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The Impact of Nutrition on Mental Health in the Elderly

Research suggests that 1 in 4 adults in the UK has or will experience mental health issues⁽¹⁾ ranging from depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, eating disorders and addictive behaviours. With the current Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, many people at risk of such disorders are finding themselves even more vulnerable.

Registered Nutritionist and Health Writer Daisy Ilchovska discusses how diet, gut health and vitamins can affect the way we feel and our mental health.

Nutritionist Daisy Ilchovska

The Effect of Diet on Mental Health

Diet has a large part to play in mental health. Colourful fruits and vegetables such as apples, tomatoes, peppers, blueberries etc. have higher antioxidant content, which in turn has been found to lower the rates of depression⁽²⁾. The antioxidants combat inflammation, which is linked to mental health and these foods also provide a variety of vitamins, minerals and fibre important for overall health including mental health.

Adequate protein consumption with every meal (from sources such as meat, eggs, fish, beans, chickpeas, tofu) have also been linked to adequate Tryptophan production, which in turn helps produce Serotonin, the ‘happiness hormone’.

The healthy fats listed below have all been linked to better cell wall and brain health, which in turn may lower depression. Furthermore, these healthy fats, which are often rich in Omega 3, have also been found to lower overall inflammation.

  • Olive/wanut/avocado oil
  • Fatty fish - mackerel, sardines and salmon
  • Nuts and seeds
The relationship between nutrition and mental health

There are a number of foods, which have been found to negatively affect mental health too. These include excess sugar containing foods and drinks, refined carbohydrates (bread, pasta, biscuits, cakes etc.) and excess alcohol.

Health Tip: Make sure that each of your meals is balanced and it contains goods fats, protein and fibre from fruits and vegetables (frozen are fine). Reduce consumption of refined carbohydrates and sugars as well as alcohol.

The Relationship between Gut Health and Mental Health

Have you ever had butterflies in your stomach? Or a gut feeling about something? Well, did you know that your brain and gut talk to each other via a bi-directional link. In that way, the state of your gut and disruption such as bloating, flatulence, allergies, food intolerances, intestinal permeability or ‘leaky gut’ etc. can affect your brain and way you feel. It is important that you resolve any of these gut issues as when they become chronic, they might contribute to the state of your mental health.

Gut microbes, the millions of microorganism living in the gut, also produce a variety of compounds such as neurotransmitters (chemical messengers), which help our organs communicate and 90 % of the Serotonin, the forementioned ‘happiness hormone,’ is also produced in the gut.

vegetables for good gut health

The good gut microbes like to feed on resistant starches from fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, seeds and especially like pre-biotic foods such as plain unsweetened yogurt, apples, artichokes, onions, bananas and chicory. The variety and populations of these bacteria are significantly reduced by lifestyle factors such as medication intake (especially antibiotics), chemical exposure (cleaning materials, air/water pollution etc.) and processed food additives.

The bad gut bacteria and yeasts can sometimes outnumber the good gut bacteria and cause an imbalance. They love feeding on sugar and refined carbohydrates, which is why it’s important to moderate consumption. 

Health Tip: Aim to consume between 5-7 portions (a portion is a size of your palm) of fruit and vegetables every day as well as a variety of seasonal and organic foods. For persistent gut issues seek the help of a specialist such as a Registered Nutritionist.

Vitamin Deficiencies and Mental Health

Essential vitamins and minerals play a very important part in our overall health and some deficiencies can be linked to mental health disorders.

Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to higher levels of depression⁽³⁾. Also called the ‘sunshine vitamin’ we usually produce this vitamin from bare skin exposure to the sun, therefore, during the winter months, here in the UK, these levels may fall. The levels of vitamin D are also influenced by some medications (such as anti-cancer drugs and corticosteroids) as well as factors such as obesity and darker skin colour. The NHS recommends older people to supplement Vitamin D during the winter months – November through to March.

B vitamins, and especially Folate and B12 have also been found to relate to the state of mental health too⁽⁴⁾. Low levels of these vitamins are linked to poor diet, absorption problems often present in older people sometimes due to protein maldigestion, other digestive issues, medication interactions and some chronic conditions such as Chron’s Disease can affect the levels of these vitamins.

The best food sources of B vitamins are wholegrains (brown rice, millet, barley), meat, seeds, nuts, eggs, legumes (such as lentils), dark leafy green vegetables and citrus fruit.

Health Tip: Ensure that you supplement the bioavailable form of Vitamin D during the winter months and safely expose your skin during the summer months for natural synthesis of Vitamin D. Make sure that you eat a varied diet containing plenty of sources of B vitamins.

Some Vitamins may have interactions with the prescription or over the counter medications you are on, so it may be best to work with a specialist such as a Registered Nutritional Therapist.

References:

  1. Stansfeld S, Clark C, Bebbington P, King M, Jenkins R, Hinchliffe S. Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014. In: Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014. 2016.

  2. Gautam M, Agrawal M, Gautam M, Sharma P, Gautam A, Gautam S. Role of antioxidants in generalised anxiety disorder and depression. Indian J Psychiatry. 2012;

  3. Penckofer S, Kouba J, Byrn M, Estwing Ferrans C. Vitamin D and depression: Where is all the sunshine. Issues Ment Health Nurs. 2010;

  4. Young LM, Pipingas A, White DJ, Gauci S, Scholey A. A systematic review and meta-analysis of b vitamin supplementation on depressive symptoms, anxiety, and stress: Effects on healthy and ‘at-risk’ individuals. Nutrients. 2019.

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