Eating to improve your mental health

Nutritional therapist Beanie Robinson answers your questions on eating for mental health

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Happiful

What should I be eating during my period to balance my mood and restore energy?

Include plenty of magnesium-rich foods such as leafy greens, avocado, edamame and pumpkin seeds. Known as ‘nature’s valium’, magnesium is an effective muscle relaxant when experiencing uterine cramping; thought to help reduce feelings of anxiety, magnesium also contributes to energy production.

Period pains are indicative of inflammation in the body, so anti-inflammatory foods such as berries, sweet potatoes, rosemary and turmeric are recommended. It is equally important to make sure you are getting enough good quality sleep during your period; as 90% of our immune system is involved in menses, it is vital to create a nourishing and restful environment during this time.

Are there specific foods and/or ingredients that negatively and positively impact our mood?

Instead of focusing on one specific food, I encourage you to look more broadly at your whole diet and lifestyle. It is important to consider factors like your stress levels, sleep quality, exercise routine, self-care routine and your relationships. While a balanced diet is fundamental to stable and positive mood, working multi-dimensionally to improve balance in more than one area of your life will help bring about more significant change in overall mental wellbeing.

Even after a good night’s sleep, I’m tired and lacking energy. It’s making me miserable. What can you suggest I eat for breakfast to ensure I’m energised and happy throughout the day?

Start the day with a pint of warm water. You can add half a lemon and/or grated ginger for flavour. Rehydrating your body first thing will cleanse your digestive system, while boosting energy and regulating your appetite.

Take time to explore different breakfast options and find one that suits you best; something digestible, sustaining and tasty. If you prefer something sweet, then bircher muesli with grated apple, rolled oats, berries, chia, flax, oatmilk and a pinch of cinnamon is a naturally sweet and fibrous start to the day. If you prefer savoury, try egg and avocado with fresh spinach on toasted rye bread for a high protein, rich-in-healthy-fats option.

I have anxiety and I’ve heard that what we eat can have a huge impact on our mental wellbeing. Is there anything in particular I should be eating to help manage my anxiety?

Establish a routine that allows you to keep regular meal times as this helps to prevent blood sugar dips and spikes which may exacerbate anxiety. We all respond differently to specific foods, meaning there is no prototype for the perfect anti-anxiety diet. Keeping a food diary for two weeks will help you identify foods that positively and negatively affect your anxiety.

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A largely plant-based diet, including fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds, with well-sourced animal or oily fish protein (if desired) is likely to support positive mental wellbeing. Alcohol, caffeine, fizzy drinks, refined sugars, processed and fried foods are foods that may trigger feelings of anxiety, so be mindful of these.

How can I maintain my blood sugar levels, and does this affect brain health?

Sustain blood sugar levels with a diet high in fibre, unprocessed carbohydrates and healthy fats. Satiating wholegrains, vegetables and healthy fats can provide the foundations of a balanced diet, helping curb cravings for sweet convenience foods that most of us get tempted by. Eating little and often during the day, keeping well-hydrated and exercising portion control may also help stabilise your blood sugar levels.

Maintaining blood sugar levels will promote brain health, reducing the blood sugar fluctuations that can impact your mood. Unstable blood sugars can negatively affect brain function and, for individuals with anxiety, depression and panic disorders, maintaining blood sugar levels will be hugely beneficial to mental wellbeing.

Top tips on eating for mental health

Evidence suggests that the gut is the second brain. To promote greater bacterial diversity in your gut microbiome, include a wide variety of different fresh fruits and vegetables; this will not only improve your gut health, but will also enhance your general mental wellbeing.

Try to avoid looking at foods in isolation and, instead, look at your diet and lifestyle as a whole. A balanced diet will look to incorporate all the essential macronutrients; carbohydrates, protein and fats. Explore and experiment with new fresh and natural ingredients to enjoy diversity across the different food groups, finding alternatives to ready meals, processed meats and cheeses, fizzy drinks, crisps and cakes.

Be aware that caffeine and alcohol may exacerbate mental health symptoms. Take time to consider when, how and how much you consume and how you feel after.

Changing what and how you eat can significantly affect your mental health. If you are suffering with mental ill health I recommend working with a team of professionals to help you understand the issue and create a bespoke nutrition plan that includes lifestyle recommendations to suit your individual needs.

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