Last week I introduced you to nutritional psychiatry. What it is and why it can be incredibly helpful when you’re dealing with depression. I also gave you some practical tips on how to support your mood with food.
This week, having just returned from a brilliant conference all about this very subject, I’d like to share with you some of the key insights that I’ve gained.
On a side note:
Believe it or not, I have now rewritten this post three times. Why? Because each time it just ended up too complicated and too long. Nutritional psychiatry is such a big topic, it’s hard to capture it in a few words!
But I’m all for keepings things simple. So instead of diving into one or more particular topics, I’ll save that for more blog posts in the future.
key insights from the nutritional psychiatry conference
First off, let me just say that there is sooo much research happening in this field. That truly was my biggest discovery when listening to all the experts.
So many passionate individuals are dedicating their careers to nutritional psychiatry. All so that people can feel better. I’m forever grateful for them and I think it also creates a lot of hope for better ways of dealing with mental health conditions.
The gut and the brain
- The gut and the brain communicate with one another. So what happens inside your gut can influence what happens inside your brain and vice versa.
And that’s why digestive symptoms are so absolutely crucial to sort out if you have symptoms elsewhere in the body. Which is precisely why I run a stool test with my clients.
- Part of that communication is via your microbiome.
Your microbiome describes all the millions of microbes that make your body their home. A large proportion of those live inside your intestines. They are mainly bacteria but also yeasts, viruses and even parasites.
- Interestingly, only about 10 to 30% of your microbiome is the same as that of another person. Your DNA, on the other hand, is about 93% the same as somebody else’s. Meaning, our gut bacteria can hugely differ from one person to the next which has big implications for the individual’s health (and how to approach it).
- What you eat directly affects the type and quantity of your gut bacteria. If you eat lots of different types of plant foods, then you’ll also have lots of different types of bacteria. And the greater your bacterial diversity is, the better your health outcome will be.
Not surprisingly, the typical Western diet is associated with poorer bacterial diversity and that then also affects your brain function.
- Your brain is nearly 60% fat. And guess what, the types of fat depend on the types of fatty foods that you eat! So following a low-fat or even zero-fat diet is seriously bad news for your brain and mental health! You need fats!
Take cholesterol for example. It’s had such a bad reputation over the years when, in fact, your mental health depends on it. Cholesterol is needed to make Vitamin D and a deficiency of that is very much linked to low mood. It’s also needed to allow serotonin (the feel good neurotransmitter) to “work” effectively in your brain. So eat fats but eat those found in natural foods (not processed foods). Don’t shy away from avocados or eggs.
- Other deficiencies include nutrients such as vitamin B12 and vitamin D, zinc and copper. And another big deficiency for many is much simpler than that: plant foods! Plants have very important compounds called phytonutrients that actually have a beneficial effect on your brain. Eat your plants and again, the bigger your plant variety, the better your gut bacteria diversity too.
- Inflammation plays a huge role in mental health disorders. And again, that inflammation can have root causes in your gut, your diet and lifestyle.
- An inflamed brain can lead to “environmental stimuli exhaustion”. If you get the feeling that the world is shouting at you, that you cannot handle loud noises, bright lights, lots of people around you and other messages from your surroundings, then you might know what I mean.
Back when I was unwell myself, I could absolutely NOT handle the sound of cutlery and plates being put on one another. It can be pretty noisy, right? But I remember repeatedly trying to tell my husband how super painful that noise felt in my head. I’d sometimes even have to cover my ears! We all have different tolerances but back then I’d say I was overly sensitive to environmental stimuli.
To reduce this “neuroinflammation” in your brain, you need to approach it from as many angles as possible. Basically, you’d want to give your body the signal that you’re okay and not in danger. That you don’t need to be in the fight-or-flight mode.
So looking at relaxation, sleep, gentle exercise, daily routines and rituals, nutrition and supplements. Things like telling people not to talk to you about upsetting things in their lives until you’re feeling better. Perhaps not following the news. Dim lights or even candle light only in the evenings. Getting of social media.
Small changes but in lots of areas of your life.
There really is so much more I could tell you about the nutritional psychiatry conference and what I’ve learned.
But what I’m really hoping to have done is to give you hope and perhaps to spark your curiosity as well. There really is a ton of research into how our lifestyle choices, including what we eat, affect our mental health. I’ll be sharing a lot more on nutritional psychiatry in my posts so keep coming back. Or sign up to my weekly letters so you definitely won’t miss out!
Oh and by the way, here’s a link to a great Guardian article published in March 2019, titled “Nutritional psychiatry: can you eat yourself happier?”. It’s a good one!