The Startling Connection Between Nutrition and Mental Health
It’s moving out day. As a shameless subscriber to a stereotypical student lifestyle, the stench of old pot noodles lingers in my room. It was in this context that sticking out from behind the recycling bin, I discovered a dusty orange file. Upon closer inspection, my memory began to return. This was no ordinary file. In fact, this particular file contained a host of hand-picked recipes that my mum had lovingly collated for me at the start of the academic year, only for me to forget all about them and fall in with fast food. Sorry mum.
A month later, with the assistance of my mum’s forgotten recipes, I’ve committed to regularly cooking for myself, making healthy meals from scratch almost every night. Somehow, the guilt unleashed by discovering this neglected culinary treasure trove was enough to spur me into making a change. And what a change it’s been. My energy levels, focus, and mood have all seen consistent improvements. Stepping up to the plate (no pun intended) in the kitchen every night has even helped me to build a more rigid daily routine – something that a pandemic-stricken student lifestyle doesn’t make at all easy.
This transformation got me thinking. Just how powerful is my diet? How does food affect my mood?
The short answer: in many more ways than you’d think.
Go With Your Gut
The old adage might be onto something. One of the biggest clues about the relationship between nutrition and mental health comes from a discovery that around 90% of the serotonin (the chemical responsible for regulating our moods) used in our bodies is produced by microbes (tiny bugs) in our guts. With this in mind, it makes sense to suggest that if kept happy with proper nutrients from proper foods, these microbes are going to turn up for work with a spring in their step and will ultimately be more efficient on the serotonin production line.
Furthermore, evidence suggests that the microbes in our guts help to reduce inflammation in the body. Inflammation is part of the body’s security system; it’s used to preserve our energy and keep us safe from infections. It’s why you feel so tired when you’re ill. However, when allowed to go overboard, it can get in the way of some of the body’s key functions. This leads to an array of health problems. Crucially, chronic inflammation has also been identified as a potential cause of depression, due to its impact on how our brains transmit important signals.
Let The Data Speak For Itself
This link was demonstrated further by Felice Jacka, a scientist who conducted an experiment comparing how unhealthy eaters living with depression responded to both social-centred therapy and dietary improvements. The results were stark. After the three-month trial, over 30% of those undergoing dietary improvements were in remission, compared to just 8% of the subjects who were offered social-centred therapy.
Whilst this field is still tentative ground for health researchers, a pattern of communication between what’s going on in our guts and how we feel is emerging nonetheless. The microbes in our guts and the neurons in our brains keep getting their heads together about something – and I doubt they’re just chatting about the weather.
The important thing is that we need to keep these microbes happy if we want to keep ourselves happy. That means giving them what they need to work their magic. In other words – healthy and nutritious foods and drinks. The psychological benefits of a healthy diet are crystal clear.
That’s All Well and Good…
No matter how clear the science is, most people can’t eat themselves into remission. The underlying causes of the current mental health crisis are as numerous as they are complex. Trivialising the triggers of this epidemic to just the stuff on our plates won’t get us anywhere. So, what’s the value of bringing this up at all?
Put simply: it’s still a step in the right direction. Let’s face it, the mental health services available to most people right now are routinely overwhelmed and widely underfunded. Those that aren’t will set you back an arm and a leg in no time. Collectively improving our diet is a positive step that we can take right now that doesn’t require rooms full of politicians or wads of cash.
But I know what you’re saying. Healthy eating can be expensive too, and not everybody is lucky enough to have their own dusty orange file. Cooking from scratch, let alone finding the right recipes, consumes time and money that a lot of people simply don’t have.
But Does It Have To?
With the right knowledge to hand, cooking healthy food from scratch doesn’t have to cost the earth, or take all evening. As a cash-strapped student myself, I’m living proof of this. The missing piece of this puzzle is education, and that’s something that charities, influencers, and anyone else with a following can all play a role in improving. Collaborating to share healthy recipes, kitchen hacks and food shopping secrets is well within the realms of what’s achievable. If the press of a button is all it takes to beam the latest royal family rivalry to the world, then showing people that it’s possible to live better through eating better is just as doable.
So as the sun sets on World Junk Food Day (which incidentally fell last week), perhaps it’s time to reflect on how we can give everyone their own dusty orange file.
Written by Will Higgins
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28137247/ (Felice Jacka’s study)
If you found this article interesting to read, check out these:
World Wellbeing Week 2021 – Givey | Blog
Givey X Mindhamok: A New Approach To Student Wellbeing – Givey | Blog
Covid-19 and Men’s Mental Health – Givey | Blog
Adjusting to post-lockdown life with social anxiety – Givey | Blog
Written by Will Higgins
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