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Eating healthier reduces anxiety & depression

Ever turn to comfort food like sweets and biscuits when you’re having a bad day? The sugar high kicks in, it feels great, but then you crash soon after and you’re back to having a bad day again.

But how you feel depends on a lot more than your hormones or what kind of day you’re having.

According to Beyond Blue, a leading association working to address mental health issues, one in eight men will suffer from depression and one in five men will experience anxiety at some point in their lives. The statistics on mental health issues in men are astounding, but exciting new research is showing that our mental health can be strongly influenced by the quality of our diets.
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The research is focusing on how our diets impact the diverse colonies of bacteria (microbiota) that reside in our digestive systems. The evidence is showing how healthy gut microbes may positively influence higher functioning processes like mood and memory. This gives a whole new meaning to ‘trusting your gut’.

Gut & mental health: what’s the link?

There are 38 trillion reasons to love your guts… that’s the number of bacteria that reside in our digestive system. Incredibly, we contain more bacteria cells than human cells.

Imbalances in these bacteria have been linked to:

- Obesity
- Autoimmune disorders
- Asthma
- Allergies
- Diabetes 

Definite links have been found between depression, anxiety and mood disorders, and an out-of-kilter digestive system. So, nourishing our guts may go some way to boosting both our physiological and our mental health.

It is becoming increasingly evident that diet and lifestyle play important roles in preserving the health of our gut microbes. In fact, the make-up of our individual microbiota is unique, and it regularly changes depending on the foods we eat, where we live and the people with whom we interact.

Further, there is a direct line of communication between our guts and our central nervous system, commonly referred to as the ‘gut-brain axis’. The feeling of butterflies in the tummy is related to this connection. So it seems that a happy gut may also mean a happy brain.

How does food affect mental health?

Data from the PREDIMED study shows that the adoption of a Mediterranean diet not only protects participants’ hearts, but also reduces the occurrence of depressive symptoms. The Mediterranean diet largely consists of plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, extra virgin olive oil, legumes, nuts and seeds and of course, wholegrains.

Another noteworthy study aptly named the SMILEs trial showed that participants who consumed a Mediterranean diet fared better with regards to their depressive symptoms than those who formed a social support group. These results were noted after only three months.

How do wholegrains help?

Not only are wholegrains downright delicious, they are also jam-packed full of nutrients such as B vitamins, iron, folate, protein, low GI carbohydrates and fibre. Wholegrains and, in particular, the fibre in cereal has been shown to protect our hearts and reduce our risk of developing nasties like diabetes and cancer, in particular digestive system cancers.

Meeting our wholegrain intake (48g/day) can help to nourish the diverse range of bugs that reside in our guts. The presence of prebiotic fibre in these grains acts as fodder for the bacteria to grow and thrive. Further, the byproducts of the fermentation process of this fibre have been shown to enhance our tummy health and nutrient absorption.

How can I eat enough wholegrains?

Unfortunately, though, we Aussies drop the ball when it comes to meeting our wholegrain intake. And it’s likely that women do better than men in this area. Regularly including breakfast cereal, bread, quinoa, brown rice, wholemeal pasta and a variety of other grainy foods can ensure that we collectively hit our wholegrain targets on a daily basis. Click here to read more about what a serve of wholegrains looks like.

Go with your gut

There is still some way to go to before we understand the full potential of the gut microbes and how we can support them to improve both our mood and our mental health. In the meantime, the evidence is heartening. Boosting your mental health might just be a bowl of cereal away… That’s bound to nurture your gut bugs, and it will delight your taste buds.
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Help shine the spotlight on men’s mental health; join me this November by growing a moustache to raise much-needed funds for research and other activities. See Movember for more info.

Joel Feren aka 'The Nutrition Guy' is an Accredited Practising Dietitian with a background in biomedical sciences. Learn more about Joel at The Nutrition Guy.