It’s well-known that to keep your body in good shape, you need to eat a healthy diet. Society is fixated on the way the body looks and it is certainly true that it is a measure of good health. Body mass index and skin tone and texture, are things we look for and when things go wrong, changing the way we eat is a go to solution. When our mental health suffers, however, dietary habits are not the first thing that spring to mind when we are searching for a remedy. Billions are spent every year on pharmaceuticals, which are still under development, to treat mental illness.
Exposure to social and environmental stressors insults the brain to the extent where neurological damage occurs. This prevents the neurological mechanisms within the brain functioning properly which manifests in the behaviour change we associate with mental illness. To remedy this, we tend to target the stressor, or lessen our emotional responses by taking medication. This, however, does not restore the neurological imbalances that have occurred, and many people who take medications report that their emotional response to stress is masked, rather than resolved. In this regard, medication is not helpful.
It is estimated, at any given time, 13% of the world’s population is taking antipsychotic medication and this figure is growing. They are far from a magic bullet and for most people taking them, they are ineffective, and the long-term prognosis is not good. Life-expectancy for people with mental illness is lowered by approximately 15 years and there is also an increased risk of developing chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimers. It is very common for chronic disease to occur alongside mental illnesses as their pathologies are similar. Despite all the life-enhancing technologies that have been created, developed Western society has the greatest incidence of mental illness. Work-related stress, family conflicts, poverty and screen-time all contribute, but it is now evident that quality of diet is the overriding factor in determining mental well-being.
If we return to the body, however, we more readily acknowledge that nutrition can heal the body when it is not working at its best. When we experience muscle soreness, we look for sources of magnesium; if immunity is low, we increase our zinc intake; if we’re tired or pale, we increase our iron intake. In the same way nutrition can heal the body, it can also heal the mind. In fact, nutrition can be a far more powerful healer than medication. It’s hard to believe, but nutrients such as magnesium are not only good at healing damaged muscle tissue, they can also restore neurons in the brain.
Remedying neurological damage caused by stress is not as simple as eating a healthy diet. The Western diet is dense with refined, processed foods that have had their nutritional content significantly depleted. In order to digest them, valuable nutrition stores are taken from the body, reducing vitamins and minerals that could otherwise be used to maintain mind and body health. Feeling sluggish after a meal is an indication that this is happening. It is hard, however, to know how much nutrition is being robbed to digest unhealthy food. This differs between individuals and nutritional needs can vary according to the daily demands placed on the body. For example, if you exercise three days a week, you’ll need more protein on those days than you do on the days you don’t exercise. It figures, therefore, that if you put more cognitive demands on the brain, it will require more nutrition. This can be anything from spending time on your computer writing a report, to attending a work meeting. The brain needs energy and consumes approximately 20% of the body’s calories every day. This can increase by 5% if the brain is involved in cognitive tasks.
If we want to keep a healthy mind, it is important that we optimize the nutrition in our bodies to ensure it can perform at its best, and reduce the risk of mental illness. It is essential that when making food choices, we select things that are nutrient dense rather than processed foods that deplete nutrition. The best way to do this is by choosing foods that are fresh and have single ingredients. As soon as we start combining foods with others, chopping, freezing, storing, the nutrition starts to demise. There are many products on the market that claim to be nutritious, but these claims are based on when the product was fresh and before the ingredients were processed. A classic example is bread. Grains in themselves may be high in vitamins and minerals, but before being made into bread, they are sprayed with chemicals and left in a granary. Even whole meal bread is nutritionally compromised.
Whole foods, however, are more than adequate in providing nutritional needs and surprisingly little can give you everything you need. One kiwifruit, for example, can give you one and a half times the amount of Vitamin C you need. A handful of cashews can give you your daily recommendation of magnesium. A good piece of advice I got from a nutritional expert was to only eat food that looks like it came from a plant or animal. That way you can ensure your food is minimally processed. If you eat that way you can assume your nutritional needs are being met and that when your brain needs a bit more, there is some in reserve.
If you want to know how to optimize brain health through diet, think of the way you would eat for a healthy body. In fact, if you see the visible signs of a healthy body, it is likely your brain is also functioning well. This would be accompanied by a sense of well-being, contentedness, mental clarity and good quality of sleep. Certainly, research suggests nutrition is a good defense against stress. It is very hard to remove stresses from our lives and it is not always possible to avoid them. Changing eating habits is, however, easy.
For more information on how to improve mental well-being through healthy eating, get in touch.