Nutrition & the Brain connection

Following on from my last blog regarding mental health (a review of Johann Hari’s great book “Lost Connections: why you’re depressed and how to find hope”) I wanted this week to review another book focussing this time on our amazing brain and its ability to heal – via nutrition.

Earlier this year I undertook an incredible short course via Canterbury University in Christchurch, called Mental Health & Nutrition.  This forms part of the edX community of courses available (most are free) on a vast range of subjects.  I thoroughly recommend you check them out at www.edx.org

This course and the accompanying book “The Better Brain – how nutrition will help you overcome anxiety, depression, ADHD and stress” by Julia Rucklidge PHD & Bonnie Kaplan PHD, gives some great insight into the scientific studies being undertaken around diet and how it can truly change your brain.  Studies have shown that the rates of prescriptions for antidepressants went up 48% in the years 2006-2017 and anti-psychotic prescriptions rose by 40% for the same period.  We have a growing mental health crisis and the last 2 years of living with a global pandemic will only have increased these figures further.

The book goes into great detail on areas of diet and nutrition that you may not have considered so far.  For example, they look at the nutrients and vitamins that our brains need for optimal health and how the lack of these nutrients can lead to depression and mental health issues.  Studies have also shown that micronutrients and good nutrition have a positive impact on serious conditions like ADHD, autism and anxiety.  And a lack of nutrients is known to contribute to poorer mental health in those with anxiety and depression, bipolar, schizophrenia and ADHD. 

Personally, I know that when I am mindful of what I eat, my body feels cleaner, and simply functions better, my mind is definitely sharper and tires less quickly.  As a person that has suffered from depression and anxiety – it can be really difficult to alter eating habits (or any negative habits) when we’re in that state, however, small, incremental changes can lead to major ones.  And any change towards better eating and drinking habits is a step towards a better life outcome.

It’s also been proven that many of our mental health conditions are caused by inflammation in the brain, causing cells to die.  This inflammatory response starts in our gut.  The book goes into some detail around how to reverse this situation and where to find both dietary and supplemental support to improve the function of our gut biome.   

We have all been told and rightly so, that organic food is the way to go – no topical fertilisers, no soil fertilisation.  But what of the true microbiome quality of the soil we’re growing our food in?  The mineral density of our soil is vital to the nutrient uptake of what is planted in it.  So how well do we know the soil our food is growing in?  Even if it’s labelled organic – does that mean the soil is not holding or carrying residual fertiliser and has a balanced biome?  Is the nutrient level of organic fruit and vegetables always superior to inorganic?  Not always. 

It also considers the alternative diets eg: Keto, Paleo, Vegan, Casein free, Vegetarian etc.  But only one diet has had decades of study applied to it and stands alone as being the optimal diet (thus far) for ensuring we all get the nutrients and vitamins our brains and bodies need.  The Mediterranean Diet.  This diet is of course indigenous to the Mediterranean region, but we can achieve this easily here in New Zealand.  Indigenous populations have always eaten in-season, locally grown food, so whilst the diet of the Inuits would differ from the diet of the Maori – both groups thrive on their locally produced foods.  So, a diet of traditional, accessible, locally grown and produced whole foods, vegetables, and meats (the Mediterranean diet being adapted to local produce) is sufficient for our brains and bodies to thrive and heal.

There is so much information within the book that could not be covered within the course lectures (or here).  I would strongly urge you to either do the online course or get a copy of the book, or BOTH.  A fascinating read and another tool for the mental health toolbox we are creating. 

Bon appetit

Disconnection – the 2020’s malaise

When Covid arrived (oh how I look forward to the day when that word is not part of our lexicon), my working life was upended – as was a lot of peoples globally.  I stopped teaching Yoga,  and found a job in an independent bookstore in my city.  I have always read and collected books, but now I had access to even more – so I buy ever more books, and I read.  And over the next few blogs I’m going to review some of my favourite books and share why I feel they’re worth you investing your time in.

First Up – “Lost Connections : why you’re depressed and how to find hope” by Johann Hari.  This book should be compulsory reading for all of us concerned with our mental health.  First published in 2018 it is one of the books we need while negotiating our way through the pandemic and out the other side into a world changed.  It shines a light on questions around the treatment of mental illness and depression/anxiety related illnesses that science is finding new answers for.  That may sound simplistic, and, in some ways, it is, so I suggest you consider this book a tool to keep in your mental and physical health toolbox.  Just as I consider Yoga one of the tools in my mental and physical health toolbox.  I am also a firm believer in multi-disciplinary approaches to mental health, (as is Hari) simply because that is what has worked for me in the past.  Which is why I consider this book a necessary tool for the toolbox, it’s not the toolbox. 

Hari spoke to several neuroscientists, clinical psychologists and psychiatrists who are all looking to multi-disciplinary approaches to mental health.  Amidst a tidal wave of anti-depressant prescriptions as the primary antidote to depressive symptoms, they identified other areas of need in the human psyche to help their patients.  While doing this they became even more aware that as humans we have moved far away from our natural state of being and living.  We were born to live and work in tribes; collectively, collaboratively, looking out for each other, connecting, and maintaining those connections throughout our lives.  However, in today’s world that is not what we are doing.   According to Hari, “We are the loneliest society that has ever been.” He also says “It has been identified that in a survey of Americans taken some years ago when asked ‘how many people could they call on in a crisis for help’ the most common answer was five.  Today, the most common answer is NONE.”  On a personal note, Numbers 2 and 4 of the 9 areas of disconnection resonated strongest with me – leading me to a bit of self-reflection.  So, as a step on the pathway to better understanding ourselves, and each other, I think this book will be the start of some interesting conversations.  

Also identified and discussed are some non-Western societies whose approaches to life and community do not reflect these disconnections to the same degree.   We Westerners may not have all the answers – who’d have thought?

So – take a look at the nine areas of disconnection that have been identified below.  Do any resonate with you?   If they do – the Reconnection chapters will be really useful.

The Nine areas of disconnection that have been identified:

  1. Disconnection from Meaningful Work
  2. Disconnection from Other People
  3. Disconnection from Meaningful Values
  4. Disconnection from Childhood Trauma
  5. Disconnection from Status and Respect
  6. Disconnection from the Natural World
  7. Disconnection from a Hopeful and Secure Future
  8. & 9.   The Real Role of Genes & Brain Changes