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Did you know, what you eat can have a direct impact on your mental and brain health? We sat down with researchers from Deakin University’s Food and Mood Centre, Director Felice Jacka and Postdoctoral Research Fellow Tetyana Rocks, to discuss all things nutrition, gut health, brain health and mental health.

With support from the Fernwood Foundation over the past two years, their team has conducted extensive research into women’s health and looked at the direct relationship between what we eat and our mental health.

Through the research, they have found that people who have a healthier diet similar to the Mediterranean diet – full of plant foods, lots of fruit and veggies, whole grains, legumes, fish and olive oil – can reduce their risk of developing depression by 30 per cent and are less likely to have clinical anxiety disorders.

“On the other hand, diets which are very high in highly processed food – all foods are processed to an extent – with very high amounts of added fats, sugar and salt and all the other components that food manufacturers add into food for it to last longer, are actually linked to an increased chance of developing depression,” Dr Rocks explains.

“We haven’t had any new pharmacology treatments for depression within the last 40 years. That’s why we are looking into lifestyle changes, particularly diet and exercise to improve our mental health.

“In Australia, a very lucky and healthy country, we have one in five people experiencing some kind of mental health issue. In women in particular, mental health is very important because women quite often have very caring roles; we’re carers for our families, children, parents, partners, friends. So, our mental health is very, very important.

“We have extensive research now that shows that what we eat directly impacts our psychological and brain health as well.”

Prof Jacka says the need for further research into mental health is at an all-time high, with mental disorders currently accounting for the leading global burden of disability.

“In Australia, and in many other countries like Australia, we have spent a lot of effort and time and money over the last decade or so increasing access to treatment and reducing stigma,” she says.

“But what we see is that the prevalence of mental disorders at the population level hasn’t come down. If anything, it’s going up. This really speaks to the need to identify new ways to both prevent and treat mental disorders.

“Based on our science, we believe that diet is a key target we can modify to help prevent mental disorders, for ourselves, our families and for the wider community, but also to treat them when they’ve already been embedded, particularly depression.

“Over the last two years, the Food and Mood Centre has partnered with Fernwood to develop the research program focusing on diet and mental health and the role of the gut in that association. But also to translate our research findings into changes in the way we treat people with mental disorders.”

One of the key research projects Dr Rocks has been leading at the Food and Mood Centre focuses on the association between the gastrointestinal system and Anorexia Nervosa. The study, called Re Gut or My Recovering Gut, examines gut microbiota and how microbes can impact our mental and physical health.

“Anorexia Nervosa is a highly debilitating disorder. It has a very high burden so it impacts individuals, their family, friends, and the health system. We’ve been studying Anorexia Nervosa for quite a few years now but we can’t quite crack the nature of the disorder; why some people get it, why some people are able to recover, and why some women struggle with eating disorders for the rest of their life,” Dr Rocks says.

“So, finding the links between gut microbiota composition and Anorexia Nervosa is very important.”

Through her pioneering research into nutritional psychiatry, Dr Rocks has also been developing a program which will soon be available for anyone who would like to learn more about mental health and how people can improve their mental health through optimising their diet.

Prof Jacka says there are many ways people can make changes to their diet to include more healthy whole foods to improve their gut health and mental health. She says fibre and polyphenols in particular are two really important components of diet. Check out this spinach and ricotta stuffed mushrooms recipe.

“Fibre is found in things such as legumes – so lentils, chickpeas, whole grain cereals, oats, rye, barley – fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds. The fibre is what your gut bacteria use to do all the things that they do to so support your physical and your mental and brain health. And in fact, scientists believe that they play an important role in your body weight as well,” she says.

“But the other aspect that’s really important are these polyphenols; these are components of very colorful fruits and vegetables, and your bacteria use those as well. A great example would be something like blueberries. I put frozen blueberries on my muesli every morning with yoghurt. Put a tin of beans in your stir-fry or spaghetti Bolognese, try to have nuts everyday as a snack, and have a diversity of fruits and vegetables.

“These sorts of things will help you to support your gut health, and anything that supports your gut health will support your mental and your brain health, as well as your immune system, your body weight, and all those other factors of physical health.”

This November, you can purchase our mental health eBook, packed with helpful information, practical strategies and positive vibes to support good mental health. 100% of proceeds from your eBook purchase will go to the Fernwood Foundation to continue supporting women with anxiety and depression. Find out more.

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