It’s a new year and, with the new year, many of us have made goals about how we want to change and better our lives. One of the most common New Year’s resolutions is improving physical health: losing weight, gaining muscle, better sleep patterns, better diet, etc. At Heading, we know that mental health is just as important, and even beyond that, that your mental wellbeing and physical health are completely interlinked. We want to make it easy for you to keep your mental health in mind alongside your physical health, and so we asked our on-staff dietician, Sally Twellman, to write three simple tips for you about how you can improve your mental health AND physical health through your diet.
1. Increase your fiber intake
While fiber is not usually viewed as “sexy,” it is so crucial to good physical and mental health. Fiber is the cellulose and fibrous material that makes up the plant foods that we eat, and it’s important because this is what our GI bacteria eat. Without this fibrous food, our little bacteria friends will starve, causing some of these beneficial colonies to die off or, in some cases, even begin to eat the cell lining of our GI tract, leading to “leaky gut” syndrome.
You may be thinking “Okay, but what does this have to do with mental health”? Great question! First, the microbiota (a fancy name for the bacteria that live in your gut) produces up to 90% of the serotonin, an important neurotransmitter that stabilizes our mood. Second, they help break down our food and extract the important vitamins and minerals that are the building blocks for cells, hormones, and enzymes needed throughout the body to make everything work correctly. Finally, one of the most essential functions of these little bacteria is to communicate with the immune and nervous system cells that live within our GI tract, sending signals about our external environment and our internal balance. If our good bacteria are malnourished and sluggish, the only bacteria sending signals are the interloping “bad” bacteria which send our immune and nervous system incorrect signals, and that’s when things go haywire. Of course, when your immune and nervous systems are offline, your mood is highly impacted, along with many other systems in your body.
The good news is that getting enough fiber is simple- just eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains throughout your day. It is recommended that women get 21-25grams of fiber/ day and men should get 30-38 grams/day. To put that into perspective, that is 5-9 small servings of fruits and vegetables vitamin-packed whole grains like oatmeal, quinoa, and brown rice. Remember, veggies and whole grains are packed full of a lot of the vitamins and minerals you need to build and maintain your cells, including your hormones and neurotransmitters. This means that you will be improving your mind function alongside your physical health!
Bonus Tip: Adding a Probiotic and fermented foods to your diet can help to strengthen the good bacteria population in your gut!
2. Increase your Omega 3 Fatty Acid Intake
Omega 3 fatty acids, especially EPA and DHA, are used to manage inflammation throughout the body. As part of this ability, they are uniquely equipped to pass through the blood-brain barrier to support brain health and mood. Omega 3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish like mackerel, herring, sardines, and salmon, along with vegetarian foods such as flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, and blue-green algae. Getting a variety of these foods each week will help you meet and exceed your health goals.
Note: If you’re having a tough time getting enough Omega 3s in your diet, you can also add an Omega 3 supplement.
3. Eat lots of Green Leafy Vegetables
Even though they are third in this list, green leafy vegetables don’t come in last place when it comes to healthy food. While they may seem ordinary and commonplace, leafy greens are nutritional rock-stars, chock-full of the nutrients your body needs to support good mental health. Leafy greens are high in B vitamins, especially B6 and folate, which help support the well-being of our neurotransmitters. They are high in Vitamin C, Vitamin K, calcium, magnesium, iron, and phytonutrients, a plant nutrient which powerfully controls inflammation and supports detoxification. Lastly, green leafy vegetables are high in fiber (remember fiber?) to support your GI bacteria! So, when you are picking your servings of fruits, vegetables, and grains, remember to incorporate some spinach, kale, collard greens, broccoli, and Brussel sprouts- no extra work needed!
While we’ve only talked about three steps to help you meet your goals today, there are many things you can add to your diet that will help support your mental and physical health. If you have tips of your own, we would love to hear them! You can message us or comment on our social media pages to share, and if you’re feeling overwhelmed starting your mental health journey, you can schedule an appointment with Sally or with one of our other providers by giving us a call at 512-777-2591 or visit headinghealth.com.
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