The last two years have taken their toll on our mental health and wellbeing. Now as restrictions end and the spring months are upon us, it’s time to give our mental wellness a lift to keep anxiety at bay and our energy levels high.
Lorraine Perretta and Olga Preston, registered nutritional therapy practitioners at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition’s Brain Bio Centre, give their expert advice on how to support mental wellbeing through diet and lifestyle.
1. Colour your diet
Eating a colourful and varied diet rich in vegetables and fruits and wholegrains, which provide fibre, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that can all help to support mental health – so put a rainbow on your plate. Wholegrains have not been stripped of any goodness, they have a little coat with fibre, vitamins and minerals, so try introducing brown rice, millet, oats or quinoa. Aim for around 10 portions of vegetables and fruit per day, with particular emphasis on the veggies.
Top tips include:
– Add chopped or grated vegetables to curries, stews, soups, omelettes and tomato sauce pasta dishes
– Snack on crudités (e.g. carrot sticks, cucumber batons, sliced pepper) and hummus rather than crisps and chocolate
– Add fruit such as mixed berries or grated apple to muesli and porridge.
– Add chopped veggies into an omelette
2. SMASH it with omegas
Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids (found in oily fish, walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds) and high levels of omega-6 fatty acids (found in seed oils, such sunflower oil, and in many processed foods) have been associated with poorer mental health outcomes. One of the best ways to increase omega-3s is by eating oily fish with the acronym SMASH, which stands for: salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring. For vegans, flaxseeds, linseeds, walnuts, chia seeds and/or supplementation are recommended. Cold pressed olive oil and avocados are also good sources of healthy fats.
3. Vitamin B12
The B vitamins are essential for supporting mental wellbeing, especially B6, B12 and folic acid which are needed to produce mood-regulating neurotransmitters. Because animal products are the main source of vitamin B12 (i.e. meat, fish, dairy and eggs), vegans are at particular risk of deficiency. But the elderly are also susceptible due to a natural decline in stomach acid, which is needed for vitamin B12 absorption. People who have regularly been taking proton pump inhibitors might be lacking in vitamin B12 as well as people on specific medications or after an operation.
For those at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency, take a supplement and/or eat fortified foods such as nutritional yeast and yeast spread.
4. Vitamin D
The role of vitamin D in supporting the immune system is well documented, but it also has an important role in brain health and mental wellness because you need it for neurotransmitter receptors. Although sunlight is the best source, it isn’t always available – so opt for dietary sources such as those SMASH fish options, tofu, egg yolks and some fortified foods like fortified mushrooms (check label), yoghurts, nut milks, and cereals. The NHS recommends that everyone (including pregnant and breastfeeding women) should supplement with 10 micrograms of vitamin D daily during the winter. Recent research, however, suggests that vitamin D3 is more effective in supporting the immune system, compared to vitamin D2.
Magnesium is an important ‘feel good’ mineral, which helps to support a healthy sleep/wake cycle and to regulate mood. Research has found that during periods of stress, our magnesium stores can become depleted, at the same time as increasing oxidative stress, so it’s important to ensure you are getting enough.
Good sources include dark, green leafy vegetables and nuts and seeds, particularly sesame, sunflower and pumpkin. An ideal intake is around 500mg per day, which is almost double what most people achieve. Magnesium can also be taken in through a bath or foot bath with Epsom salts/magnesium flakes.
It might be tempting to reach for a glass of wine after a stressful day at work, but the habit can be counter-productive. Whilst alcohol can help lessen anxiety in the short term, it can also impair mental health. Alcohol can also have a negative impact on the gut as it negatively affects your gut microflora, which is connected to our brain via the gut-brain-axis; and a good brain health requires a healthy gut. Limit alcohol intake as much as possible and choose sparkling water with flavourings such as a squeeze of lemon or lime, berries, or mint for a refreshing alternative.
Sweet treats may be appealing but the reality is that sugar-dense or processed foods may cause sharp, rapid increases in blood sugar, followed by subsequent ‘crashes’ soon after – which can contribute to mood swings, hunger and sleepiness. In other words, bad news for mental wellness and a focused mind. Sugar also affects gut function and the gut-brain-axis, and can amplify mental health concerns.
Instead, have whole fruits as a sweet treat – the fibre helps to slow down the release of sugar. Enjoying them with natural yoghurt or cottage cheese can help to avoid blood sugar spikes; the same applies if you’re using fruit and vegetables in smoothies.
Gulping down caffeinated tea, coffee, or energy drinks isn’t the answer if you want to calm down and relax, because caffeine triggers the fight-flight reaction in the body. This moves the body into survival mode, which can contribute to feelings of anxiety or fear. Even one cup of caffeinated tea can have an impact. Caffeine is also highly addictive, even with as little as 100mg a day, and can lead to withdrawal symptoms such as headaches and fatigue if you don’t have your hit. Instead try non-caffeinated herbal or fruit teas, or hot water with lemon or mint
Exercise isn’t just good for the body, it’s amazing for the mind too – and you don’t need to spend long hours in the gym to reap the benefits. Just a short burst of exercise (e.g. a gentle walk) can help to improve alertness, energy and mood, and help ease stress, worry and anxiety. Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, the ‘feel good’ chemicals that help support mood, protect against stress and depression, and promote a better night’s sleep.
Good quality sleep is vital to our mental wellbeing. Focus on achieving a good bedtime routine – so turn down the lights an hour before bed, wind down with magnesium bath salts and/or some gentle stretching or meditation, and avoid bright lights and stressful conversations/television programmes. Also ensure your environment promotes a good night’s sleep – this means a comfortable temperature, a dark room, and no distractions.
With these top tips we hope you will soon be springing into mental wellness. Watch the Food for Thought video series with Olga Preston here.
 A portion is half a cup, a small fist or 3 tablespoons.
 Always check with your GP if you are unsure.
 Patrick Holford: Optimum Nutrition for the Mind