Can we enhance our mental health with the right nutrition and if so, how? We were curious about these questions and discussed them with Nutritional Therapist and Naturopath Izzy Kirkby, BANT, CNHC, ANP in the Passion And Fruit April interview.
Enjoy the read!
How is food connected to our mental health?
I’m sure everyone has learned that they should not make decisions when they are hungry! However, the role that nutrition plays in our mental health is much more complex than simply providing brain fuel to function.
For example; neurotransmitters in our brain are reliant on amino acids, vitamins and minerals found in our food and deficiencies can cause chemical imbalances in the brain for example; the amino acid tryptophan, found in foods such as fish and dairy, is a precursor to serotonin. Serotonin is famously known as the ‘happy hormone’ and many anti-depressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) which increase the levels of serotonin in the brain.
However, it does not stop there, new research is showing more connections between our mind and our diet such as brain inflammation caused by certain foods, Alzheimer’s as a form of Type III diabetes due to insulin resistance in the brain and our gut microbiome acting as neurotransmitters.
The science is now confirming that we need to take a holistic approach to health and mental health is no exception with diet and lifestyle playing an important role in prevention and support.
How did you experience the power of healthy food and its positive impact on your own mental health?
Like most people, there are days where I am not on form!
However, I can genuinely say that after some simple tweaks to my diet I noticed a big difference in my concentration and clarity and improvements in mood and motivation- a renewed joie de vivre!
It is can be as easy as just eating more fresh vegetables and as a naturopath, I also use plants in the form of herbal medicine to optimise my mental health.
Some of my favourites are:
Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) is a popular Ayurvedic herb that enhances circulation to the brain and reduces stress, anxiety, and insomnia. It is renowned for increasing short & long-term memory and improving concentration and mental performance. So much so it was traditionally used by Vedic scholars to help memorise their sacred hymns and scriptures.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus off.) - not just a condiment for lamb!
Rosemary has been always been associated with memory. In Hamlet, Ophelia describes ‘Rosemary for remembrance’ and just smelling this herb has been shown to increase performance in exams. Rosemary also improves clarity, memory, and vision and we can incorporate it so easily in our everyday lives through cooking.
Oat straw (Aveena sativa) is one of my favourite herbs as it helps nourish oneself out of an exhausted state which many of us need! Oat straw feeds and restores the nervous system to increase energy levels and sense of well-being. I find it very helpful for anxiety and stress.
On days when we don’t feel mentally great, which food choices will help us feel better?
When we are not feeling our best mentally whether it is through illness or stress, depression or fatigue then it is difficult to make the right decisions with food. We can find ourselves trapped in survival mode doing the bare minimum to get by which often does not involve preparing nourishing meals from scratch.
The key thing is to ensure you have the right food, easily available when you are in this position.
There are some tips to make it easier:
Use your freezer! Batch cooking home-made food and freezing it means that you will have food around you that is cheaper and quicker than resorting to take-aways or fast food.
Clear your cupboards and swap the refined carbohydrates like chocolate and biscuits for other foods that are still easy to snack on but more nutritious such as jars of olives or sundried tomatoes, nut butter, seeds, frozen bananas…personally, I’ve just discovered mushroom crisps- they are yummy!
Try using a meal delivery box to take the hassle out of menu planning and cooking. Abel & Cole have a great range of recipe boxes that are all organic ingredients making it easier to eat fresh, locally sourced produce.
My go-to brain foods would be oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, herring and anchovies and ferments such as kimchi, sauerkraut and miso.
Fermenting your foods make the brain-boosting phytonutrients in veggies more easily accessed by the body as they are ‘pre-digested’ by the bacteria. This is great news if you have impaired digestion. Fermented food also helps maintain a healthy gut microbiome which we are now seeing plays an important role in mental health.
Oily fish are high in omega-3 protecting us against inflammation which seems to play a role in many conditions such as Alzheimer’s and depression. It is also a great source of amino acids which play a role in keeping our neurotransmitters working!
How can companies contribute to the mental health of their employees through food?
Fortunately, there is increasing awareness in mental health and as we can see nutrition plays a big role in this. Although not all companies are able to provide their employees with breakfasts or lunches, there are still ways to invest in educating about healthy choices that support mental health and wellbeing.
I have found the usual barrier to change is knowledge. Many people are unaware of the role that their diet can play in their health and how to optimise it. Providing this information to employees, whether it is through awareness campaigns via email, competitions, workshops or talks, can help to empower individuals to make different choices.
If a company wants its employees to learn then usually a longer-term strategy with multiple tactics will be key to success. I know from my own experience it takes a long time to change habits and people will resonate differently with different forms of communication such as hands-on workshops to listening to a talk.
This is why I love working with Passion and Fruit. They provide bespoke and holistic strategies to improve the health and wellbeing of company employees with support throughout the journey to deliver real change.
What are some of the topics you are covering in the Passion And Fruit nutrition workshops?
My passion is going beyond the nutrition advice that we read in magazines and including the latest scientific research, presenting it in an engaging and relatable way with actionable insights.
This could be incorporating different angles on stress, mental health or resilience by exploring the role of the gut microbiome or mitochondrial function.
This is combined with key takeaways or actions that colleagues can focus on to make these changes. Above all, though I will ensure the workshops are entertaining so that people can stay engaged, interested and remember the information!
I provide high-quality resources such as handouts and presentation notes and will always be available after the talk or via email if employees have any follow up questions.
For the more adventurous I offer workshops on fermenting foods, making herbal medicines and even foraging for wild food which makes a great away day!
Want to offer a lunch & learn workshop on nutrition for your team? Contact us on email@example.com to explore different topics.
#nutrition #mentalhealth #foodformentalhealth #healthyliving #corporatewellbeingprogrammes #nutritionworkshops