A Spotlight on Men’s Mental Health; Nutrition Factors to Take into Consideration - Food for the Brain
Estimated reading time: 6 mins

Since 2003, November has been coined ‘Movember’ by the Movember Foundation, originally a campaign that was launched to tackle issues related to prostate cancer and now raising awareness and funds for the biggest issues in men’s health, one of which is mental health and suicide. The statistics related to men’s mental health are alarming, according to the latest figures, 3 out of 4 suicides are men and it is the leading cause of death in England and Wales for men aged between 20 and 34 years. This may be of no surprise considering that men are less likely to access psychological therapies than women; only 36% of referrals to IAPT (Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies) are men. In addition, men have measurably lower access to the social support of friends, relatives and community. This indicates that there may be a serious epidemic of men that are going undiagnosed, in comparison to women.

Recovery is possible

Mental health is tough to talk about and many people don’t realise that a diagnosis does not mean you have to live with it for the rest of your life. Recovery is possible. When it comes to the male population, statistics show that they are more at risk of suffering from mental health issues caused by addiction to alcohol or drugs. Specifically, men are nearly three times more likely than women to become alcohol dependent, and are three times as likely to report frequent drug use than women, with more than two thirds of drug-related deaths occurring in men. 

Taking this fact into consideration, and with the knowledge that dietary changes can support addiction recovery, optimise mental wellbeing and potentially reduce the risk of relapse, nutritional therapy may help play a very important role in reducing the risk of suicidality.

Happy brain = happy mind

Targeted dietary changes can be highly effective in supporting mental wellbeing, by preventing cravings for substances such as alcohol and illicit drugs through optimising brain health. It is well-known that the brain uses up more energy than any other organ in our body, consuming about 20% of the body’s energy requirements. This means that it requires a consistent supply of fuel. Even when we may not appear to be using it, such as when we’re sleeping, there is still a high baseline consumption of glucose, which is our body’s main source of fuel. Two thirds of the brain’s energy is used to help neurons – our brain cells – send signals, with the remaining third used for basic housekeeping – or in scientific terms cell-health maintenance. When our brains are healthy, the rest of our body is healthy, plus we also feel great. 

Balance blood sugar levels to prevent cravings

Those with mental health conditions and/or addictions often have issues with blood glucose dysregulation, meaning the brain is getting an inconsistent supply of energy. According to NICE, depression is the most common psychiatric disorder witnessed in the diabetes community and people with diabetes are 3 times more likely to have depression than those that don’t. This indicates that blood sugar control is important when treating depression and other mental health conditions.

A key way to prevent this is by eating foods that are low in glycemic load, meaning they have little impact on your blood sugar levels and are able to supply the brain and body with a consistent source of energy. Foods that are high in glycemic load include; refined grains such as white bread, pastries, baked goods, white rice, desserts, sweets, chocolates, fizzy drinks, alcohol and fruit juices. These are important to avoid and replace with a diet that is rich in vegetables, legumes, whole fruits, healthy fats like olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, whole grains such as wholemeal bread and brown rice, and finally good quality protein from eggs, poultry, fish and some red meat. 

Increase the omegas

Another key area to look at is increasing intake of omega 3. This important nutrient is an essential fatty acid that we need to include in our diets as we cannot make it in our body. Omega 3 plays an important role in supporting brain cell structure, nerve conductivity and for regulating inflammation, all of which are important for supporting optimal mental wellbeing and cognitive function. Depression is now being considered by western medicine as a symptom of chronic and systemic inflammation, so much so that anti-inflammatory drugs commonly used for rheumatoid arthritis are now being used successfully in trials to treat depression. Oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, anchovies and herring are great sources of readily available Omega 3. However, it can also be found as alpha-linolenic fatty acid in some nuts and seeds such as flaxseeds, walnuts and chia seeds. These go on to be converted into the omega 3 found in fish and seafood, through enzymes in the body.

Low cholesterol and suicide

Something which is rarely touched upon in mainstream media is the importance of healthy cholesterol levels for mental health. Many believe that cholesterol needs to be kept as low as possible in the body, due to it’s ‘artery-clogging’ properties. However, there is a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to this highly important fat and its various roles in maintaining health in the body and brain. The brain actually stores the highest level of cholesterol in the body, containing approximately 20% of whole body cholesterol. And it’s no wonder that this is the case, since one of cholesterol’s most important functions in the brain is supporting the structure and function of neurons (brain cells), making up part of the outer protective layer of nerves and their cells to help optimise cell signalling and communication. 

Studies have also shown that cholesterol plays a pivotal role in serotonin transmission due to cholesterol’s role in cell membrane structure. Considering this key fact, it makes sense why so many studies have persistently shown an association between low serum cholesterol and major depression/low mood. Aggressive statin medication has unsurprisingly led to reports of increased anxiety, depression and irritability. However, research is still unclear and it is important to highlight that not everyone that takes cholesterol-lowering medications will be predisposed to a mental health condition. 

Based on the knowledge that cholesterol is important for brain function, what can we do to achieve healthy cholesterol levels? 

Well, the two points above on balancing blood sugar levels by eating a diet low in glycemic load, as well as increasing omega 3 intake are important steps, which will help raise HDL cholesterol (this is the cholesterol we want to be nice and high in comparison to the LDL).

However, another key dietary factor to take into consideration, is avoiding trans fats and industrial seed oils, which will have a negative impact on HDL levels, as well as raising LDL levels. This means avoiding seed oils like sunflower oil, rapeseed oil, refined vegetable oils and soy oil. Instead, choose avocado oil, ghee or coconut oil for high temperature cooking and olive oil for low temperature cooking. 

Finally, optimising vitamin D3 levels and exercise have also been shown to have a positive impact on HDL cholesterol levels. As we are moving into the winter months, it may be worth considering vitamin D3 supplementation to help tie you over until April/May when the days become a lot brighter.