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Nutrition to support our mental health

This week presents us with ‘Mental Health Awareness week’. This blog will examine an often overlooked intervention when it comes to looking after our mental health, nutrition. Science informs us that there is a direct link between the foods we eat and our mental health.

By Pam Mason (One Education) and Jeanette Jackson (Stress Institute) on 11 May 2021

This week presents us with ‘Mental Health Awareness week’. Mental Health is reported to effect one in four people at some point in their life. The term mental health covers many different illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, psychosis, stress and OCD. Mental health related illness is one of the key reasons for sickness absence within the education sector. Leaders and Governors of our schools need to ensure that students and staff feel supported and cared for. They need to create a healthy and supportive environment which has the capacity to upskill staff and line managers on key health issues and ensure staff and students have access to interventions to support them when needed.

This blog will examine an often overlooked intervention when it comes to looking after our mental health, nutrition. Science informs us that there is a direct link between the foods we eat and our mental health.

High processed, high sugars foods and stimulants such a caffeine can agitate a delicate mind, making us feel ‘wired’ and ‘hyper’. If you are someone who is prone to anxiety, this can exacerbate the sense of agitation and in ability to relax the mind/body. It is crucial that we monitor how much we consume of these food groups and attempt to reduce our consumption.

By it’s very nature food is required to alter our biochemistry and thus our mood. But some of us are particularly sensitive to the alterations poor quality food can have on our biology and brain chemistry. Sugar highs and lows from chocolate, cakes, biscuits for example can illicit low blood sugars levels. The minute you put the sweet treat in your mouth, you get a surge of dopamine, a feel-good hormone with addictive properties, but the ‘come down’ from that for some people feels extreme. One moment you’re wired; the next, you’re flat-lining in the office with no energy at all (and then reach for the biscuit tin).

Sugar also causes inflammation, which isn't good for your body. Sugar intolerances can cause joint pain and inflammation, and inflammation is an underlying cause of many chronic diseases.

How to Counteract Poor Nutrition:

Stress can affect our food choices; it’s true for many people that if they have a stressful day then that can affect their food choices; we crave sugar and treats when we feel stressed.

Unfortunately, stress depletes some of the essential vitamins and minerals that help to make the body resilient, so it become a vicious circle of energy/fatigue.

A healthy balanced diet can help restore, repair and replenish the body AND the brain. The clarity, speed and focus with which we think, make decisions and react can be determined, in part, by the food we put in our mouths.

Tips to Healthy eating for school staff:

School staff sometimes struggle to eat well because lunches/breaks get disturbed or they are always on the go pepping for the next class, and they frequently miss out on a full lunch break because of calls/meetings. Here are some top tips to help keep you on track;

  • Choose your meal protein first - protein foods help to balance mood (Chicken, eggs, cottage Cheese are all protein rich)
  • Top salads with healthy fats - healthy fats help to boost energy and reduce energy dips (Olive oil, nuts, grains, seeds)
  • Eat your carbs at breakfast - get the energy in 1st thing to help avoid sugar crashes midday (Wholemeal toast, porridge, over-night oats are delicious and nutritious!)
  • Choose a fibre-filled diet (whole grains/vegetables/fruits) it makes you feel fuller for longer (winner)
  • Learn how to meal prep - it pays off and keeps you on track with your healthy eating
  • Keep healthy snacks on-hand at school, this will help reduce the urge to eat junk and also fill the gap on days when you don’t have time for a proper lunch (nuts, yoghurt, fruit)
  • Staying hydrated is a key component to our overall mental health and wellbeing. Dehydration can shrink the brain and negatively impact on executive brain function such as focus, memory and concentration (crucial for a teacher managing a busy class!). Try and have around 2 litres throughout the day.

OneWellbeing and Manchester Stress Institute have worked in many schools across Greater Manchester delivering practical workshops, webinars and information briefings to staff on wellbeing topics.

If you would like more information about this work and how this interacts with whole school wellbeing, please complete the online form on our contact us page.

We also have a questionnaire schools can complete to quickly analyse your next steps to improve your whole school wellbeing culture.

[Image by Leaf photo created by jcomp - www.freepik.com]

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