Over the past decade the number of prescriptions being issued for antidepressants in England and Wales has almost doubled. Indeed, GP data from 2017–2018 indicated that in just one year, 2.1 billion doses of antidepressants were prescribed to a 52 million people – meaning that around 11% of individuals were taking more than one antidepressant a day.
Despite the upwards trend in prescribing medications, the number of people suffering with anxiety and depression is still continuing to increase, and 1 in 4 people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year – so what’s going on?
While it’s clear that medications are important in the treatment of mental health conditions, there is growing evidence indicating that diet and nutrition are also vital – playing a pivotal role in preventing common symptoms of poor mental health such as low mood, anxiety, brain fog, fatigue and extreme mood swings.
WHAT DOES BLOOD SUGAR HAVE TO DO WITH MY MENTAL HEALTH?
In my clinical practice, one dietary tool that I have found to be an absolute game changer when it comes to improving mental health is to optimise blood sugar balance.
Your brain is the most energy-guzzling organ in the body and needs a consistent supply of fuel – which is modulated via your blood sugar levels – so that it can carry out all of its complex functions and perform at its best. However, when we eat foods that are high in quick-releasing sugars, this sends our blood sugar levels on a rollercoaster ride: we experience energy peaks and surges that are followed very quickly by energy crashes.
When blood sugar crashes, it triggers the body’s sympathetic nervous system – sending you into ‘fight-or-flight’ mode and releasing the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin, which can trigger feelings of panic, anxiety, and irritability.
While blood sugar crashes were useful back when we were hunter gatherers, giving us the drive to seek out food high in quick-releasing energy when resources were scarce, nowadays they keep us trapped in a vicious circle of highs and lows. In a modern society we are surrounded by an abundance of food (like chocolate bars, pastries and energy bars) engineered to keep us on that blood sugar rollercoaster ride. This means that when we crash, and our body goes into survival mode, it doesn’t have to very look far for the next sugar hit before the whole ride begins again. For someone who’s suffering with anxiety and already has a sensitive nervous system, constantly triggering your body to go into this ‘fight-or-flight’ mode can be potentially debilitating.
When it comes to diet choices that will keep your blood sugar levels steady and help to maintain a more balanced mood, there’s three simple rules to follow:
Prioritise protein: This means reaching for foods such as eggs, fish, good-quality meat and poultry, or a combination of pulses and grains if you’re plant-based. By doing this you’ll provide your brain with the building blocks of important neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine, which boost mood, as well as providing slow-releasing energy to help your brain to function at its best.
Get enough fibre: This means veggies and lots of them, so aim to have up to half of your plate dedicated to a variety of vegetables in as many colours as possible. In addition to protein, fibre also helps provide the brain and body with slow-releasing energy. It also helps to fuel your gut microbiome (the naturally occurring microbes found in your digestive system), which plays an essential role in both brain health and mental wellbeing – keep reading for more on this below!
Choose complex, slow-releasing, carbohydrates: This means ditching the simple carbohydrates like white bread or white rice, as well as processed and sugary foods, and replacing them with whole grain varieties and root vegetables.
GOOD GUT BACTERIA = GOOD MENTAL HEALTH
Another major factor when it comes to keeping on top of your mental health is to ensure you have a well-balanced gut microbiome, but how exactly does what’s going on in your gut impact your brain? Well, we all have trillions of naturally occurring microbes in our gut, such as bacteria, fungi and yeast, and research indicates that these microbes play an important role in communicating with our brain, which is why scientists often refer to the gut as ‘the second brain’. Keeping the gut microbiome in balance is essential for maintaining a healthy communication between the brain and the gut, otherwise unfavourable bacteria, yeast and fungi can take the opportunity to cause inflammation.
Interestingly, inflammation is one of the key drivers of depression, so keeping inflammation at bay can help prevent symptoms of low mood and brain fog. We can do this by making sure that we’re feeding our gut microbes with plenty of plant fibres – found in vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains and pulses. These foods help bacteria in the gut produce fatty acids like butyrate – a well-studied compound that has been shown to lower inflammation, as well as stimulate the growth of new brain cells.
Butyrate and other fatty acids produced by friendly bacteria have also been shown to help increase the production of serotonin and GABA – neurotransmitters that are associated with happiness, positivity, appetite regulation, sleep quality and tranquility.
Aside from eating plenty of plant fibres, we can also encourage the growth of friendly bacteria by eating fermented foods such as sauerkraut, natural yoghurt, kefir and kimchi. These foods contain natural sources of live, friendly bacteria, which have been shown to play beneficial roles in human health and mental wellbeing.
So, when it comes to improving your mental health, changing what you eat can often be vital in addressing factors such as blood sugar and gut bacteria imbalances that could be contributing to your poor mental health. If you’re struggling with your mental health, aside from making the changes I’ve suggested, it can also be important to rule out the possibility of nutrient deficiencies – vitamin D3, B12, iron, zinc and Omega 3 fatty acids are all known to play a critical role in mental health. If you are concerned that this may be an issue for you, then speak to your doctor or a nutritionist.
Adult Psychiatric Morbidity in England – 2007, Results of a household survey. ONS Survey, (27th Jan 2009). Available online: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/adult-psychiatric-morbidity-survey/adult-psychiatric-morbidity-in-england-2007-results-of-a-household-survey
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anastasia is a registered nutritional therapist who specialises in nutrition and its role in mental health and brain function. She is passionate about empowering people with the tools to take their mental health into their own hands, and has been working for a number of years with clients suffering from a wide range of psychiatric conditions, such as depression, generalised anxiety disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.