What we eat can affect our mental health

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In a health sense, we consider our food and our diets mainly in the context of how they shape us physically: what makes our skin glow, what strengthens our bones, what helps with our eyesight or what might make us gain weight.

The impact of our daily food intake, however, goes beyond that.

A nutritious diet can impact our mental health positively, just as much as a poor diet can be detrimental to our moods.

If you haven't been feeling like your sharp and energetic self lately, take a look at your daily food profile and identify what's lacking.

A deficiency in essential minerals and nutrients has been acknowledged as a contributing factor in the onset of mental health issues like bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety attacks.

This has led to an increase in the exploration of nutritional psychiatry, where the use of dietary nutrients and supplements is a component of an integrated treatment programme for mental health conditions.

Although this is not currently widespread practice, it should be.

The current treatment for depression is primarily focused on counselling sessions and antidepressant medication, yet depression is on the rise.

Clearly, there should be more to the treatment of mental health than just taking prescribed drugs.

Another problem with antidepressants is that it may cause dependency, and it isn't always reliable for relieving symptoms.

GETTING THE RIGHT NUTRITION

You may not be getting enough nutrition even when you eat three meals a day.

Pay attention to whether you are eating the types of food that improves brain health, and if you aren't, consider how much sugar and processed food you are consuming.

Your mental wellness may very well depend on you cutting back on those high-calorie, nutrient-deficient foods.

We are now becoming more aware of this link, as the body of knowledge on the impact of nutritional deficiencies on mental health grows.

Deficiency in these 10 nutrients affect your mental wellness the most:

● ZINC

Low levels of zinc impacts appetite, mood, emotional state and energy levels.

Remember to include foods like chicken, oysters, pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts, spinach and chickpeas to get more zinc in your diet.

● PROTEIN

This macronutrient provides the building blocks for neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, both of which greatly influence your emotional state.

Eat dairy products, fish, eggs, oats, nuts, lentils, tofu and cheese to ensure that you're getting the right amino acids to build those neurotransmitters.

● OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS

These are the types of fat that help keep the brain running in tip-top condition.

Low amounts of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) may lead to mood swings, anxiety or difficulty focusing.

To increase your omega-3 fatty acids, eat wild-caught fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines.

If you don't enjoy fish, eat walnuts, flaxseed or grass-fed beef.

● CARBOHYDRATES

This macronutrient is important in our diets, even though many types of food habits encourage a lower intake of carbs.

You need some of it to produce neurotransmitters, and they also regulate sleep and appetite.

Avoid highly processed carbs and eat whole grain, veggies or oatmeal instead.

● SELENIUM

This trace mineral is easily omitted from our diets, because only select foods are rich in selenium.

Based on research findings, selenium seems to improve mood in those who add this supplement to their food intake.

To get selenium naturally, eating just two or three Brazil nuts will give you the daily recommended amount.

● IRON

Iron deficiency is often indicated by low energy and fatigue. It has also been associated with restlessness, depression and anxiety.

Research has linked suboptimal iron levels and children with ADHD.

Examples of iron-rich food are dark leafy greens, quinoa, lentils and meat.

● VITAMIN D

This vitamin is usually used to improve bone health, but it is important for the production of neurotransmitters too.

Get more of this nutrient through foods like egg yolks, fortified milk, and fatty fish like tuna and salmon.

● MAGNESIUM

This is one mineral that many people lack, even though you can get it from foods like bananas, avocados, salmon, spinach, chickpeas, broccoli and asparagus, among others.

One study showed that taking daily supplements of magnesium led to great improvements in emotional state, regardless of gender, age and severity of condition.

● VITAMIN B12

Also known as cobalamin, this vitamin is important for nerve health, improving brain function, and supporting DNA and red blood cell production.

It is found primarily in dairy products, eggs and meat - lamb or cow liver, tuna, sardines, clams, trout and beef are all rich sources of B12.

To reduce the risk of deficiency, vegans and vegetarians should take supplements or eat foods that are fortified in Vitamin B12, like cereals, non-dairy milk and nutritional yeast.

● FOLATE

This is another type of vitamin B that's linked to mental health issues. When someone has a folate deficiency, depression tends to be a key symptom.

You can get more folate from these foods: asparagus, broccoli, avocado, lentils, chickpeas and kidney beans.

FOOD IS THE FUTURE

Nutritional supplements derived from food can be a useful way to make changes for the better in the case of mental health issues.

With more scientific evidence that supports the use of nutritional psychiatry to treat mental health, the medical community is also starting to take note of the connection between mental conditions, inflammation and diet.

In time, doctors and counsellors will need to be up to speed on the role of nutrition, just as much as they are knowledgeable about the human body.

But you don't have to wait until then. Make it a priority to change to a better and healthier diet that gives you the nutrients needed to improve your mental state and overall health.

Or if you feel that you can't do it alone, check with a doctor, nutritionist or dietitian to rule out any nutritional deficiencies.

Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, and a functional medicine practitioner. For further information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader's own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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