Mental Health has come to the forefront of workplace wellbeing in the last 5 years, with campaigns like Barclays “This is Me” doing much to breakdown stigma and foster inclusivity. Employee Assistance Programmes and Private Medical Insurance Schemes advocate treatment routes that focus on talking therapy and psycho-pharmaceuticals. But the world of Functional Medicine and Integrative Health is offering a new perspective for progressive employers to take a more preventative and holistic approach when dealing with Mental Health at Work.
Food is information
Historically, we’ve viewed nutrition in the context of weight management. However, as the science is unfolding, we are beginning to understand that food is more than just fuel. It is information for our cells, in particular the ecosystem within our digestive tract, the gut microbiome. The nerves in the gut make up the enteric nervous system. What we eat, how well we absorb, and the overall status of our GI tract influences our brain neurochemistry. And vice versa! Our thoughts and behaviours influence how well we absorb nutrients. This bi-directional relationship between the gut and the brain means that nutrient imbalances and the ratio of good bugs in our gut microbiome can impact brain levels of key neurotransmitters.
The gut-brain connection is fast becoming one of the most intriguing topics in the world of wellbeing and optimising human performance. Neuro-psychological symptoms such as anxiety, brain fog, low mood, and even poor memory can now be addressed by combining cutting-edge diagnostics with lifestyle interventions. These symptoms are often the precursors to “burn-out” on the illness-wellness continuum. By promoting interventions such as gut microbiome testing, personalised nutrition and health coaching, employers have an opportunity to actually deal with mental health in a way that goes beyond labels and raising awareness.
Science to support the second brain
A recent study in the Journal of Nature Microbiology led by Jack Gilbert of UC San Diego has established a correlation between depression and Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid (GABA), our anti-anxiety neurotransmitter, of which 50% is produced in the gut. Further studies are confirming that half of our Dopamine, our reward neurotransmitter, required for focus and attention, is produced in the gut. When measured, those diagnosed with ADHD and Autism are seen to be lacking in dopamine. However, the hope is that we can influence mood, focus and attention, memory, and even sleep by manipulating neurotransmitters through what we eat.
Leaky gut = leaky brain
It’s worth mentioning that damage to the gut microbiome can occur as a result of factors common to 21st Century living. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics, anti- depressants, anti-anxiety meds, the contraceptive pill, diets high in alcohol, sugar and carbohydrates can irritate and damage the surface of our intestinal lining, leading to intestinal permeability, which creates inflammation. Low Mood, poor sleep, migraines, hormonal imbalances and cognitive disturbances, as well as GI disturbances like food allergies and IBS are common symptoms.
Anecdotal evidence from Functional Medicine practices like my own have shown that when clients presenting with long-standing mood symptoms have investigated the state of their GI health, they report more energy, clearer thinking, improved memory, and elevated mood. In addition to diagnostic work to examine the state of their microbiome, they follow a gut-restoration protocol, which involves targeted botanicals and nutraceuticals, elimination of certain trigger foods (gluten, dairy and sugar), and positive psychology / nutrition coaching for a minimum of 12 weeks, focused on the healing and rebalancing of their gut microbiome.
Discover yourself through genetic testing
Some have gone further to address their binge eating, or other addictions by looking into their neurotransmitter status via genetic testing. This type of insight has offered much needed hope and clarity. Clients who have wandered aimlessly through the wilderness of therapeutic interventions and medications finally experience relief when they receive the results. It offers them a clear picture of their genetic make-up so that they can finally understand their individual nutrient needs to support said make-up. It’s worth mentioning that the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has acknowledged that 95% of chronic illness is lifestyle related, while genes account for only 5%, which means that what we do day in and day out, has an impact on which genes are switched on.
Nutrition for optimal mental health
Probiotics, low sugar/high fat, plant-based diets have all been seen to be helpful in balancing mood, memory and cognition. The study in the Journal of Nature Microbiology observed that probiotics can stimulate production of GABA, while the work of Dr Elain Hsaio at UCLA focuses on the link between gut microbes and serotonin, the neurotransmitter that is responsible for happiness. Serotonin released from the gut stimulates the vagus nerve, which is the superhighway between the gut and the brain. Ways that we can boost our serotonin production through food include consuming more poultry, which is rich in the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor for serotonin production.
Magnesium the miraculous mineral
We can also consume more nuts, seeds and dark, leafy, green vegetables to add more of the miracle mineral, magnesium to our diets. Magnesium is the one mineral that most of the western world is deficient in, as we all live lifestyles that deplete magnesium reserves during periods of stress, including anxiety and depression. Avoiding alcohol, salt, coffee, sugar, toxic people and situations will minimise the loss of magnesium. Replenishing or topping up regularly through food or food-based supplementation can support the body and the brain through stressful times.
Boost your mood with B vitamins
If you’d like to turbo-boost your mood through nutrition, remember to include more B vitamin rich foods. Numerous studies have linked low B12, B6, and folate levels to mood disorders. It’s also worth pointing out that my dissertation in 2005 was on the effects of B Vitamins and Aerobic Activity on Age-Related Cognitive Decline. Back then, the research was clear that low Vitamin B12 was positively correlated with rapid cognitive decline. Foods rich in Bs include dark, leafy greens, like spinach, while watermelon is rich in B6.
Optimise your brain with omega 3s
And finally, eating good fats can have a positive impact on the brain, as the brain is made up of 60% fat. Omega 3s – EPA and DHA - in particular are vital for brain function as the fat in the brain is Docosahexanenoic Acid (DHA). Diets that are rich in vegetable oils and processed fats decrease levels of Omega 3s, so avoid the vending machines that dispense crisps, or the canteen serving fish and chips. These fats adversely affect the composition of your brain. Instead, consume oily fish like salmon, black cod, mackerel and sardines which are some of the best sources of Omega 3s.
More to mental health
The workplace is where we spend the majority of our waking lives. Some of us can eat up to three of our meals a day at work. Therefore, the narrative around mental health needs to shift towards addressing workplace culture to facilitate nutrition education around eating for good mental health, accessibility to brain nourishing foods on-site and individual health coaching. While personalised nutrition, gut health and genetic testing have traditionally been reserved for elite sportsmen, employers now have the opportunity to make these options mainstream. The current rising costs of mental ill health measured via KPIs such as absence, occupational health and private medical insurance can be offset by investing in employee wellbeing through these integrative and preventative measures. This can actually move the needle toward a more all-round robust and resilient workforce.
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