My top 5 nutrition tips for mental health are:
- Balance Sugar with Protein, Fat and Fibre
- Screen for Gluten and Dairy Intolerance
- Take Vitamin B12 or Eat Animal Products
- Supplement Vitamin D or Get More Sunlight
- Supplement Essential Fatty Acids or Eat Fish Twice a Week
Disclaimer: This is not medical advice. Advice from your family physician takes priority when making important decisions about your health.
We all know we’re supposed to take our vitamins, eat lots of vegetables and cut down on sugar. I have also known this for a long time but haven’t always followed that advice. I found that when I learned HOW and WHY different foods (or lack of them) affected my brain and mood it gave me more motivation to make positive changes. As a mental health professional find that some of my clients who suffer from depression and low energy eventually discover that they have underlying nutritional deficiencies or allergies.
When these are resolved it often results in a big improvement to their mental health. Alternatively the cumulative effect of many small changes can also positively impact mood. My hope is after reading this you will have a basic understanding of common causes of poor mental health related to nutrition and how you can apply that knowledge to improving your own mental health. If you want to go one a deeper dive into this topic check out my article Integrative Medicine for Depression.
Low Blood Sugar and Mood
Eating excess sugar without having protein fat or fibre can cause spikes and drops in blood sugar. When our blood sugar is low we are more irritable (hangry). This can cause us to get into arguments with others, or trigger low mood. I used to always get into fights with my wife after getting home from work. Eventually I realized I was hangry, and started eating a snack in the car on the way home. As a result the fights almost completely disappeared. One study even found that judges were more likely to grant parole to prisoners after they had eaten lunch then before.
Preventing Low Blood Sugar
If you’re hungry, eat, it seems simple enough. But how do you prevent the low blood sugar that results from a blood sugar spike and drop caused by what you DO eat? First you need to understand that it’s not just things that are obviously sugary that can cause a blood sugar spike. Anything that our bodies can quickly turn into glucose (blood sugar) can cause a spike. This includes simple carbs like white bread, white rice, and starchy vegetables like potatoes. It also includes many things we don’t even realize have a tonne of sugar. Things like fruit, gatorade, and processed foods. We can’t avoid these foods all the time, but if we pair them with fat, protein and fiber we can flatten the spike and drop in blood sugar.
Add Protein Fat and Fibre
The reason that sugar and simple carbs cause a spike in blood sugar is because our body can convert them to glucose QUICKLY. Protein, fat and fibre take longer to absorb into the body. Therefore if you pair sugary foods with protein, fat, or fibre it will delay the conversion into glucose and flatten the spike and drop. Less spikes and drops in blood sugar = less time being hangry = less conflict and low mood. This will also keep you feeling full longer. Being satiated reduces the likelihood that you will snack on sugar or carbs quickly after a meal resulting in a blood sugar yoyo effect in the short-term, and weight gain in the long-term. If you feel lethargic or unwell after eating certain foods it could also be because you have a food intolerance
Common Food Intolerance’s
Most people know if they are deathly allergic to a certain type of food from experience. However millions of people may be intolerant to certain foods and not realize it. Two of biggest culprits for food intolerance are dairy and gluten. Around 75% of the world is lactose intolerant and up to 13% of people are gluten intolerant. Gluten intolerance is not as serious as Celiac disease but can still contribute to mental ill health. The problem is that the symptoms for these conditions can vary wildly resulting in the condition going un-diagnosed. How do gluten and dairy intolerance affect mental health?
How Food Allergies Affect Mood
In his book Integrative Medicine for Depression psychiatrist Dr. James Greenblatt outlines why gluten and dairy intolerance can lead to mental health problems. Some people’s bodies can’t break down casein (milk protein) and gluten. This causes damage to their digestive system and negatively impacts the brain. The exact mechanism by which these contribute to mental ill health is still being deciphered, but a simple urine test can detect if someone has a gluten or milk intolerance. Alternatively you can remove these foods from your diet and see if you notice a change in your energy and overall health. Once an intolerance is detected people who avoid the offending food will likely notice improvement in their mood, energy, and cognitive functioning.
Studies show that vitamin D deficiency is linked with depression and many other diseases. There’s even some evidence that suggests Vitamin D can lower your risk of getting COVID-19. Some estimate that there are over 1 billion people in the world who are vitamin D deficient. I live in Vancouver Canada where it rains 169 days a year. My family advised me that everyone who lives here should be supplementing vitamin D. People who live in far from the equator are more vulnerable to Vitamin D deficiency because they get less exposure to sunlight.
If you have darker skin you are also more vulnerable because higher melanin in the skin reduces your ability to produce vitamin D from sunlight. You can boost your vitamin D levels by getting exposure to the sun. If this is not possible a use lights that mimic sunlight in the winter. I use one such light for 20 minutes in the morning during the dreary winter months and it helps boost my energy noticeably.
Vitamin B12 is essential for mental health. Studies have linked low Vitamin B12 levels to depression. Vitamin B12 is important for your body’s energy levels, immune system, and brain functioning. B12 is involved in making serotonin, a neuro-transmitter that affects our happiness. Many medications for depression and anxiety attempt to increase the level of serotonin in the brain. Low vitamin B12 levels are often found in elderly people and in vegetarians and vegans. A blood test can determine if your levels are too low. You can increase vitamin B12 levels through supplementation or diet (meat, dairy, and eggs).
Essential Fatty Acids
Two kinds of fatty acids are considered essential because the body cannot make them itself: the omega-3s and the omega-6s. The omega-3s, EPA and DHA, help fuel the brain and control the inflammation in degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. People who have essential fatty acid deficiencies are at risk for many symptoms, including depression. Research has shown that supplementing Omega-3’s can help reduce symptoms of depression.
A meta-analysis of studies also found that supplementing with Omega-3’s helped reduce emotional lability (constantly changing mood) and oppositional behviour in children with ADHD. To get these essential fatty acids you can eat fish twice a week or take an Omega-3 supplement. These supplements aren’t regulated so it’s important that you get yours from a source recommended by your doctor or pharmacist.