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Mental Health Awareness Week 2019

It’s heartening to see that mental health is no longer a taboo subject; the air time on TV and radio as well as the wealth of related posts on social media are testament to that. There is still progress to be made though; more conversations, more understanding and more ‘permission’ from ourselves and from others to be unwell when that is how we are. But is there still something missing? We suspect there might be.

The missing part for us is looking, not just for the cause of a problem, but also for factors that may be worsening an already challenging experience (and indeed in some cases may even be the cause!) We can only justifiably speak from our own experience here but between us, over the course of a couple of decades, we’ve learnt things that at one time we didn’t know and which have proven to be useful or invaluable. And it’s those things that we wish to share here, in the event that something we mention may be useful to someone else who might be dealing with anxiety or depression, or both.

Sometimes the cause of any mental illness is glaringly obvious. Frequently however, it is not, and with good reason; we are complex individuals with input from a wide range of internal and external sources making us who and how we are in any given moment. It’s often understandably assumed that some kind of negative experience is the starting point for mental illness, but there can be other factors that combine with that negative experience or may even be potent enough to act alone. We have to talk about food! We’re gradually accepting that the food we eat, as well as the food that we don’t eat is hugely relevant for our physical health from cardiac health through to diabetes and some cancers. Why ever would our brains and nervous systems be exempt from the impact of what we eat? They aren’t. They each need to be well nourished but in an era of convenience and ultra-processed foods nutrition is frequently inadequate. It’s fair to assume that we still don’t know just how much nutrition, and which nutrients we each need for good cognitive and nervous system functioning. How can we easily measure that anyway? In any given day we may experience anything from laughter and fun to anguish and stress; how do our food choices replace what we’ve burnt up during periods of stress?

It isn’t always sensible or relevant to break food down into individual parts (natural food almost certainly contains substances yet to be discovered, along with the discovery of how we use them and the way they work synergistically in our bodies), but we do know that certain nutrients are key if we wish to care for our nervous systems. What if anxiety is caused solely by magnesium deficiency? It is certainly possible, and this mineral is widely deficient in Western societies. What about the B group vitamins? They have a known association with the health of the nervous system. Could a simple deficiency be making mental illness worse? Definitely. Does it not make sense to give ourselves as much help as possible? Supplementing may have a place here, and has to be worth a try, but we still urge anyone seeking to improve their mental wellbeing to ultimately look to food. Increasingly links are being made between the health of the gut and the health of the mind; natural food, predominantly in its natural state, is capable of providing and feeding the microbes that reside within us and keep us well, while poor quality food can do precisely the opposite.

Food isn’t all we consume and it seems poignant that during Mental Health Awareness Week there is a news story putting Britain at the top of a global leader board; Britons are number 1 in the world for getting drunk most often. This country also has a high rate of (especially male) suicide, and the two are linked. Again, we recognise that alcohol can lead to a range of physical illnesses; are we making the connection between the various deleterious effects of alcohol and mental health? Do we even know what they are?

There are plenty of other interventions prized very highly by us for supporting both physical and mental health; meditation, time spent in nature, enjoyable exercise to name just three, but this post aims to encourage anyone who reads it to better embrace that most intimate relationship with nature .. the food we eat. Each one of us is worth this level of care and support, and each one of us (in most cases) is best placed to implement it.

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