May is Mental Health Month, and this year’s theme is “Tools 2 Thrive.” We think that’s fitting because we all may need a few more tools in our kit to help take care of our mental health this year. With a pandemic causing anxiety and uncertainty around the world, it’s important to make sure we’re all making mental health a priority for ourselves and our communities.
This is especially true for your senior living community. Your senior residents may be anxious about what this pandemic means for them. They also may be experiencing loneliness due to a lack of visitors because of various restrictions.
To go along with the “Tools 2 Thrive” theme, Mental Health America created a toolkit that gives people tools they can use to improve mental health. And we have one more tool that you may need during these times. Nutrition can play a large role in improving a person’s state of mind, and it’s important for you and your dining team to understand which foods can make people feel worse and which foods can help people feel great.
Sugar: Not So Sweet for Mental Health
Healthy, whole foods can make a person feel better, while refined sugars and processed foods may have the opposite effect. Yes, it sounds like common sense, but it’s important to really understand the impact of diet on mood. Eating a balanced diet that provides the body with the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients it needs to function is a great foundation for better mental health.
Diets that are good for the brain and mental state are ones that are high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein and are low in sodium, saturated fats, and sugar. In a recent study, one set of participants received a diet of whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, and fish. The rest of the participants got a diet that was high in processed food, like sweet desserts, fried food, and high-fat dairy products. Five years later, the participants on the processed food diet had an increased risk of depression, and those who ate the whole foods diet had a lower risk.
Sugar is a big culprit when it comes to negatively affecting someone’s mood. When a person consumes a diet high in sugar and low in whole foods, the sugar can decrease B vitamins, which work to boost a person’s mood. Sugar can also cause inflammation, which has been linked to depression. And if you’re still not convinced that sugar isn’t good for a person’s mental health, it can also cause a blood sugar imbalance. You’ve heard of a sugar rush. When someone eats a lot of sugar, their body releases insulin to absorb the extra glucose in the bloodstream and stabilize blood sugar. However, the sugar rush makes it very difficult for the body to get back to normal levels and can make someone feel more nervous or drained.
But, completely eliminating sugar from a person’s diet can make them irritable. Instead, consider reducing processed foods and adding more whole foods, like fruits to your residents’ diets. Fruits have natural sugars and also contain other nutrients the body needs. The American Heart Association recommends six teaspoons of sugar per day for women and nine teaspoons for men.
Is it All in the Gut?
The brain and spinal cord make up a person’s central nervous system, but there’s also this Enteric Nervous System in the gut which is sometimes referred to as the “second brain.” The Enteric Nervous System and the Central Nervous System “talk” to each other about how the body is feeling. This is why anxiety may cause a nervous stomach or why a sudden decision can bring on a gut feeling.
Because of this gut-brain axis connection, the food someone eats can send signals from their gut to their brain and have an impact on mental health and emotions.
Food and Your Mood
We’ve talked about serotonin a lot on this blog because certain foods can help the body make more of it. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates a person’s emotions. About 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Studies have shown that diets high in the amino acid tryptophan can raise serotonin levels and increase positive moods in people. This is because the body converts tryptophan into serotonin. Foods with a high level of tryptophan include eggs, cheese, turkey, chicken, oats, bananas, and tofu. Diets like the Mediterranean or Japanese diets often contain more fruits, vegetables, fish, and leaner meats, as well as other foods that can improve gut health and therefore boost overall health and mood.
And it’s not just mental health that’s affected by the amount of serotonin in the gut. Serotonin can regulate bowel function, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), is linked to having too much serotonin in the gut. This is why some gastroenterologists prescribe antidepressants to combat IBS. Certain antidepressant medications may affect nerve cells in the gut and reduce symptoms of GI disorders. Low serotonin levels are also linked to fibromyalgia, obesity, and anxiety.
How You Can Improve Mental Health at Your Senior Living Community
Right now, it’s more important than ever to be aware of the mental health needs of your senior living community. Your residents might be scared, sad, and anxious about the pandemic and a good nutrition plan can be one tool that helps them feel better and happier.
If you’d like some help implementing a meal plan that improves mental health, contact the Culinary Services Group team today. Good, well-rounded diets are a powerful piece of whole-person care, and research is showing that better nutrition is truly the key to better gut health and better mental health. We’ll work with your food service team to ensure your community is receiving all the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients they need to feel their best.