We ask nutritionist Melanie Brown, can food improve my mental health?

By Melanie Brown, nutritionist specialising in fertility

Mental health is very much in the news at the moment, from the open and frank discussions by Princes William and Harry, to the dangers of long-term addiction to antidepressants. And for people going through a diagnosis of infertility, depression and anxiety is a huge issue

Did you know that antidepressants are not good for sperm? Women are usually advised to try and wean off them before an IVF cycle and in pregnancy. But easier said than done for sure; coming off these medications often produce horrible side effects if not undertaken for several months, and then of course often the depression and anxiety just rears its ugly head again because of the situation people are in. So, part of my job is to help my clients cope with their depression and anxiety using diet, lifestyle and certain well-chosen supplements.

Blood sugar levels

All my clients have heard me bang on about this; letting your blood sugar levels fall by skipping meals or eating the wrong things causes a rise in adrenaline, our ‘fight and fight’ hormone which leads to an increased heartbeat similar to anxiety. The quick sugary fix that usually follows will feel as if it has worked temporarily but then blood sugar levels will fall again and you will just feel tired and down. Don’t snack between meals but just eat well AT meals with plenty of protein, and ‘good’ carbs and vegetables.

Brain food is primarily glucose, but a slow release though as high levels of sugar damage brain cells. A diet of complex wholemeal carbohydrate is the best diet such as oats, rye bread, wholemeal pasta and brown rice and fibrous vegetables. A 2009 report in the Journal Appetite (Kristen et al) found that low carb, high protein diets like Atkins and Dukan can cause ‘significant drops in mental ability’. And I know that if I eat white pasta or a baked potato at lunchtime my head would be on the desk by 3pm.

Brain foods

Eggs and wheat-germ both contain choline, a phospholipid abundant in brain cell membranes. And eating eggs does not raise your levels of bad cholesterol so eat lots, especially as they are an excellent fertility food too. Nuts, especially walnuts are a great anti-depressant food and research on blueberries has shown a distinct improvement in cognitive function and short-term memory. Foods rich in the B vitamins folic acid (dark green leafy vegetables, pulses), B12 (meat, fish, chicken and dairy), riboflavin (dairy foods, meat, wholegrains, Marmite) and B6 (peppers, spinach, broccoli, nuts, pulses, meat, seeds) are also excellent brain foods.

Brains take up about two percent of us, but use about 20 percent of our calories. They are high in fat and need good fats, particularly the omega 3 fats, DHA and EPA. These are found in oily fish like wild salmon, sardines and mackerel. But you need a lot of them to be consumed every day so taking a pharmaceutical grade supplement of fish SKIN oil (not liver oil) supplement containing at least 400mg DHA daily is a good idea. Research has shown that a high dose of EPA as well as DHA can help with depression. I always recommend Bare Biology Lionheart Liquid for my fertility clients. And olive oil within a Mediterranean Diet, both of which are believed to help brain function generally. However hydrogenated and trans fats found in commercially baked goods are extremely bad for the brain, as is very high levels of saturated (usually animal) fats.

The gut brain connection

It turns out that what goes on in your gut can have a lot to do with how you feel emotionally as well. Basically, the gut and the brain ‘talk’ to each other through a variety of nervous and hormonal mechanisms and the gut bacteria play an enormous role within this relationship. So, what and how you eat can really help any stomach issues like IBS which then may in turn reduce depression and anxiety. A healthy diet filled with vegetables that feed the gut bacteria, and a good all round probiotic supplement may help improve your mood.

Good sleep foods

Good quality sleep of course, is so essential for mood. No caffeine after 12 midday is essential. Strong cheeses, hot spicy foods, processed foods high in additives and sugar, salty foods and lots of meat for dinner can all stimulate the release of adrenaline. Fish, pulses, chicken and lots of vegetables are better. In fact, turkey contains high levels of tryptophan, a precursor of serotonin, our feel-good hormone. For extra help I recommend magnesium and Montmorency Cherry tablets (these cherries contain high levels of the sleep hormone melatonin) or a small bed-time snack of natural full fat yoghurt, sunflower seeds and a little banana which all help tryptophan production.

Supplements

Supplements containing what are known as adaptogens, such as rhodiola, ginseng and ashwagandha are incredibly useful for depression, stress and anxiety. L-theanine which is found in tea is especially good for anxiety and magnesium with a good B-complex, especially vitamin B5 is also good for stress. And I love something called Stabilium (derived from fish) which I swear has a calming effect. And of course, the omega three fats as mentioned above.

To read more on foods and recipes to help boost your TTC journey click here

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