Nutrition and mental wellbeing, from my personal journey to my psychiatry practice
Hi I’m Kirsty and I’m a psychiatrist working in Bristol. I have been working in mental health services since 2012 and have a wide range of experience working with many different mental health conditions.
My journey into nutrition and mental wellbeing really started as a personal journey. I began to notice that what I ate was significantly impacting on how I felt. At work I would notice a crash in my blood sugars which caused brain fog, inability to concentrate, irritability and anxiety. Even after I ate I would then notice how sluggish and tired I felt, often sometimes left with the sensation of being more hungry!
I began to look into the impact of food on mood. There wasn’t much information round, but there was enough. It all suddenly just clicked into place and became really obvious to me.
I became super excited about the potential that this has, not only for the general population, but also for those with mental health problems.
I sometimes think that as a society, and certainly in western medicine, we have become so advanced and so smart that we have just quite simply forgotten the basics.
Nutrition, in my opinion is just a fundamental part of helping people to feel better. Eating the right food to fuel your brain can improve fatigue, improve sleep, reduce anxiety and irritability, improve mood and increase energy.
I’m not saying that nutrition alone can resolve mental health problems, because as we know they are complex and multifaceted and may need many approaches including medication, therapy and social support. However it’s certainly a good place to start and can help people maintain their mental wellbeing. Changing our diet is something that everyone can do. It is a relatively cheap intervention, it can be done quickly, with very low risks and can be done alongside other treatments for mental health conditions.
I was recently at the (ISNPR) International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research conference and was impressed with the growing body of research in this field. Even if it is hard to conceptualise that food can influence mood, it can sometimes help to remember that the brain is an organ…an organ that needs to be looked after like every other organ in order to function well. Healthy brain, healthy mind.
I can’t remember learning anything about nutrition at University, in fact there was little focus on mental health in general, let alone nutritional psychiatry. I am so excited to see what is happening with Nutritank, because I genuinely believe we can make a significant impact on the burden of mental health disorders globally by educating the public on how what they eat can impact on their mental health. Medical student and doctors are in the best position to spread this message.
So what can we do to start helping?
Ask people about their diet. You will be amazed at what you find. Most recently someone told me they had headaches, fatigue, anxiety and poor sleep and when I asked about their food and drink intake they told me they had drunk around 2 glasses of water in the last week…the rest had been cherry Lucozade!
It is our duty to ask. There is scope to make a real difference, simply and effectively and with minimal cost.
Back to Basics
- Reduce processed foods (fast food/pastries/crisps/chocolate/sweets/processed meat, jarred sauces)
- Increase fresh food (veggies/fruits/beans/lentils/wholemeal breads and pasta, lean protein, extra virgin olive oil)
- Cook with fresh ingredients i.e. make own sauces
- Drink around 2 litres of water
- Reduce/stop sugary drinks including diet drinks and caffeine
- Get outside and walk/exercise/experience nature
- Connect with friends/do what makes you feel good
- Sleep hygiene
- Talk to pregnant women and new mums about their diet as their choices can influence the health and wellbeing of the child. This is an opportunity to have double impact!
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