Healthy & Happy: Diet and Mental Health. A Conversation with Anne
What we eat not only has an impact on our physical health, but also our mental wellbeing. In times like these, it's never been more important to listen to both your body as well as your mind. Anne Petersen-Costa is a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach who supports busy professionals on their health and well-being journeys, in order to become more productive and energized. She is a big believer that plant based eating is one of the best preventative cures for a variety of health issues. She is an expert in stress management and focuses on the intersection between food choices and mental health.
We will be discussing the intersection of food and mental health, stress management and tips and tricks to boost well-being.
What is your approach to achieving good health?
I believe health and wellbeing needs to be approached from a holistic angle, with a focus on prevention before cure and maintenance before repair. It entails much more than just the foods we eat. It’s about nourishing our bodies – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually – to perform their best, look their best and feel their best.
Who do you work with?
I work with all sorts of clients but I have a particular interest in working with busy professionals, struggling to find balance and enough hours in the day to address their health and wellness needs.
What is your view on physical vs. mental health?
I believe our mental health is just as important as our physical health, and the two are more intertwined than many of us realize. Especially during the last 1.5 years during the COVID pandemic, our physical and mental states have never been more of a focal point. Mental health covers a very broad range of issues from: short term depression, hopelessness, anxiety and brain fog to long term stress / burnout, full on clinical depression and then potentially later on in our lives, alzheimers and dementia. I suspect that all of us - to some degree - suffer from at least one of these at some point of our lives but they are often controllable or at least manageable by our own lifestyle choices - plant based eating being one of them. Wherever possible, appropriate and medically sound, lifestyle changes should always be the preferred choice over medication, which may help with the symptoms but certainly don’t address the root cause.
What are some of the main issues clients approach you with?
I see an increasing amount of burnout at the moment, which is essentially caused by long-term chronic stress. This will come as no surprise with the pressures of a pandemic. We have been through a huge amount of change and the uncertainty of our day to day lives creates some level of anxiety in all of us. So many elements of our lives that we took for granted / thought were normal / routine etc have been turned upside down. When we are in this state, we often reach for habitual foods to temporarily comfort us but these are rarely the best foods to fuel and nourish our bodies. And beyond Covid, there's also the mental health risks that just come from our 24/7 lives --- we are more connected than ever before (digitally) so we never really switch off - yet more disconnected than ever before (from each other!). --- I suspect the thing that most people do as soon as they first wake up, is grab their smart phone and check inboxes / notifications and messages.
How can diet influence your mental health?
I believe it's really important to source your food from whole, natural sources whenever possible. Wholefood vs. processed foods – the body is able to digest whole foods in their natural form far better than processed foods or animal protein.
So how do you differentiate between whole foods and highly processed foods?
- Are close to their original state
- Spoil more quickly
- Are foods our grandparents would have recognized
- Don’t normally have ingredient lists or if they do, they are short!
- Have little or no packaging
Highly Processed Foods:
- Bear little resemblance to their original state
- Do not spoil quickly
- Are foods your grandparents probably wouldn’t recognize
- Often have long ingredient lists
- Are normally packaged or boxed
Sugary processed foods are neurotoxic to the brain and have a negative impact on our moods, anxiety levels and ability to concentrate. Animal-based products contain a pro-inflammatory compound called arachidonic acid, which also negatively impacts our mental health. Inflammation as a result of foods -- Many studies have linked depression to inflammation in the brain and chemical imbalances of neurotransmitters. Plant foods are high in antioxidants and phytochemicals, which generally help to repair damage and decrease inflammation in brain cells AND restore balance to neurotransmitters.
Many people suffering from mental health issues have elevated levels of an enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO). The phytochemical quercetin, found only in plant foods, acts as an inhibitor to this. Quercetin works like a natural antidepressant, increasing the amount of serotonin, dopamine, in the brain. Foods with particularly high levels of quercetin include apples, kale, berries, grapes, onion, and green tea.
The brain uses an amino acid called tryptophan to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter largely responsible for feelings of happiness and well-being. Plant-based sources of tryptophan:
- leafy greens, watercress, broccoli
- sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds,
- soybeans, peas
The body can have difficulty converting this tryptophan to serotonin, when it comes from non-plant based sources.
And what about the specific connection between our gut and our mental health?
Gut health has become a key player in the health and wellness world for good reason and the link between gut health and mental health is indisputable.
- The gut includes every organ involved in digesting food and processing it into waste --> often referred to as “the second brain.”
It’s vital to strike the right balance between good & bad bacteria in our gut - as well as the diversity of the bacteria.
Stress, depression, burnout and anxiety can actually cause changes in the gut microbiome because of what happens in the body when it has a stress response.
- Research in animals has shown that changes in the gut microbiome and inflammation in the gut can affect the brain and cause symptoms that look like Parkinson’s disease, autism, anxiety and depression.
- So you can see there’s a cycle going on. Poor gut health can cause mental health issues. And mental health issues can cause poor gut health.
There is also a strong relationship between having mental health problems and gastrointestinal symptoms like heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux, bloating, pain, constipation and diarrhoea.
We can feed the good bacteria with prebiotics. Prebiotics foods are high in fiber, which we mostly get from plant-based foods. And we can also eat bacteria. Probiotics are live bacteria that exist in foods, such as kombucha, sauerkraut and kimchi.
Plant based foods are packed full of micronutrients which comprise the vitamins & minerals our bodies need to carry out essential functions & regulate our moods. Animal-based products are deficient in these mood-regulating nutrients.
Diversity and variety is key. Eat the rainbow!
What are other factors that are a key support for a healthy mind and mind?
- Movement. It goes without saying and we know that our body needs to move – to support our digestion and improve our mental well-being.
- Sleep is another important factor because when we sleep our bodies are recovering, rejuvenating and detoxing… and this includes our brain.
- Stress and how we handle our levels of stress is also a key influencer and has an impact on how we digest and how we are able to handle cortisol levels
- Movement, sleep, stress and plant based eating are not only contributing factors for a healthy mind but they all work in tandem too …. CYCLE e.g. you eat well then you feel better in your body, which helps you move more easily etc. and when you sleep well and aren't stressed, you're more likely to make better, healthier food choices.
The interconnectedness of our health is such an essential element when it comes to optimal wellness. We cannot optimise our physical health without optimising our mental and emotional health. They all work hand in hand and either work for each other i.e. compliment each other or against each other.
- Step by Step approach – this is a journey not a destination / marathon not a sprint and what I advocate to my busy clients who want to make a change is use support like every to move yourself forward on your health journey.
- Often people slip up or holidays / celebrations get in the way, and they just think they've failed and return to their previous habits, but it shouldn't be a case of all or nothing...
- rather a gradual mountain climb with ups and downs, big ascents and occasional slips!
- And of course the joy of Every Foods is that you don't need to stress over preparation and planning or panic when hunger strikes and you don't have any healthy food to hand - you can stock up and have foods ready...