Turns out it’s not just your physical health that requires good nutrition, your mental health does, too. Brigid Moss learns the basics of feeding the brain


The link between what we eat and how we feel, plus tasty recipes

Most people who come to me don’t think about their brain health at all!’ says chartered psychologi­st Kimberley Wilson, author of How To Build A Healthy Brain. ‘And most are surprised to find that what they eat can have an effect on their mental wellbeing.’ One way she finds useful to make this connection is by talking about the effects of a glass of wine: you might feel a lift in your mood, you become friendlier or bolder, your perception shifts, your balance changes. ‘If you think about it like this, you can see how what we eat affects our brain, too.’ It makes sense: the mental is physical, at root.

Good nutrition works on two levels: to keep you mentally healthy in the short term, but also to help prevent longer term brain conditions, such as dementia. One expert who is also fascinated by this area is nutritiona­l therapist Eve Kalinik, whose new book, Happy Gut, Happy Mind: How To Feel Good From Within, focuses on the link between gut health and mental health.

She says there’s still much to be discovered about nutrition and our mood and mind, but what we do know so far feels exciting. ‘Perhaps one day, we’ll know enough to be able to prescribe a personalis­ed diet for brain health, just as we can do for the body.’

But where can we start right now? As a psychologi­st, Wilson’s focus is on therapy. But she’s found it incredibly useful to analyse clients’ food diaries alongside recommendi­ng other lifestyle changes. ‘Therapy is about changing your brain.

In order to get the best out of therapy, you may want to consider

certain shifts in your diet as well as exercise and sleep management,’ she says. ‘I look at food diaries for key deficienci­es or absences of nutrients we know are important for brain health. These include omega-3, vitamin B complex and fibre, which is vital for gut health.’ (See below.)

A self-confessed foodie, you might have seen Wilson on The Great British Bake Off in 2013. She first became interested in the link between nutrition and psychology while running the therapy service in a women’s prison a few years before taking part in the show. ‘Prison is a place where self-harm, violence and suicide are real problems,’ she says. Her interest was piqued by a study which found that giving prisoners nutritiona­l supplement­s of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals reduced violence by 30%. ‘It’s such simple and cheap interventi­on,’ she says. ‘It showed me that nutrition can have a profound effect on aspects of behaviour and emotion.’

Since then, there have been several key studies, including SMILES, a randomised controlled trial in which a third of participan­ts saw an improvemen­t in mood when they improved their diets. As a nutritiona­l therapist who specialise­s in the gut, Kalinik is particular­ly interested in the increasing number of studies that are beginning to reveal how gut health is crucial to brain health. Not only do gut microbes directly manufactur­e key neurotrans­mitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, in the gut they also indirectly have some control over these same neurotrans­mitters available in the brain. They play a major role in governing our inflammato­ry response, too. This is important because inflammati­on is being considered a key part of the developmen­t and progressio­n of depression, as well as other brain conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Both Wilson and Kalinik are clear they don’t want us to get bogged down in a mass of food rules, but instead for food to be pleasurabl­e and about adding to our diet rather than taking foods away. ‘A healthy and happy relationsh­ip with our food and, on a much deeper level, with ourselves relies on an inclusive approach, rather than restrictio­n and labelling certain foods or food groups as “bad” or “good”, which is often inaccurate and unnecessar­y. If you can gain a more intuitive and mindful approach towards eating, you’ll gain a more compassion­ate and kind attitude to yourself,’ says Kalinik.

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