The key link between nutrition and mental health that we can’t ignore

By Alex Rogers

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The human brain is always on the job, taking charge of your thoughts, movements, senses and heartbeat. The quality of our food – which is the source of its fuel – really influences its function and structure.

I have worked within the workplace rehabilitation and wellness realm for over a decade and have noticed an increased shift towards a holistic paradigm of health and recovery. Nutritional psychiatry – the study of the link between nutrition and mental health – has become a valuable part of rehabilitation as we recognise how impactful nutritional choices can be. 

Certain dietary choices can manipulate nutrient absorption and weaken the gastrointestinal barrier against toxins and bad bacteria, which can lead to inflammation. Our food affects the healthy functioning of these cells, and as a result, our mood and mental health.

The critical link between nutrition and mental health

Some studies have found poor mental health to be higher in people who consume a typical ‘western’ diet over a traditional Mediterranean or Japanese one, with the logic being that the latter diets tend to be void of processed foods. In fact, diets characterised by high sugar, high fat and processed foods can be associated with common psychological disorders. 

Conversely, a healthy diet characterised by vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and fish, with limited processed foods, is inversely associated with the risk of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

One explanation seems to lie in the gut microbiome concept that’s becoming more popular in mainstream society. A high proportion of Serotonin, the neurotransmitter that helps mediate mood, is made in our gastrointestinal tract. This tract is lined with millions of nerve cells. The function of these nerve cells is heavily influenced by the good bacteria that make up the gut microbiome, so it’s reasonable to conclude that the nutrition it receives has a knock-on effect on overall health, both physical and mental.

Incorporating nutritional psychiatry practices in my work

Investigating an individual’s nutritional practices can provide a good insight into their attitude towards recovery. It often influences the motivational approach I take in my work, because as mentioned, a more holistic approach to rehabilitation has developed over the last ten years.  

Importantly, this framework is acknowledged by a growing number of allied health providers, from general physicians to orthopaedic surgeons, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, psychiatrists and clinical psychologists. 
 
Nutritional psychiatry practices can complement traditional modalities such as psychopharmacology, psychotherapy, and physical therapies, especially when these are proving ineffective. 

Psychopharmacology – the use of medication to treat psychological disorders and problems – is unquestionably valid, but I believe patients should have access to forms of treatment as well. These include psychological therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy and nutritional psychiatry, which I foresee playing a key role in individual rehabilitation programs in the future.

Forward-thinking companies need to embrace all healthy working concepts

Access to Employee Assistant Programs (EAP), typically in the form of counselling for work and non-work-related incidents, is increasingly available in modern workplaces. Similar access to nutritional psychiatry advice and ideas helps promote a healthier diet among employees, and in turn, better psychological and physical health.

Mental health-related absenteeism has been well documented. Forward-thinking companies that embrace healthy working concepts such as nutritional psychiatry stand to benefit from a happier and healthier workforce. 

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Published on Sep 30, 2021

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