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Is food a pathway to a healthy mind?

In times of turmoil or stress, it becomes even more important to eat well; clinicians and counsellors alike widely view a nutritious diet, one that keeps the body well, as a tool to maintain good mental health.

Indeed, according to the Heart Foundation, food affects mood, with gut bacteria – the microbiome that begins in the mouth and goes all the way through the digestive system – supporting a complex two-way communication channel between the gut and the brain. Fully 95 percent of the body’s serotonin, the so-called ‘feel good’ hormone which controls sleep, appetite and mood, is produced in the gut.

As the Foundation points out, a heart-healthy diet has a lot in common with a pro-mental health diet, with recommendations such as:

  • Focusing on fibre and healthy fats with a plant-based menu incorporating fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen or canned), whole grains, nuts, seeds and healthy oils, all of which support the microbiome and, research shows, can help manage the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • For maintaining stable moods, less alcohol is better, and staying hydrated with plenty of water can help to calm the mind. For most people, six to eight glasses of fluid a day is recommended – this can be water, tea or coffee, but be mindful of sugary drinks or too much caffeine if you’re prone to the jitters. Water is cheap and healthy, and herbal teas can be delicious and soothing.
  • Reduce intake of highly processed foods (such as those at the supermarket check-out or the drive-thru) and sugary beverages like soft drinks, flavoured milks and juices.
  • Make a shopping list and plan meals and snacks before grocery shopping to make healthier choices (and save money).
  • Healthy movement supports good eating, and vice versa. Planning physical activity alongside meals can give more structure to the day, and being active can improve moods by making more serotonin. For those not accustomed to daily activity, a walk around the block at a good pace is a terrific place to start.

One of the best aspects of the conversation about mental health and food is that more data is being produced all the time, and some of the brightest brains in the country are on the case. Julia Rucklidge, a clinical psychology professor at the University of Canterbury, told Stuff that while people with mental health issues and mood disorders can benefit greatly from medication, we all need to see what and how we eat as a pathway to a healthy mind. She advises:

“Half of your plate should be fruit and vegetables – a range of colours and varieties. Eat what is in season, to make it cheaper. Use shortcuts, like eating frozen peas or beans that come in a can. These are perfectly fine options. Choose foods that are nutrient-rich.”

Nutrient supplements can also be beneficial, says Rucklidge, who with her team has explored whether supplements can help people to recover from mental distress. During the September 2010 Christchurch earthquake, Rucklidge analysed people who were already taking part in her research to see how they coped with the stress of the disaster:

“We discovered that the people who were already taking nutrient pills at the time of the quake were more likely to recover from the stress than people who were not taking the pills. Their brains were more likely to cope with the trauma. They had more resilience. It was amazing.”

One mainstay supplement option that suits many people of different ages and lifestyles is potentiated bee pollen, also known as Power Pollen, a nutrient powerhouse which contains 14 vitamins, up to 60 minerals, 11 different enzymes, and free-form amino acids that are the building blocks of protein and are easily absorbed.

Where to get help:
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youth services: (06) 3555 906
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

Helpline: 1737 If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.


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