Supporting men’s mental health with nutrition and lifestyle medicine
According to the Mental Health Foundation in England, approximately one in eight men has a common mental health problem such as depression, anxiety, panic disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
However, as with many mental health statistics, it’s difficult to know if the figures really represent the true reality. They can only report on mental health problems that have been reported and sadly, when it comes to men’s mental health, many cases do not get reported or diagnosed.
Some other shocking and saddening statistics highlighted by Mental Health Foundation in the UK of men’s mental health include:
Suicide in men is three times higher than in women, with men aged 40-49 having the highest suicide rates in the UK.
Men are less likely to utilise psychological therapies than women with only 36% of referrals to NHS talking therapies being for men.
According to the Government’s national wellbeing survey, men report lower levels of life satisfaction than women.
Why are men less vocal about mental health?
Gender stereotypes and societal expectations of men may play a role, making men less likely to speak out about, or ask for help with, mental health challenges.
Some research by Men’s Health Forum suggests that men who struggle to speak openly about their emotions may also be less able to recognise symptoms of mental health challenges in themselves, and are therefore less likely to ask for help.
‘Lifestyle medicine’ can play a significant supportive role. Things like getting regular exercise, time outdoors, time in nature, stress management tools, improving sleep, seeing friends and maybe perhaps with a psychologist who can help you to address things like negative feelings and thinking and relationship challenges.
Mental health is about maintaining a positive state of wellbeing and the foods we eat, and the lifestyle habits we practice can have a powerful impact.
In this blog, we will discuss the role of nutrition and lifestyle medicine in men’s mental health and wellbeing and how it can support better outcomes.
How can nutrition support men’s mental health
The 3 macro (big) nutrients; protein, fat and carbohydrates, play a significant role in mood and mental wellbeing. A lack of protein and or fat for example in the diet can have a detrimental effect on brain health and therefore mood. Let’s explore each one in more detail.
The blood sugar rollercoaster and mental health
Your body is constantly trying to maintain blood sugar levels within healthy range. When the level of sugar (glucose) in your blood stream is within healthy range the brain will receive a steady drip feed of glucose for mental energy throughout the day. This results in balanced mood and better focus and concentration. If however, blood sugar levels are spiking high above the ideal range and dipping below the ideal range across the day we can be left feeling low, anxious, angry and irritable and struggling to concentrate.
Carbohydrate foods break down into glucose and different carbohydrates break down at different rates and amounts. The slower the steadier the release of glucose into the blood stream the easier it is to maintain blood sugar levels within healthy range. The faster the release of sugar the more likely you are to be riding the blood sugar rollercoaster of highs and lows throughout the day. Processed and refined carbs and white flour foods and sugar cause a bigger spike in blood sugar whilst ‘complex’, fibre-rich carbohydrates provide a nice steady drip feed and therefore support better mental wellbeing.
What does a mood boosting plate look like?
The ideal balanced plate is made up of an optimal amount of pure protein, some good fats, some complex carbohydrates and plenty of colourful vegetables.
Protein, which breaks down into amino acids, is important for the structure of brain cells and the connective tissue between brain cells. Amino acids also regulate the chemical reactions that allow brain cells to communicate with each other, such as the amino acid tryptophan which is the raw material for making the mood boosting brain chemical serotonin. Complete proteins are the richest sources of all the amino acids in good amounts such as grass-fed red meat, chicken, turkey, fish and eggs. Vegans and vegetarians should ensure they eat a variety of plant sources of protein to help ensure they consume as many of the different amino acids as possible across the day, such as organic non-GMO tofu, tempeh, edamame beans, quinoa, beans and lentils and a good quality unflavoured protein powder to supplement their intake is ideal
Fat is essential for mental health and still the most neglected food group in many people’s diets. 60% of the dry weight (without water) of the brain is made up fat and this is mostly cholesterol and saturated fat. Therefore, we need to consistently consume these types of fat to maintain the integrity of our brain, its cells and the manufacture and communication of brain chemicals.
Spotlight on omega 3 fats
The omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA are specifically important for keeping the cell walls of your brain’s cells fluid and flexible, which allows nutrients to pass in and waste to pass out, easily. In studies, omega 3 has been shown to improve mood and cognition and to reduce aggression ().
The most potent source of EPA and EHA is oily fish, which includes salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring and anchovies. Vegetarian sources of omega 3 fats are in the form of ALA (alpha lipoic acid), which needs to be converted in the body into EPA and DHA in order to exert their beneficial effect and this conversion may not always be optimal in some people. Vegetarian sources of ALA include flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts, which are all fantastic sources of beneficial fats and other nutrients in their own right.
Don’t forget other good fats too such as olive oil, olives, avocado, eggs (yolk), coconut, real butter, ghee and nuts and seeds.
Slow-releasing carbohydrates are best for supporting mood and mental health, as previously discussed. Fill a quarter of your plate with fibre-rich complex carbs such as whole oats, brown rice, quinoa, beans, lentils or root vegetables.
Key micro-nutrients for mood and mental wellbeing
After the 3 macro nutrients are optimised in each of your meals it’s important to be aware of the micro (smaller) nutrients that are essential for a healthy happier brain.
Zinc is the most concentrated mineral in the brain and low levels have been linked to depression. Other symptoms of a zinc deficiency include confusion and low motivation and concentration.
Foods richest in zinc include grass-fed red meat, poultry, fish, nuts and seeds, beans and pulses, whole grains and oysters! Aim to increase your intake of zinc-rich foods each day.
Magnesium is well known as the relaxing, anti-anxiety mineral. It can help the body (nervous system) to better deal with stress and magnesium levels are depleted when stress is high or chronic so it’s important to keep replenishing your levels. Magnesium also assists in the conversion of tryptophan into the ‘happy chemical’ serotonin
You can absorb magnesium in through the skin via Epsom salts or magnesium flake baths which is a really nice way to relax and replenish magnesium levels at the same time! Plus up your intake of magnesium via almonds, cashews, buckwheat, oats, pecans, beans, plenty of dark green leafy vegetables.
Lifestyle habits to boost mood
Getting plenty of natural daylight has been shown to increase serotonin. It doesn’t need to be full sunshine, just simply day light! Starting the day exposing your eyes to a 10,000 LUX light box during the winter months for at least 30 minutes can have a really positive impact on mood.
Walks in nature
Simply walking in a green space as often as possible, ideally daily, has also been shown to improve mood and increase serotonin and endorphins.
Exercise may be a fantastic lifestyle medicine for depression, for a few reasons. It’s been shown in studies to improve blood flow to brain, release endorphins and increase levels of serotonin. Endorphins are a group of peptides that are produced by your pituitary gland and central nervous system and that act on the opiate receptors in your brain. These neurotransmitters help to increase feelings of pleasure and well-being.
‘Nutrition and lifestyle medicine’ really can make a BIG impact when it comes to supporting men’s mental health and mental wellbeing generally. Some simple changes to your daily diet and lifestyle habits can make a significant difference to how you feel and how you experience life day to day.
The good news is that you don’t have to make multiple changes all at once, even starting with ONE thing that feels good to you right now and gradually building on this is absolutely perfect.
The Junius Team