There’s a lot of it about.
Have you had it too?
It’s the leading cause of disability in Australia.
We hold national days to ask R U OK?, we train as mental health first-aiders and offer EAP services. Still, despite our greater awareness of depression and other mental health disorders, government cash injections, increased support services, and attempts to improve access to mental health care, we have failed to turn the tide.
The reasons why so many of us are struggling with depression and other mental health disorders are many, including genetic factors, drug and alcohol abuse, having a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes or Parkinson’s disease, your early childhood environment, exposure to trauma, your personality traits and living with chronic high levels of stress.
What’s not included in this list has the potential to reduce your overall risk, lower the risk of recurrence and help you recover more quickly from depression.
Are you wondering what this is?
We have accumulated a wealth of research and scientific evidence that shows how embracing positive lifestyle choices including healthy eating, physical activity, good quality uninterrupted sleep and keeping stress levels in the tolerable zone all play a role in keeping us well.
While there is no single diet that is best for health and wellbeing, following a Mediterranean style of eating has been shown to provide many benefits, including helping you manage your mental wellbeing.
Depression is more than a brain disorder.
Depression is now considered a whole-body disorder because of the interconnection between our brain, gut, immune, and endocrine systems. The effect of our multiple life stressors leads to an accumulation of higher systemic inflammation that contributes to the development of illness and diseases such as depression.
Knowing this means we can take positive steps to help ourselves stay mentally well. While diet alone is not the panacea to all our ills, choosing to make healthier food choices and embrace the other aspects of lifestyle that keep us healthy makes a difference.
The proof is not in the pudding.
For decades, we‘ve been encouraged to eat more fruit and veg. We’ve all heard the message, but we’re not truly listening. That’s because our lives are so busy and often so stressful, the idea of changing our dietary habits can all feel too hard and with so much conflicting advice from various arenas it’s difficult to know what to believe.
Fortunately, we now have the evidence in scientific studies that dietary intervention can improve mood.
Led by Professor Felice Jacka and her team at the Mood and Food Institute at Deakin University the SMILEs trial was the world’s first random controlled trial that sought to answer the question,
“Can improving the quality of my diet improve my depression?”
The short answer is yes.
And it was a significant yes.
Since then, other random controlled trials involving more than 45,000 people have confirmed these findings.
The suggestion is that following a healthier diet is associated with a 30% reduced risk of depression.
It’s important to note that this is not a cause-and-effect result, rather it is an association.
Diet plays a role in health at every age.
Another study from the Mood and Food Institute revealed how poor maternal diet in pregnancy affects the child’s behaviours and risk of mental health disorders.
Did you know that obesity in the mother elevates the child’s risk of autism spectrum disorder and neurodevelopmental delay?
And let’s not forget the epigenetic effect that a dad’s obesity also plays here.
This is not about ascribing blame because there are many other factors at work, but to recognise that diet is a modifiable risk factor, and we can all contribute to making a meaningful difference.
With half of all mental illness presenting before the age of 14, if we are serious about looking for ways to reduce the burden of mental illness in our younger generation let’s focus on improving our families’ diet.
The key to better mental health using diet.
But this is a good time to reflect on our own dietary patterns. We often have the best intentions, but what happens can be entirely different!
Two reminders include:
- Eating more healthy foods including a wide variety of leafy greens, other vegetables, fruits and berries, seeds and nuts, legumes, whole grains, healthy fats, fish and seafood.
- Reducing the amount of red meat consumed each week to several meals rather than every meal, reducing the amount of refined sugar in the diet as found in sugary drinks and snack foods, and reducing the overall amount of ultra-processed foods in the diet.
No surprises here.
The problem isn’t that we don’t know; we don’t do, because of time constraints, fussy kids, fatigue, stress and economic constraints.
The allure of ultra-processed foods.
Food manufacturing has revolutionised what foods are available to us at any time. They have experimented and perfected new techniques to improve the mouthfeel, texture and taste of many processed foods including fast foods, snack foods and takeaways.
They are hard to resist because they taste so yummy.
But the greater our consumption of highly processed foods that include high fructose corn syrup, hydrolysed fats, salt, and other additives and colouring is linked not only to an increased risk of anxiety and depression and to poorer cognition.
In a world where 60% of the food Americans and 50% of Australians consume is highly processed. We have a problem.
But it is reversible.
Adding more healthy options can offset the bad effects of eating ultra-processed foods.
(That’s not an excuse to still pick the unhealthy options!)
Switching to a healthier diet for a better mood.
If you’re addicted to hot chips, pizza and ice cream and your kids revolt at the mere sight of a vegetable on their plate, you can relax.
All it takes (she says encouragingly) is to adopt a slow steady approach (and patience) to make one small change at a time.
- Because you can change your tastebuds preferences over time.
- You can influence the balance of your gut microbes to create and maintain a healthy microbiome.
This is because the microbiome is dynamic, and the balance of good and bad bacteria is changed by what you eat.
To ensure the bacteria in your gut that are screaming out to your brain demanding room service are the ones that keep your microbiome healthy this is about providing them a 5-star Michelin meal of prebiotics including legumes, chickpeas, kidney beans etc. that your microbes chow down with relish and provide us with plenty of fibre to keep our guts working well.
And don’t forget those helpful probiotics found in fermented foods like yoghurt, kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut. Many traditional diets also include these.
GABA is a human neurotransmitter and mood modulator associated with reducing symptoms of depression and the risk of developing depression. It’s also produced by certain bacteria in our gut confirming the vital role our microbes play in the gut-brain communication channel.
Another neurotransmitter involved in regulating mood and general wellbeing is serotonin and 95% of this is produced in the gut by specialised cells that respond to the stimulatory effect of short-chain fatty acids produced by (you guessed it) certain gut microbes.
Getting better at reducing the burden of chronic disease and depression.
As I’ve already mentioned, while dietary choices play an important role in managing your gut health, so do other aspects of your lifestyle including sleep, exercise and relaxation.
This is why lifestyle medicine is critical to future health and well-being.
When you are empowered to make the choices, you know make you feel well and function at your best, you cope better with life’s stressors, you’re more resilient and enjoy greater health and happiness.
Is your eating pattern something you intuitively know keeps you mentally healthy, or is there room for improvement?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Dr Jenny Brockis is a board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker, trainer and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is available for purchase.
If psychological safety, burnout prevention and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.