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Nutrition to Boost Mental Health from a Functional Dietitian: Nourishing the Mind



































In today’s fast paced world, mental health is becoming a growing concern across all stages of life. Stress, anxiety and depression are on the rise, impacting millions of people globally. According to the Global Burden of Disease study 2017, mental health and substance abuse disorders accounted for 13% of the global burden of disease, with depression being a leading cause of disability worldwide. While therapy and medications are common treatments, there is growing evidence that your nutritional habits can play a crucial role in optimizing mental health. As a Functional Dietitian, I believe in a holistic approach to health, and that includes understanding the powerful connection between what we eat and how we feel.


Let’s explore how to nourish your mind for optimal mental health.


The Gut-Brain Connection

The gut-brain axis is a communication system between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain. I was surprised when I learned in my functional nutrition training that the gut actually sends more messages to the brain than vice versa and for this reason it is often called ‘the second brain’. This connection is vital and it is the trillions of microbes in the gut that produce important feel good neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid). These chemicals are important for regulating sleep, mood and stress levels.


Prebiotics and Probiotics

To support a healthy gut microbiome and get a boost of feel good neurotransmitters, one consideration is incorporating prebiotics and probiotics into your daily nutrition habits. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria found in fermented foods like kefir, natural yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and miso. Prebiotics are food for beneficial bacteria found in garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke, banana and whole grains.


The Nervous System Nutrients

Introducing specific nutrients that are essential to the nervous system and support optimal mental health. Some key nutrients include:


B Vitamins: especially Vitamin B6 or Pyridoxine but also folic acid and B12 which are vital for neurotransmitter production and function. It is well documented that deficiencies of these vitamins are linked to increased depression. Food sources include 100% whole grains, leafy greens (spinach, collard) protein-rich chicken, nuts, legumes, avocado, wheat germ and brown rice.


Choline: no discussion on brain health would be complete without mention of choline. It is a component of the crucial neurotransmitter acetylcholine that plays a role in memory, learning and attention. Food sources of choline include whole eggs, organ meats, soybean and superfood mushrooms like shiitake.


Vitamin D: known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’ is crucial for mental health. Low levels of vitamin D are strongly associated with an increased risk of depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). To boost vitamin D levels spend 20 minutes a day outdoors to expose yourself to natural sunlight, include high food sources such as fatty fish, whole eggs, fortified dairy and superfood mushrooms like cordyceps found in supplemental form. Consider a daily high quality supplement as part of your daily routine.


Magnesium: a critical brain nutrient that helps to regulate mood and stress. It is involved in over 300 biochemical reactions in the body including those related to optimal brain function. Food sources of magnesium include nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens and whole grains.


Omega 3 Fatty Acids: EPA and DHA are foundational nutrients for brain health. Did you know that the brain is 60% fat? These fatty acids help both to reduce inflammation and also support the structural integrity of brain cells. Several studies demonstrate that Omega 3’s can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. Food sources include fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines or flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp hearts and walnuts.


Antioxidants: Oxidative stress and inflammation in the body are strongly correlated to mental health disorders. Antioxidants protect the brain cells from oxidative damage and support overall brain health. Antioxidants are stored in the colour pigment of foods so think dark and brightly pigmented foods like berries, beets, dark chocolate, kidney beans, carrots plus nuts like pecans.


Balanced Blood Sugar Levels

The number one strategy to help regulate mood is aiming to establish balanced blood sugar levels. Fluctuations in blood sugar can lead to mood swings, irritability and anxiety. To keep blood sugars stable, focus on:


● Reducing sugar intake- to help avoid the spikes and crashes of glucose. Sugar increases insulin for hours compared to a balanced meal option. This leaves insulin levels high which soon has you reaching for another sugar fix and why once a binge starts, it is hard to stop.


● Complex Carbohydrates: choose whole grains that are high in nutrients and low in sugar. Check ingredient lists to ensure it contains 100% whole grains.


● Balance with Proteins: include a source of quality protein with every meal and snack to slow the absorption of glucose and promote steady energy levels. This includes natural nut butters, eggs, natural dairy, legumes, tofu plus animal sources of protein.


● Balance with Healthy Fats: incorporate avocado, nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil to stabilize blood sugars.


Unlike carbohydrates, proteins and fats do not lead to glucose and insulin spikes.


Mindful Eating

Mindful eating is the practice of being fully present while eating. It is bringing your awareness to the senses of smell, taste and feel while eating. Digestion is a parasympathetic activity so we actually absorb and assimilate nutrients better when we eat in a calm, relaxed manner. I always say that our body deserves 15 minutes of our mindful attention while eating for all it does for us.


Conclusion

Nutrition is a powerful tool in feeding not just the body but the mind. By choosing nutrient-dense foods you can support brain function, reduce inflammation and boost your mood. And it is not just addressing the what you are eating, also the how. Eating in relaxed and calm environment is a simple yet powerful tool. As a Functional Dietitian, I encourage you to make small, sustainable changes to your nutrition habits that your body and mind will thank you for.


Working with a Functional Dietitian with a Personalized Nutrition approach can incorporate the right nutrients in the right timing to help you live a positive and healthy life.


By Lesley Nickleson, RD, IFNCP June 2024

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