I know what you’re thinking – ‘’we’re in a pandemic, give me a break! Eating healthy is too hard to think about at the moment! I need to treat myself!’’ However, I’m here to tell you that it’s exactly a pandemic which should make you want to focus on your nutrition. Hear me out…
What you consume is the steppingstone between you and your ability to cope with stress, anxiety and overwhelm. When you’re nutritionally depleted, your body’s stress response mechanism cannot adapt to stressful triggers as efficiently (1), your brain cannot operate optimally (2) and your hormones and neurotransmitters cannot be synthesised let alone function. Without adequate nutrition your gut bacteria cannot thrive and send their signals along what we call the ‘gut-brain-axis’ causing a breakdown of healthy mental wellbeing (3).
The body’s stress response mechanism called the HPA axis needs optimal nutrition status (in particular the B vitamins) to be able to adapt to stressful triggers that are a part of life (2). However, in westernised cultures we are overfed and undernourished, calorie counting, but failing to obtain crucial nutrient status (4). As a result of poor nutrient intake, brain function is impaired, mental health declines and we see more and more episodes of anxiety and depression (1).
Without adequate and balanced nutrition, pathways break down resulting in mood changes. Did you know that omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish or algae are a key micronutrient needed for brain structure and function? They also help in decreasing neuro-inflammation which reduces occurrence and severity of depression. How do they do this? Well, omega-3 fatty acids can travel through the blood brain barrier and once into the brain interact with neurotransmitters, whilst suppressing inflammation (8).
As well as nutrients in food being the fuel in particular metabolic pathways, some nutrients are needed to actually synthesise vital cellular chemicals we need in everyday life. An example of this is the neurotransmitter serotonin (our happy hormone) which is one of our brains chemical messengers. In order to actually make serotonin we need to feed our body the precursor L-Tryptophan to form it (5). L-Tryptophan is an amino acid found in pumpkin seeds, fish, and eggs. Studies show those with an insufficient intake have a decline of cognition, behaviour and mood (6).
Food also regulates your mood through playing a transportation role. Let’s take carbohydrates and feelings of happiness as an example. There are many transport pathways in the body for different nutrients. Some nutrients use the same pathway therefore have to compete to use it, with the loser nutrient not being absorbed by the body. Tryptophan (the precursor to serotonin) often loses out to other amino acids. So where do carbohydrates come in? When you eat carbohydrates, you produce insulin. Insulin transports glucose from the carbohydrate to the cells for fuel. Insulin also transports amino acids along with the glucose – all amino acids apart from tryptophan. This means that tryptophan can travel through the bloodstream to the brain without any competition where serotonin can be produced (7)…enter feelings of happiness!
These are just a few very brief examples of how food and dietary choices can affect how you feel and function. There are many other mechanisms which come into play such as inflammation, inadequate levels of nutrients involved in a variety of cellular pathways, gut integrity and its microbiome. Each individual presents uniquely, and no treatment is the same – so it’s best to book in to see me to better assess your circumstances. You have the power to promote good mental health through what you consume!
- O’Neil A, Quirk SE, Housden S, Brennan SL, Williams LJ, Pasco JA, Berk M, Jacka FN: Relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents: a systematic review. Am J Publ Health 2014; 104:e31–e42.
- Brown BI (2018) Stress, HPA Axis Dysfunction and Personalized Nutrition. J Orthomol Med. 33(1)
- Mörkl, S., Wagner-Skacel, J., Lahousen, T., Lackner, S., Holasek, S., & Bengesser, S. et al. (2018). The Role of Nutrition and the Gut-Brain Axis in Psychiatry: A Review of the Literature. Neuropsychobiology, 79(1), 80-88. doi: 10.1159/000492834
- Rust P, Hasenegger V, König J: Österreichischer Ernährungsbericht 2017. Wien, Universität Wien und Bundesministerium für Gesundheit und Frauen, 2017.
- Lehnert, H., & Wurtma, R. (1993). Amino Acid Control of Neurotransmitter Synthesis and Release: Physiological and Clinical Implications. Psychotherapy And Psychosomatics, 60(1), 18-32. doi: 10.1159/000288676
- Höglund, E., Øverli, Ø., & Winberg, S. (2019). Tryptophan Metabolic Pathways and Brain Serotonergic Activity: A Comparative Review. Frontiers In Endocrinology, 10. doi: 10.3389/fendo.2019.00158
- Spring, B. (1984). Recent Research on the Behavioral Effects of Tryptophan and Carbohydrate. Nutrition And Health, 3(1-2), 55-67. doi: 10.1177/026010608400300204
- Lim, S., Kim, E., Kim, A., Lee, H., Choi, H., & Yang, S. (2016). Nutritional Factors Affecting Mental Health. Clinical Nutrition Research, 5(3), 143. doi: 10.7762/cnr.2016.5.3.143