From what you're eating to how you're feeling: The role nutrition plays in our mental health

With Mental Health Awareness week this week, we're talking more about self-care than ever. Amazing! But a link we may not consider as much is the role our nutrition can play in our mental health. And that's silly, because apparently it's a lot.

At NZ Wellness Association event 'Food For Thought' this week, several experts spoke about how optimising nutrition can help avoid, treat or lessen mental illness. Two of those experts were Sarah Wilson, author of the 'I Quit Sugar' series and First We Make the Beast Beautiful about anxiety, and Ben Warren, clinical director of BePure, clinical nutritionist and a self-confessed "geek" around nutrition and self-improvement.

Sarah Wilson and Ben Warren chatting about all things gut health and mental health.
Sarah Wilson and Ben Warren chatting about all things gut health and mental health. Photo credit: Newshub.

The pair have worked and learned extensively over several years about the role nutrition plays in managing anxiety and mental health issues. Speaking to Newshub this week Wilson wanted to make one thing clear: "it's not a silver bullet". 

"It's an enabler," she explained. "It's a non-negotiable part of living and that's sort of the take home."

"It will help you manage your anxiety in a way that means you not only have to live with your anxiety you can also thrive with it."

From what you're eating to how you're feeling: The role nutrition plays in our mental health

Wilson and Warren both couldn't stress enough the impact of gut health in managing your mental health. The term microbiome has been bandied about a lot lately but, Warren says, the impact might be bigger than we think.

"There's a good body of evidence showing that diet and lifestyle factors can have a dramatic improving impact on people's quality of life," Warren explained. "They're starting to look at the microbiome as a potential bio-marker for mental health issues because it's got such a huge relationship to how we think and feel."

"A lot of people are familiar with serotonin because a lot of the medications are based in serotonin - but 80 to 90 percent of serotonin lies in our gut," Wilson added. "If you go by that theory it's the gut that should be targeted."

The other major players are micronutrients; all the vitamins and minerals hiding in the food we eat. The old adage to 'eat your vegetables' still rings true, but Warren and Wilson both pointed to sources we might not have thought of.

"Certainly vitamin D is one of the most studied ones," Warren explained. "You know, people are impacted by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) where people feel a little bit blue due to low Vitamin D levels."

But again - not a silver bullet.

"If you eat real food, you'll probably be ticking off a lot of those micro and macronutrients which have been shown to have an impact," Wilson said. "We sometimes think we have to add all these different bits and pieces. Essentially if we just get a decent, solid diet in place than that's the way to go forward."

She's also got some bad, if not unexpected, news on what you have to take out.

"Sugar has been shown to cause inflammation and we now know that mental illness is very much about inflammation in the gut and the brain," she said. "It also throws out the absorption of some of these important vitamins and minerals. Chromium, vitamin B, they're all affected by sugar."

So what are Wilson and Warren's top tips for those wanting to add something to their afternoon that will benefit their mental health?

Wilson: Walking

"A really simple one - and I think it's something that everyone can do and do it this afternoon, is walk," she said. "There are countless studies that show that the part of our brain that controls walking also controls our 'fight or flight' responses, and it's such an old fuddy part of the brain, it can only do one thing at once."

Wilson says that when you walk, you can't be anxious. "You are in that frame of mind where a bunch of things fall into place and generally you're also more likely to eat well when you're more in touch with your body."

Warren: Breathing

"I think with my one you can do it while you walk," Warren laughed. "I wanted to choose something really simple, cheap and effective, and that is to breathe."

"I want people to concentrate on breathing into their belly to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. It assists your digestion as well."

"They sound really simple but I hate to break it; some of them are stupidly simple," Wilson added. "You just gotta fire up and do them."

From what you're eating to how you're feeling: The role nutrition plays in our mental health