Credit: Ella Olson

Food for thought: a very brief insight into nutritional psychiatry

There’s often a temptation when we’re battling exams, essays and dissertations to spend a week living off of instant noodles. Even day to day, we often end up eating the same meal several times a week. I, for one, am guilty of having the same thing for lunch every day; don’t get me wrong, a cheese sandwich is nice, but I’m not exactly providing my body with any nutritional variety.

We are getting more and more to grips with the fact that our physical and mental health are inextricably linked, from the amount of exercise we do to the foods we ingest every day. The concept of looking after your ‘gut microbiome’ has also become rapidly more popular. The University of Harvard’s Medical School, in particular, has conducted studies assessing to what extent our diets can impact our brain health. I didn’t quite realise the positive impact a properly balanced diet could have on our brains.

As students, most of us eat a lot of highly processed or refined foods, usually because we’re on a budget. Perversely, it’s much cheaper to buy a frozen pizza than to buy the ingredients for a decent salad. However, highly processed foods contain significant amounts of refined sugars, which are actually harmful to the brain, promoting inflammation and oxidative stress, which can cause tissue damage.

Some studies have even found correlations between high refined sugar intake and the worsening symptoms of depression; about 95% of our serotonin is actually produced in our gastrointestinal tract, something I was very surprised to discover. This tract is lined with a hundred million neurons, which can be hugely affected by an imbalanced gut microbiome. The ‘good’ bacteria we have in our systems helps us limit inflammation, and it affects how well we absorb the nutrients from our food.

Interestingly, studies have shown that a more Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet are much better for the brain than typically ‘Western’ ones; in some cases, the risk of depression was 25-35% lower. Much of Mediterranean and Japanese diets constitute a wealth of unprocessed fruits, vegetables, fish and seafood, and a lot of fermented foods, which act as natural probiotics. Experts also encourage us to eat more protein as it contains amino acids, which our brain needs to produce neurotransmitters that, in turn, help us regulate our thoughts and emotions. There’s also growing evidence that a Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of cardiovascular issues and diabetes.

A lot of us students suffer from the opposite problem – especially during deadline season – which is not eating enough. When you’re stressed about an upcoming exam and you’ve got your head in your books, sometimes the last thing you want to do is eat. However, if we don’t eat regularly, our blood sugar levels can become unsteady. 

Experts recommend we eat foods that release energy slowly, including nuts and seeds, brown rice and pasta, and wholegrain bread and cereal. Eating foods that are high in sugar can cause our blood sugar levels to suddenly spike and fall, causing a sudden drop in energy and motivation. Making sure we eat regularly is key to maintaining focus.

Many of us are put off by cooking simply because it’s time-consuming. Meal-prepping is a popular tactic for students, but it’s more commonly done to cater for dinner than lunch. As I attempt to break out of the cheese sandwich routine, I’ve found I can benefit from a healthier and more exciting diet by batch cooking pasta salads at the weekend, or making bigger portions for dinner to have for lunch the next day.

With finals and diss deadlines looming, eating better may be the last thing on everybody’s minds. But if it’s true that ‘you are what you eat’, I’d much rather be a plate of sushi than a cheese sandwich.