The Link Between Diet and Wellbeing

The Link Between Diet and Wellbeing

By Ken, Haven

Like many of us, I’ve tried various diets to help improve my energy levels, maintain physical health and shed a few pounds, yet it’s only more recently that I’ve started paying attention to nutrition and its potential impact on my mental health and wellbeing.

Much research is focused on the gut microbiome, which is a term for the trillions of micro-organisms that dwell in the murky depths of our digestive systems – we are truly never alone! It’s thought that over a thousand different types of bacteria, many beneficial to our systems, live in the gut but scientists are only beginning to understand their effects on our mental and physical health. If you also consider that every person potentially reacts differently to them, it becomes a hugely complex puzzle.

According to microbial ecologist, Professor Ley: “One person’s healthy microbiome might not be healthy in another context – it’s a tricky concept”. Research is in its infancy and while some 15,000 people have provided microbiome samples for study, this pales into insignificance compared to the 30 million who have had their human genomes sequenced. Some research suggests stressors such as psychological issues, disturbed sleep patterns and environmental factors can all have a negative impact on the microbiome.

An article in the British Medical Journal suggests that the classic Mediterranean diet can have a positive effect on wellbeing, especially when compared to our unhealthy Western diet, which tends to be high in sugar, salt and refined carbs. Good gut ‘flora’ can be boosted by probiotic yogurt drinks, available in most supermarkets and by regular use of probiotic supplements, available online (I’m always sure to check customer reviews) and in health shops. The good guys of the bacteria world help expel the bad, break down fibre and produce vitamins. They’ve also been shown to increase our ability to fight off infections and other ailments.

Personally, maintaining my physical and mental health has been a case of figuring out through trial-and-error what works best for me. While I’m not keen on a large breakfast, others in the office simply can’t function without one. Some don’t bother with lunch or prefer to snack throughout the day. One thing I’ve noticed for sure, is that if I wolf down an unhealthy snack for lunch (e.g. crisps and sandwich) I often feel my energy and mood crash shortly after. The same goes for chocolate, which offers a quick high followed by the inevitable crash. But everyone’s different and what works for me might not work for you.

For me, a daily routine of meditation, reading self-help books, listening to YouTube talks by positive people, plus being mindful of my diet, work most of the time. After all – we are what we eat!

**Please note that any radical changes in diet need to be discussed with medical professionals, particularly if you have underlying medical conditions.

On taking a step back when you need it most

When Simone Biles, the American gymnast, took a step back during the Tokyo Olympics this summer citing that she needed to focus on her mental health, I listened carefully. She wasn’t the first sports person to hint at the crushing pressures that being at the top of your game can bring. But it came in the middle of the most celebrated, anticipated and prepared-for sporting event. Athletes are expected to be at their very best physically and mentally so that they can achieve their dreams of an Olympic medal. The idea of winning at all costs suddenly didn’t sound so enticing with the backdrop of mental health. So, to me it was telling, so very insightful, that even with all the preparation in the world, an athlete was struggling with her mental health. There’s no medal for breaking your spirit or crushing your soul and I think Simone Biles realised that.

I don’t think I have heard the words ‘mental health’ pop up in the press as much as it has in recent months. Perhaps because everyone was faced with mental health challenges of their own in those dark days of spring 2020 and the many that followed, when there was no end in sight. People reported low mood, lack of sleep, feeling isolated and lonely.

There’s a lot to be said about a shared experience. Hearing another person express the same or similar challenges makes us feel that little bit less alone. And let’s face it mental health or ill health can be very isolating. So, it stands to reason that when we see a successful athlete share her mental health challenge it had an impact and a welcome one at that. Mental health challenges can affect us all at any time and in any number of ways. Being able to address it, express it and not be seen as ‘other’ or ‘different’ has to be one of the few positives that came out of a terrible year.

I think we have all learned over the last year that strength is not just about powering through the tough times. It’s in knowing when to take a step back and evaluate what’s important. Accepting that we can’t control everything and we don’t have to pretend to either. That giving yourself permission to slow down and take your time could be the best thing for you.

It raised an uncomfortable question for me though. We aren’t all on an Olympic team. When someone is dealing with crushing mental health issues are employers in a position to support their staff? What would happen if you took a step back to recover? Would it be accepted and supported or would you fear for your job? Are we using our shared experience of the last year to try to better understand  and address the mental health challenges that people face all around us?

I hope that the debate continues. That people continue to stand up and talk about mental health in all areas of life. That we will always be able to open up in the way we have recently.