Eating for a healthy headspace

There is perhaps no better time for a dietitian like myself to be having an honest conversation about the connection between nutrition and mental health. The two most cost common mental health disorders, depression and anxiety, affect more than half a billion people globally1 Anxiety affects around 4% of the total population across all demographics

There is perhaps no better time for a dietitian like myself to be having an honest conversation about the connection between nutrition and mental health.

The two most cost common mental health disorders, depression and anxiety, affect more than half a billion people globally1

Anxiety affects around 4% of the total population across all demographics starting at age 15+, but is slightly higher in those that are over 502

Depression follows a similar trend, but spikes more significantly in those aged 50+ as compared to anxiety disorders. 3

The global pandemic has undeniably taken a toll on the health and happiness of people around the world and while food only represents part of the mental health picture, it’s one we certainly cannot ignore.

There is an undeniable connection between food, nutrition and human mental health and happiness.

For many of us, there are only a few things in life that might bring us more joy and anticipation than our favourite meal.

And there is so much more to it than that.

We are at a point in scientific discovery now where the connection between certain foods and nutrients and mental health outcomes like anxiety and depression is better understood than it has ever been before.

It is these discoveries, and more, that I plan to explore in today’s article.

What Does The Research Tell Us?

There are two primary bodies of research evidence in the world of nutrition and mental health.

The first is the observational evidence which looks at the dietary differences between those who do and do not have depression and anxiety and tries to establish certain key foods and nutrients that are associated with an increased or reduced risk of these conditions.

The second is the experimental evidence, which looks at people who already have symptoms of depression and anxiety and evaluates whether or not dietary changes can help modify those symptoms.

Let’s take a look at what each research category has to each us about the connection between nutrition and mental health.

The Observational Evidence

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a strong correlation between a person’s dietary pattern and their risk of depression.

In 2017 a significant review of studies from ten countries found that certain foods were either predictive of, or protective against, depression risk.4

The food components that were protective included:

  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Fish
  • Olive Oil
  • Dietary Antioxidants*

*Nuzest Good Green Vitality is enriched with antioxidants from a variety of sources and can help increase the antioxidant quantity in your diet.

The food components that were predictive included:

  • Red meat
  • Processed meat
  • Refined grains
  • High-fat dairy products
  • Sweets
  • Animal Protein*

*Nuzest Clean Lean Protein is an 100% plant-based protein product that can help improve your plant to animal based protein intake ratio.

Researchers believe that the interaction between these foods and depression risk has a great deal to do with how they interact with blood sugar levels, the immune/inflammatory systems and the gut microbiome 5

Given the increasing interest specifically around gut health and the gut-brain connection, I want to take a moment to explore it further.

Gut Health And Mental Health

The gut-brain connection refers to the intricate chemical messaging system that takes place between the human brain and digestive tract, which we know is heavily influenced by our gut bacteria.

Naturally, this makes gut health an interesting topic in the world of mental health nutrition.

A 2019 study out of the British Medical Journal found, for example, that the use of prebiotics and probiotics may represents a useful complimentary treatment approach for both anxiety depression. 6

Although both studies admit more research will be required, the potential protective effect of probiotics  was also eluded to in a more recent 2020 systematic review published in Frontiers In Neurology.7

Nuzest’s Good Green Vitality contains 8 million probiotic cultures as well as prebiotic fibres from a number of sources including flaxseed and psyllium husk.

While both pre and probiotics are commonly consumed in supplemental form, as there are also certain widely available foods in each category that allow us to access these potential benefits from our day to day diet.

Examples of common foods rich in prebiotics:

  • Artichoke
  • Onion
  • Asparagus
  • Leek
  • Banana
  • Oatmeal
  • Apples

Examples of common foods rich in probiotics:

  • Yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Miso
  • Tempeh
  • Kimchi
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kombucha

While we can’t say with certainty the inclusion of pre and probiotic containing foods or supplements will protect against or reduce the symptoms of depression, it is undoubtedly an area of great interest and putting forth some level of effort into the inclusion of these foods may represent a low risk strategy for many people to improve dietary diversity and gut health.

Further Experimental Evidence

Now that we have a better understanding of some of the food components associated with good mental health outcomes the next big question we have to ask is whether or not an individual suffering from a mental health disorder can experience symptom reduction by improving the quality of their diet.

This question was answered in resounding fashion via a now renowned 2017 mental health study known as the SMILES Trial.

The trial evaluated the impact of working with a dietitian over a 12 week period on individuals who were living with moderate to severe depression, many of whom were undergoing some form of therapy.

It found this nutrition-focused intervention to significantly improve depression symptoms in this population and has since paved the way for further similar studies.8 

Since its publication, further high quality experimental studies have emerged exploring the positive effects of dietary improvements on the improvements of people living with depression, thus confirming the massive role that nutrition intervention has to play in the world of mental health. 9, 10

And the experimental evidence does not stop there.

Omega-3s And Anxiety

A massive review published in the acclaimed JAMA journal found, for example, that omega-3 supplementation has a clinically meaningful role to play in reducing anxiety symptoms. 11

The amount of omega-3 required to achieve this affect was 2000 mg daily.

Which is approximately the same amount found in:

  • 150 grams of salmon, sardines, trout & other fatty fish
  • 1 tbsp of flaxseed, chia seed
  • 2 tbsp walnuts

Because the human body cannot synthesize omega-3 fatty acids, they are considered essential fatty acids which must be consumed from either food or a supplemental source.

They are also well known for their anti-inflammatory capabilities, which may further contribute to their protective effect as evidenced by studies showing that high fish intake is often associated with a lower risk of depression12.

Given the relatively few foods that are a rich source of omega-3s, it is important to proceed accordingly to ensure dietary adequacy, especially for those looking to optimize their mental health through dietary modification.

Other Nutrients Of Interest

I’d like to round off the focus on nutrition and mental health by exploring three more nutrients of interest, each of which have been implicated as potentially protective against depression. 13

They include:

Zinc – found in animal products such as seafood, dairy, meat as well as legumes, seeds and whole grains.

Folate – found largely in leafy greens, legumes and fruit.

Magnesium – found largely in leafy greens, nuts, seeds and legumes.

While we can’t say with certainty that eating more of these specific nutrients is protective against depression, the evidence suggests that they just may be.

Final Thoughts – Looking Beyond The Nutrients

As today’s discussion draws to a close, I believe that it’s important to acknowledge that the interaction between mental health and nutrition goes well beyond the role of specific foods or nutrients.

A 2015 study out of Thailand demonstrated that those who more regularly ate meals with others, rather than alone, tended to be far happier.14 

Obviously social interaction is one of the many external variables that can modify mental health status.

We also know, for example, that high levels of stress are often associated with poor digestive health outcomes due to the strong gut-brain connection that was discussed previously in this article.

This explains why the relaxation practice of meditation has been increasingly linked with improved mental and digestive health outcomes. 14

While stress management comes in different forms for different individuals, a daily meditation practice can be facilitated by a wide array of smartphone apps and online guides and has becomingly increasing acknowledged as valuable and accessible tool.

The body of research in the world of mental health is vast and while I’ve only just scratched the surface in today’s piece I do genuinely hope you will come away from today’s article with meaningful and actionable takeaways that will serve to better the state of mental health in our world.

Until next time,

Andy De Santis RD MPH

Is ageing the secret to happiness?

While you probably don’t need me to tell you that ageing, mental health and happiness are all deeply intertwined phenomena, their relationship is actually bit more complex than you might imagine. Allow me to explain. According to WHO data, global life expectancy has increased by over five years since the year 2000. 1 In fact,

While you probably don’t need me to tell you that ageing, mental health and happiness are all deeply intertwined phenomena, their relationship is actually bit more complex than you might imagine.

Allow me to explain.

According to WHO data, global life expectancy has increased by over five years since the year 2000. 1

In fact, there are more people aged 65+ on earth than at any time before in human history.

This wonderful new reality is at least partially a reflection of in improvements in modern medicine and enhanced living conditions, but also brings with it new challenges.

The 70+ age demographic, for example, has the highest prevalence of global depression and is followed closely by those aged 50-69.2

There are also a number of chronic conditions, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, that disproportionately affect older adults.

On top of all of this, we are also faced with recent research published by the American National Bureau Of Economic Research that suggests happiness across the lifespan is “U-shaped”, meaning that it actually peaks in older age.3

So how do we reconcile these diverse findings?

Let’s find out.

The U-Shaped Happiness Trend

David Branchflower, an American professor of economics, published a paper in late 2019 which looked at happiness trends across the lifespan in over a hundred countries across the world. 

His work led him to the conclusion that trends in subjective happiness across the globe tended to follow a U-shape distribution.4

This essentially suggests that people start their lives incredibly happy as children and teens and eventually this happiness decreases over time as life’s responsibilities add up before it reaches a low point in our late 40s, after which happiness starts to increase again until it once again peaks later in life.

Several years before Branchflower demonstrated this U-shape trend using data from around the world, the United Kingdom’s Office For National Statistics did so with local data across the UK.5

Their study also found that life satisfaction, a sense of worthwhile and happiness ratings were highest in the 65 to 79 demographic and suggested afew potential reasons to explain the trend:

  1. The accumulation of life experiences and inevitable changes in the way we look at life that comes with age and may contribute to enhanced sense of wellbeing. Things that bothered us when we were younger, for example, may cease to do so in older age.
  •  The accumulation of wealth over time and an increase in leisure time that accompanies retirement and a potential decrease in responsibility as compared to working life.

The U-shaped trend doesn’t tell the whole story though, because in the 80+ demographic the risk of health issues and loneliness (perhaps due to a partner death) can take a serious toll on happiness.

In fact, the data out of the UK suggests that those aged 80+ were 2x as likely to report feeling lonely as the younger demographics.

So knowing this, how does can an older adult optimize their chances of being on the right side of the health and happiness curve as they age?

Mental Health, Happiness & Healthy Ageing

In order to explore this question, we must first understand the term healthy ageing,

The World Health Organization defines it as5:

 “The process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables wellbeing in older age”.

This definition heavily weighs the importance of older adults being able to engage in activities that they value, whether physically, socially, intellectually or otherwise.

It probably comes as no surprise that healthy eating, especially a diet which includes fruits and veggies, as well as regular physical activity habits at mid-life were predictive of healthy ageing later in life.6,7

This should serve as an important lesson to those currently middle aged who perhaps may undervalue the role these lifestyle factors play in a happy, healthy life in old age.

It’s also important to acknowledge that although these behaviours are more advantageous if maintained from a younger age, a 2013 paper out of the British Journal Of Sports Medicine found that it is never too late to start and even those who became more active later in life still enjoyed significant increases to their physical health and mental wellbeing8.

Blood cholesterol levels also appear to be an important consideration in cognitive decline in the elderly, with higher levels associated with greater rates of decline9.

The food groups that are most strongly associated with reductions in blood cholesterol levels include10:

  1. Tree nuts like almonds, walnuts, pecans
  2. Legumes include lentils, chickpeas and all varieties of beans
  3. Soy-based foods like tempeh, tofu, soy milk, edamame and so on
  4. Soluble fibres such as those found in psyllium husk and flaxseed*
  5. Plant-based components (plant sterols) found in most fruits/veggies*

**Both of which are part of Nuzest’s Good Green Vitality blend

With these points in mind, I’d like to take this opportunity to pivot away from the physiological contributors to healthy aging and happiness and shift towards the social support considerations.

If you’d like to learn more about the nutritional aspects of mental health, please refer to our previous article on the topic here.

Social Support, Family & Happiness In Old Age

A strong social support network is considered one of the most powerful predictors of healthy aging11.

It follows that a healthy home environment and the presence of family and community play massive roles in maintaining happiness and mental health in old age.

In fact, family plays an even bigger role than you might think.

Scientists have determined that certain genes in the APOE grouping are heritable and associated with longevity and a longer lifespan12.

Although we can’t do much to alter our genetics, I certainly found this an interesting finding to end today’s article on.

I hope you found it insightful start to finish.

Until next time,