
- Try yoga, pilates, tai chi, or other form of slow moving exercise that helps you centre yourself back to your body. It helps calm and relax you
If mental ill health is something that you know is troubling you, there are many different agencies out there that can help you – it just takes one step.
Never believe mental illness isn’t serious – it is. Don’t ignore it.
Bacteria, Julie McMurry
Breakfast, unknown artist: Wikipedia Commons
Brain, Allan Ajifo at aboutmodafinil.com
Man’s eye by Photo by samer daboul from Pexels.com
Fish by ArtsyBee
Fruit rainbow by Brandon
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat.