Being able to spot the early warning signs of low mental wellbeing can help you to regain a sense of balance and control. Here we explore some of the signs to look out for and the role nutrition can play in restoring good mental wellbeing.

Sleep

A full night of deep sleep is a much sought-after prize. But sleep deprivation affects lots of people with low mental wellbeing. For some, it's the initial getting to sleep that's the problem. For others, it's waking up through the night and being unable to fall back to sleep.

There are many triggers for poor sleep including alcohol, overeating, the menopause, stress and anxiety. The good news is that most of these triggers can be negated through small changes to your diet.

Alcohol

GABA is a neurotransmitter, which is released when we drink alcohol. As it's a relaxing neurotransmitter, people may have a drink or two to help them unwind. However, having much more than a small drink will start to affect REM sleep; the deep stage of sleep in which important memory functions occur.

You may find that, after a couple of glasses, you have the same number of hours' sleep as usual, but the quality isn't as good. So, although alcohol can initially help you relax, it can also affect the quality of your sleep. It's also a diuretic so you may need to wake just to empty your bladder.

Overeating

Some people eat more carbohydrates when they're feeling anxious. Carbohydrates are a chain of sugars, which are a useful source of fuel, but in excess can lead to weight gain.

They can have a relaxing or sedating effect, but we often end up craving more of them after a short time. Trying not to eat too near to bedtime and including a source of protein with your evening meal may help to control those cravings.

Choosing foods which are neither high in fat or difficult to digest (e.g. red meat) may also help to reduce the feeling of having overeaten which can also keep you up at night.

The menopause

Stimulants such as alcohol and caffeine can exacerbate night sweats associated with the menopause, which can disrupt your sleep. Try to have some alcohol-free days and where possible reduce your caffeine intake after midday, replacing it with a herbal alternative such as Rooibos (caffeine free drink which is like tea and available in supermarkets), fruit teas, hot water and lemon, or sparkling water and fruit juice.

Stress/anxiety

Ensuring your body is getting all the vitamins and minerals it needs can help to reduce the impact of stress and anxiety. In particular, you might want to consider taking B vitamins, which are involved in the nervous system and can give you more energy. Omega 3 has also been shown in clinical trials over 2-3 months to help reduce anxiety in some people (if you're currently on blood thinning medication check with your GP that it is safe to also take these).

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Mood

When under stress, the body goes into 'fight or flight mode' which can make some foods more difficult to digest. Try wherever possible to include proteins which are easy to digest with every meal e.g. eggs (boiled, scrambled, quiche, frittata), fish (salmon, sardines, cod, haddock, mackerel), quinoa, or a combination of at least two vegetarian sources to make a complete protein portion (nuts, seeds, peas, beans, lentils, grains).

Eating little and often can also help to keep your blood sugar levels steady, and this will aid your energy levels and concentration. Where possible try not to over-eat carbohydrates (bread, pasta, rice, potatoes) which can lead to you wanting to eat more and more.

Immunity

Research suggests that when we're stressed and in 'fight or flight mode', our immunity is reduced. If you're going through a stressful time which has lasted more than a few days, consider taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement. Choose one that contains vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc which are known to have a positive effect on immunity.

In terms of food, rich sources of vitamin C can be found in (preferably raw, but if you don't like raw, lightly cooked) peppers, broccoli, strawberries and oranges. We get most of our Vitamin D from the sun, although in the UK between November and March you may want to consider a supplement. Oily fish, and eggs are also good sources of Vitamin D. Zinc can be found in nuts, seeds, chickpeas, lentils and shellfish.

Weight

Anxiety can lead to weight loss for people who lose their appetite, or weight gain for people who crave comfort foods. Where possible try to maintain a routine - eating 3 meals and 1-2 snacks per day to maintain energy and optimum brain function. Include protein (meat, fish, dairy, eggs, soya, quinoa, quorn) with each meal to keep you fuller for longer and to prevent craving excess carbohydrates. Fibre from your 5-a-day (no more than two fruit per day) will also help to keep you fuller for longer. Limiting your alcohol intake will help to reduce the amount of liquid calories you consume too.

You can find more advice and information about how to make small healthy changes to your diet at cabaphysical.org.uk/eat-well

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