Our path to mental well-being is a journey, not a destination. Throughout this path, we all encounter moments of uncertainty and isolation, often hesitating to openly share our personal struggles. Growing up in a family familiar with mental health challenges, I actively sought alternatives to conventional medication. That exploration led me to a pivotal moment that reshaped my outlook.
The turning point arrived when I discovered a transformative book titled “The Better Brain,” authored by Bonnie Kaplan PhD, a renowned scientist and passionate mental health advocate and Julia Rucklidge PhD. The evidence-based results presented in the book truly illuminated the path ahead, equipping me with valuable insights. I had the privilege of speaking to Bonnie Kaplan, a conversation that shed light on the depths of the insights presented in “The Better Brain.”
As you continue reading, I hope my words inspire a similar journey within you. Think of this as your beginning, a spark that can bring positive changes to your life and the lives of those around you.
Silencing Stigmas: Embracing Empowerment
In our diverse society, each person encounters unique obstacles when addressing their mental health. The pressure of conforming to cultural and societal norms, the fear of judgement, and the weight of expectations can make it difficult to open up about our struggles. Often, the fear of being labelled as “crazy” or having our faith questioned amplifies this silence. Some cultures even attach taboos and views of weakness to mental health issues, adding to the isolation many individuals feel.
To overcome these barriers, we must encourage open dialogue, raise awareness, and foster understanding. It’s crucial to remember that seeking help and gaining knowledge about mental health is not a sign of weakness; on the contrary, it represents commendable and courageous steps towards personal healing and transformative growth.
Moreover, it’s important to recognise that mental health challenges do not reflect a lack of faith or a negative mindset. These perspectives are largely influenced by cultural beliefs, and it is our responsibility to dismantle the associated stigma and create a path for others to follow.
The Rising Tide: Shattering the Taboo
Shattering the taboo surrounding mental health and nutrition requires collective action and a multi-faceted approach. Here’s how we can contribute to break down the barriers:
Together, we can challenge stigmas, and create a society that embraces discussions about mental well-being and nourishment with empathy, understanding, and acceptance.
Nutrition as Nourishment
The realm of research delving into the intricate connection between mental health and nutrition is expanding at an unprecedented pace. Our brains require specific nutrients to function at their best. These nutrients act as building blocks for chemicals called neurotransmitters, which regulate our mood, cognition, and emotions.
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods like salmon, flaxseeds, and walnuts, support brain health and contribute to a positive mood. B vitamins, present in whole grains, leafy greens, and legumes, play a role in energy production and help maintain a stable mood. Magnesium, found in nuts, seeds, and dark chocolate, aids in relaxation and stress reduction. Antioxidants, abundant in colourful fruits and vegetables, protect our brains from oxidative stress and promote mental well-being.
Faith-Based Wisdom: Religious Guidance for Mental Health and Nutrition
Throughout history, religious texts and teachings have often emphasised the importance of maintaining mental well-being through proper nutrition. Centuries ago, even the ancient Greeks recognised the significance of consuming nourishing food for overall wellness, as Hippocrates once stated – “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”.
While religious texts do not mention specific dietary patterns such as the Mediterranean diet or other nutrition practices, they do promote principles that align with maintaining good health through balanced nutrition. There is an emphasis on moderation, gratitude, and mindfulness in food choices.
Allah SWT says in the Quran,
“Eat from the good things We have provided for you, but do not transgress in them, or My wrath will befall you. And whoever My wrath befalls is certainly doomed.” (Surah Taha 20:81)
“And He enforced the balance. That you exceed not the bounds; but observe the balance strictly, and fall not short thereof.” (Surah al-Rahman 55:7-9)
The concept of consuming a diverse range of wholesome foods, including fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats, grains, and legumes, resonates with the idea of a balanced and nutrient-rich diet across different religions. Additionally, teachings across religions encourage individuals to be mindful of their actions, avoid excess and extravagance, and promote self-discipline, which can be applied to food choices and portion control.
Our beloved Prophet ﷺ said, “No human being has ever filled a container worse than his own stomach. The son of Adam needs no more than a few morsels of food to keep up his strength, doing so he should consider that a third of his stomach is for food, a third for drink and a third for breathing” (Sunan Ibn Majah 3349)
Islam encourages a holistic approach to life, advocating moderation in all aspects, including physical and mental well-being. Our bodies are an Amanah, a sacred trust placed in us by Allah, and we are obliged to care for them through balanced living, incorporating healthy practices and mindfulness to harmonise the mental, physical and spiritual aspects of our existence.
Insights from Scientist Bonnie Kaplan
How do you see the intersection between mental health and nutrition, and why is it important to address both aspects together?
Addressing mental health cannot be done without considering nutrition, as nutrition forms the foundation of brain health. Therefore, when addressing mental health, it is essential to also address nutrition, as it serves as the fundamental component.
Can you share any specific research findings or evidence-based practices that highlight the impact of nutrition on mental well-being?
Yes, there have been numerous studies conducted on the relationship between nutrition and mental health in both children and adults. For example, longitudinal studies have been conducted evaluating the effects of nutrition on mental health in children over time, and the results have shown that those with healthier lifestyles and diets experience a 56% reduction in likelihood of being referred to a physician and a significant decrease in suffering by the age of 10. These findings demonstrate the preventative potential of dietary factors in promoting mental well-being.
When we discuss mental health, we are essentially talking about brain health. A study published in the British Medical Journal just a few weeks ago focused on seniors and revealed that individuals who maintained a healthier lifestyle experienced a slower decline in cognitive function over the years.
Interestingly, even ancient civilizations recognised the importance of nutrition for mental well-being, as demonstrated by evaluation of diet described in the Book of Daniel, where Jewish young men during the Babylonian exile 2600 years ago were shown to be healthier on a whole food diet.
For more specific research findings and evidence-based practices on the impact of nutrition on mental well-being, you may refer to the article “Nutrition for Mental Health: Depression” published in June 2023 which discusses the latest research and insights on how nutrition can influence depression.
Are there any specific nutrients or food groups that have been shown to have a significant influence on mental health outcomes?
Yes, B vitamins have been found to have a notable impact on mental health resilience in the general population. Studies have shown that B-complex supplements can improve resilience to momentary stressors, which aligns with other research findings on the benefits of B-complex for individuals. While there is no evidence that they successfully treat any anxiety disorders, they can enhance resilience, as observed in students who underwent exams and experienced the stress associated with academic pressure.
What role does gut health play in mental health, and are there any dietary strategies that can optimise gut health and subsequently impact mental well-being?
Gut health plays a significant role in mental well-being. Consuming prebiotics, which are found in healthy fruits and vegetables, can help feed and promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. By supporting the growth of these healthy gut bugs, they can effectively crowd out unhealthy microbiota. Additionally, probiotics, commonly available in capsule form, are believed to contain beneficial microorganisms. However, it’s important to note that the specific strains may not address individual deficiencies, making it challenging to determine their effectiveness. On the other hand, individuals who incorporate fermented foods into their diet can help establish a diverse and healthy gut microbiome, thus positively impacting their gut health and, subsequently, their mental well-being.
What are some practical tips or strategies individuals can implement in their daily lives to improve their mental well-being through nutrition and nutritional supplements?
A practical approach to enhancing mental well-being through nutrition is centred around consuming real, whole foods, particularly plant-based options. Currently, a large portion of people’s dietary intake consists of ultra-processed foods, which are laden with chemicals and additives. By shifting towards a diet primarily composed of real foods, it is estimated that the prevalence of mental health disorders could potentially be reduced by half, highlighting the powerful influence of nutrition on mental well-being.
Whole foods include fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly leafy green vegetables, whole grains (such as oats, brown rice and barley), nuts, beans, fish, shellfish and eggs.
This article in Psychiatric Times explores the growing recognition of the impact of nutrition on psychiatric conditions and discusses various strategies and treatments that are being explored in the field.
In your experience, what are some common misconceptions or myths about the relationship between mental health and nutrition, and how can they be debunked?
A common misconception is that individuals who resort to eating junk food think they cannot afford to eat healthier options. However, this myth can be debunked by highlighting studies such as the Australian research where people were taught how to cook with affordable and nutritious ingredients like lentils and other legumes.
Clinicians can play a role in dispelling this misconception by helping individuals track their weekly food expenses and guiding them in adopting a whole foods-based diet centred around cost-effective options. By doing so, individuals can witness firsthand how they can save money while still nourishing their bodies and improving their mental health through nutritious meals.
Educating people about the financial benefits of cooking and providing them with the skills to prepare healthy, budget-friendly meals can effectively counter the myth that junk food is the only affordable option.
As I conclude this exploration of mental health and nutrition, it becomes clear that nutrition is at the very core of our well-being. The profound impact of nutrition on our mental health cannot be ignored or underestimated. It is the foundation upon which our brain health rests, influencing our cognition, emotions, and overall mental well-being. Throughout centuries, guidance and wisdom on nourishing both our bodies and minds have been passed down to us through religious texts and philosophical traditions. These teachings have provided us with a timeless roadmap for cultivating good mental health. They remind us of the importance of balance, mindfulness, and self-care when it comes to our nutrition choices.
Let us remember that in the pursuit of mental well-being, we are not alone. As we move forward, let us continue to educate, advocate, and support one another in our collective pursuit of mental and physical wellness. Together, we can create a world where mental health and nutrition are valued, understood, and integrated into our daily lives.
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Committed to writing and blogging about meaningful topics. As a mental health advocate, I'm committed to supporting those navigating their challenges.
By Najat Jebari