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Does diet support mental wellbeing?

In the past few years employee mental wellbeing has come to the fore. Companies are starting to acknowledge mental illness and their role in supporting employees. From nine years experience of running workplace wellbeing talks and workshops, up until a couple of years ago I had never been asked to speak on mental wellbeing. However looking back over the last two years over eighty percent of the companies that have invited me in have asked for a mental wellbeing element to be included and many for this to be the sole focus.

Can diet support mental wellbeing? It certainly can, from taking away the symptoms of vitamin and mineral deficiency and blood sugar fluctuations that overlay and exasperate the side effects of mental illness through to having a significant reduction in symptoms. Companies can support employees by providing information on how diet can affect mental wellbeing and creating an environment that makes it easy for people to make healthy food choices.

Mental wellbeing covers a wide range of conditions from bi polar and schizophrenia through to dementia and Alzheimer’s. However it is stress and depression that from my experience is the main focus of companies. Despite the attention grabbing headlines that occur in the media and adverts that flash up on the internet, there is no one ‘superfood’ that prevents mental illness. However, research does show that diet quality does make a difference with Mediterean style diets high in fruit, vegetables and oily fish being supportive and diets high in sugar and saturated fat, termed ‘cafetiere’ or ‘western’ style being detrimental.

Choosing complex carbohydrates over simple sugars stabilises blood sugar levels and reduces the extremes that are felt from that conquer the world at double speed feeling just after having a big chunk of cake to that lack of energy and irritable feeling an hour later when blood sugar levels have dropped. Carbohydrates also play an important role in increasing serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter that contributes to the feeling of happiness and the target of some anti depressant medication. Other nutrients thought to be influential in depression are omega 3 and vitamin D. Research suggests that supplementing with omega 3 (EPA and DHA) can reduce the symptoms of depression and also vitamin D. The B vitamin complex supports the nervous system and again are linked to mental wellbeing. For example one of the symptoms of Niacin (vitamin B3) deficiency is anxiety and deficiency of vitamin B12 has been linked to depression.

Gut bacteria is a very hot topic in nutritional science at the moment and amongst other things there is now strong evidence that gut bacteria can influence the brain – from neurological diseases through to mental illness. Researchers at Oxford University are currently looking at the impact of probiotics (fibre that provides the feed for good bacteria to thrive) on anxiety and depression. Some of this work is currently being displayed in a special exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, ‘Bacteria World’.

Supporting employees by providing information and increasing awareness of the link between diet and mental wellbeing is important but how easy is it for employees to implement that in the working environment? Environment has become an area of emphasis for Public Health England in the reduction of chronic disease as it has been recognised that whilst many people may know what they should be eating, actually doing it is much more difficult. This also applies to mental wellbeing. And where a person may blame themselves for being weak, it is often actually very difficult to make the healthy choice for various reasons such as availability or powerful marketing messages. Making the healthy choice becomes even harder when suffering from stress as hunger increases along with cravings for carbohydrates; especially sugar. Companies should consider not only what foods they offer to employees within the working environment but also how it is displayed.

Helen Money Nutrition offers a range of workplace wellbeing services to educate and enthuse employees to make healthy food choices. From short talks that include quick, easy and practical meal and snack ideas through to full day events including 1:1 sessions, workshops and tastings.