One of the biggest focuses of recovery at Acquiesce is on mental health as this has a significant impact on how we feel, the things we do and is the most common trigger for addictions and relapses. That’s why we dedicate lots of time on the programme to teaching skills and healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with our mental health.
Something not many people know is that our diet and the things we eat can have an impact on our mental health and the phrase “you are what you eat” couldn’t be more true. In this guide, we’re going to be looking at ways in which changing your diet can improve your mental health as well as some of the eating habits you should probably avoid.
How are Diet and Mental Health Linked?
Whilst the connection between our diet and mental health is complex, research has found strong links between the things we eat and how we feel. This is because of the way your brain and gastrointestinal tract (often called the ‘second brain) interact with each other.
Your gastrointestinal, or GI, tract is home to billions of microscopic bacteria that influence the production of neurotransmitters which are chemical substances that are constantly carrying messages from your gut to your brain. Two common examples of these are dopamine and serotonin, the ‘happy hormones’.
Eating healthier and food and maintaining a good diet promotes the growth of ‘good’ bacteria in the gut, which in turn positively influences the production of neurotransmitters. On the other hand, a diet that is filled with processed unhealthy foods can cause inflammation of the gut which negatively impacts the production of neurotransmitters and in turn lowers your mood.
Sugar is a common culprit of this type of inflammation and feeds the bad bacteria living in your GI tract. This may come as a surprise to many as sugar often makes us feel good. This is true in the short term as it causes a temporary spike in feel good transmitters such as dopamine, however, this sugar rush is fleeting and is often followed shortly by a crash, causing you to feel down.
Foods That Help You to Stay Healthy
Whole foods are food that are either processed minimally or not processed at all. These include whole grains, legumes and fresh fruit and veg. These are better for your mental health as some studies have found that preservatives, artificial food colourings and other additives can cause or worsen hyperactivity and depression.
High-fibre foods help your body to absorb glucose (food sugars) more slowly, reducing the risk of sugar rushes and crashes. These include fruits, vegetables and healthy carbohydrates like whole grains and beans.
Antioxidants are essential for reducing inflammation in your gut and are present in foods such as berries, leafy greens, turmeric and foods with Omega-3 fatty acids like salmon and black chia seeds. Antioxidants have also been found in dark chocolate, however, this also contains lots of sugar so be careful to consume in moderation.
Vitamin D can help your body to produce serotonin and we typically get most of it from sunlight, however, it can also be found in many foods. Many mushrooms are good sources of vitamin D, however, one of the best ways to ensure you’re getting the right amount is by taking vitamin D supplements.
Magnesium is an essential mineral which benefits our bodies in many ways, from nerve and muscle function to keeping a steady heartbeat. It’s also incredibly effective at maintaining a good food-mood connection as a magnesium deficiency can hurt the bacteria in your gut and lead to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
Foods high in magnesium include dark chocolate, cacao nibs, almonds, cashews, dark leafy greens, bananas and beans.
Fermented foods are packed full of probiotics which are great for your digestive tract. These foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh and the drink kombucha, however, it’s worth noting that many of these foods are also high in sodium, so if you have a high blood pressure it’s wise to consume in moderation or skip them altogether.
Maintaining a Balanced Diet
Part of maintaining a healthy diet is finding the perfect balance of each food group. These include:
- Fruit and vegetables (33%)
- Healthy carbohydrates such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta (32%)
- Dairy (15%)
- Non-dairy sources of protein such as meat, fish, eggs and beans (12%)
- Foods high in fat and/or sugar (8%)
According to the Eatwell balanced diet plate, 33 percent of your diet should be made of fruit and veg, 32 percent should be healthy carbs, 15 percent should be dairy products, twelve percent should be non-dairy sources of protein and 8 percent should be foods that are high in fat and/or sugar.
By maintaining a healthier and more balanced diet, you should start to feel better in both your mind and body.