Last September, when I wrote about “Back to Work Anxiety” and how the Coronavirus pandemic contributes to our already high stress load, I hoped that nine months on, there would be more progress. Of course, the situation is much improved. In September 2020, there wasn’t even a vaccine yet, and nobody knew when there would be. Now we have several, and with more than a third of the population having had at least one jab, things are looking up.
Mental health problems, specifically anxiety and depression, have been an issue for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the incidence of anxiety. In my opinion, an essential tool that is vital for mental health is getting way too little attention: nutrition.
Of course, even the most perfect diet won’t make our worries disappear. But a real food diet and a healthy gut are crucial to help us build resilience against stress.
Give your body what it needs – remove what it doesn’t
At first glance, it may seem preposterous to suggest that nutrition can impact mental health, but if you think about it, nutrition is chemistry. The nerve and brain function relies on chemicals – nutrients – to work properly, and the only way to get them there is by eating them! A deficiency in vitamin B12 alone can cause various psychiatric symptoms, from anxiety, and panic to depression and hallucinations in people of all ages. That’s because the vitamin is needed to make neurotransmitters – brain chemicals we need to feel calm, happy, and content.
The brains primary calming and relaxing neurotransmitter is gamma-amino-butyric acid – GABA. It is an amino acid that calms down stress hormones and affects mood. You can find ready-made GABA in certain foods food, and you can make sure to eat foods that contain its precursor, glutamine. Particularly rich sources of GABA are germinated (sprouted), slow-cooked and fermented foods. Glutamine is found in many foods, especially protein-rich ones, like beef, chicken, fish, dairy products, and eggs, but also in pulses and vegetables like cabbage, Brussels sprouts, celery, kale, spinach, beetroot, carrots, parsley, and fermented foods like miso.
Another relaxing amino acid is GABA’s close relative taurine, another amino acid. Like GABA, it helps us calm down after a surge of adrenalin. Taurine is found in animal foods, such as meat, fish, seafood, eggs, and dairy. It is one of the few nutrients you cannot get from plants. It is not an ‘essential’ amino acid, meaning the body can make it, provided that the diet contains enough protein from a variety of plant sources.
Although magnesium is ubiquitous in food, deficiency is common. Yet, it is such an important nutrient for calm and relaxation. Magnesium-rich foods are green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, and watercress, and other vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and pulses. It really isn’t hard to find – provided you have a varied, real food diet.
The brain is nearly 60 per cent fat, and dietary fats are indispensable for maintaining brain and nerve health and function. Brain cells require all types of fat, including saturated and mono-unsaturated fats. But those can be made in the body. However, the polyunsaturated omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential, i. e. they must come from the diet.
This list of nutrients is not exhaustive. There are many more. Brain chemistry cannot work on thin air!
It often baffles me why so many people’s diets are deficient in magnesium when the mineral really isn’t hard to find. I suspect one reason is that the modern diet is dominated by processed and junk foods, which are devoid of essential nutrients, including magnesium. The more artificial “foods” we eat, the less room there is for natural, real, nutritious foods.
What’s more, a poor diet even strips us of the few nutrients we did manage to get in. Sugar and simple carbohydrates deplete nutrients, especially B vitamins. Yet, the vitamins of the B group – not just B12 – are crucial for the mind.
There’s much more to optimum nutrition for mental health, but it isn’t rocket science. I hope that this illustrates that food matters, both in terms of what you eat as what you don’t eat. An essential first step is to eat real food. Buy ingredients rather than meals and get cooking. Your brain – and the rest of your body – will thank you for it.
Anxiety disorders and the gut
In the last couple of decades, interest in the gut microflora has grown, and a lot of research has been done, with much more still to come. Today we know that gut microbes interact with the immune system, strengthen the barrier function of the intestinal lining, and prevent inflammation. Now, there is mounting evidence that the activities of intestinal microbes also affect our mood and resilience and that they play a role in anxiety and depression.
Microbes can play a positive role by helping us cope better with stressful events. However, if the ecosystem is not in balance – when there is dysbiosis – microbial activity can harm our mental health. Studies in mice have shown that probiotics alleviate anxiety and depression as efficiently as conventional prescription drugs.
A balanced gut microbiota helps strengthen the intestinal lining and protects against inflammation. This, too, affects our mental well-being. When there is dysbiosis, balance and stability have been lost. This can be caused by a lack of some species, an overgrowth of others, or both. It is also associated with decreased production of butyrate and other vital nutrients. A species-rich microbiome has more bacteria that produce butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that strengthens the gut lining. A strong intestinal lining helps prevent metabolites produced by microbes from entering the brain, where they can affect mood and anxiety.
Dysbiosis means that the gut microbiota may no longer be able to control the growth and activities of opportunistic, unwanted bacteria. When these microbes are abundant, their activities can cause inflammation by triggering the body’s immune system. Inflammation affects the central nervous system and can cause symptoms of anxiety. Conversely, anxiety can also cause inflammation. A diverse microbiome may help control inflammation by producing butyrate.
Thus, a healthy gut protects against anxiety disorder in two ways: first directly, through the presence of desirable bacteria; secondly, through the absence of inflammation.
Dealing with anxiety on your own is tough. As your coach and kinesiologist, I can help and guide you. Book your free chemistry call today!
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