As our interest in health and wellness grows, so too does our focus on brain health and mental wellness. Many of us are well aware of the benefits that eating a balanced diet has on our physical health, but the understanding of how diet affects our mental wellness is less well known. More research is showing the impact food has on both our overall mental wellness, as well as specific mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.
The role of the gut-brain axis in mental wellness
When we don’t provide our brain with the fuel it needs to carry out its jobs, it can start to suffer. Short term depletion of energy and nutrients can leave us feeling irritable, difficulty concentrating, moody, dizzy and light headed, whereas a depletion of these key nutrients over a long period of time can have an effect on both the brain’s structure and function which can lead to conditions affecting our mental wellness such as depression, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.
The link between our gut health and our state of mind is also becoming clearer. Not only is the brain talking to the gut and the rest of the body, but the gut is also constantly talking to the brain. This two-way communication pathway is known as the ‘gut-brain axis’.
Our gut bacteria are responsible for producing neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine, so when these bacteria are imbalanced, our production of these crucial neurotransmitters might be affected, impacting our mood, anxiety, energy, sleep patterns, memory and concentration.
So, having a healthy gut microbiota is key for optimised brain health and mental wellness. If there is any imbalance in our gut bacteria and digestion, then our ability to break down foods and absorb nutrients in our guts will be impaired, starving us of crucial brain power nutrients. We will also not be able to produce enough neurotransmitters to keep us feeling uplifted, motivated and driven.
Foods to support mental wellness
Food can be a powerful way of supporting mental wellness. Here are a few suggestions:
Focus on high quality, fresh, whole foods
A balanced diet that is rich in whole foods such as fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, lean animal protein, oily fish, fibre rich whole (unprocessed) grains and legumes has been shown to help support brain health. It provides the body with protein, vitamins, minerals, and fibre which nourish our brain, reduce inflammation, support the gut-brain axis, provide natural antioxidants, phytonutrients and improve the health of the microbiota. It has been said that 3 weeks on a healthier ‘Mediterranean’ style diet, can drastically improve moods, reduce inflammation and improve overall health.
Eat healthy fats
Our brains are made up of around 60-70% fat, mostly DHA, which is an ‘essential fatty acid’. There are two types of essential fats, EPA and DHA (also known as Omega 3, which play an important role in the brain. DHA helps to support cell signalling, allowing brain cells to communicate with each other, while EPA reduces inflammation. Include lots of healthy fats in your diet, including oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), avocados, olives, nuts and seeds to nourish your brain. Supplementing with Omega 3 Zooki is also a good way to ensure you get your daily requirement of omega 3 if you're not eating two servings of oily fish per week.
Focus on fermented foods
Many fermented foods contain a variety of beneficial bacteria, so it is beneficial to try and consume a variety of these foods on a daily level to keep up species numbers, their diversity and support a happy, healthy microbiota. Fermented foods include sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, live yoghurts, miso and tempeh.
Maintaining optimal brain and gut health is crucial for mental wellness, so we want to make sure we're doing everything in our power to support our moods, memory and intellect, so we can stay sharp-minded, happy and healthy throughout our lives.