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Food for thought: Nutrition and mental health

Dr Rachel Gow used to be a club promoter in the ‘90s, before studying to be a nutritional neuroscience expert. She now runs the Nutritious Minds project, dedicated to raising awareness of the importance of nutrition in brain health and development, and is currently setting up a community music project that’ll focus on the transformative role that music can play

What role does nutrition play in mental health?

“Nutrition plays a huge role in mental health. There are about 39 brain selective nutrients, a lot of people don’t understand the compositions of their own brains. When I go to schools one of the first questions I ask is: What is your brain made of? A lot of young people can’t answer this, yet kids are taught about the heart and how it pumps blood around the body, how we need our lungs to breathe, what our skeleton and muscles do and so on, but they have no idea about the function of their own brain — one of the most powerful tools in our existence. 

“The nutrients we need are to switch on attention, elevate mood, improve memory, and a lot of people are existing at sub-optimal thresholds under their own brain function. They’re often fatigued, irritable, living in a major city like London where people have anxiety, they’re stressed out, they’re self-medicating… through literally just nutrition you can improve your own mental health.”

What sort of foodstuffs should people be concentrating on?

“The brain is the fattest organ in the body, 65% of the dry weight of the adult brain retina is made out of these complex fats called lipids and about 30% of the brain is made out of DHA, an Omega 3 fat you can only get from eating fish and seafood. When you eat a piece of fish, you’re not only getting the Omega 3s you need for brain function, you’re also getting the trace elements — zinc, iron, iodine, magnesium, all of which work to absorb the nutrients to your red blood cells and ultimately into your brain.

“So if you have low Vitamin D and low Omega 3, you’re more likely to have depression and anxiety. Giving kids with ADHD and clinical depression Omega 3 can clinically significantly reduce these symptoms. When you go to your GP, they might prescribe you anti-depressants without even asking you what you’re eating. Doctors only get two hours training in nutrition — medicine is all about the pharmacological side.

“My mission is to educate people about the role of nutrition in mental health, particularly with young people cos they’re the most vulnerable as they’re often rewarded with sugar and processed junk foods for good behaviour. We know through neurosciences that sugar activates the same circuitry in the brain as Class A drugs — sugar is a drug, and it’s toxic to the brain, and it sets kids up for all types of possible addictions later in life.”

Why is what you eat so important for mental health?

“At least two in five people have some mental health condition, and hiding it through drugs and alcohol is not the way. Everyone needs a mental health toolbox. There are food items in your mental health toolbox that’ll bring you back into the present moment. When you have the knowledge that what you’re eating can cause depression and anxiety, there are simple things you can think about — to do with serotonin or dopamine release, or whatever. Within us, we have the properties to heal ourselves.

“If you have a car with no gas, it’s not going to run — and it’s the same with the brain. A lot of people don’t make the link between what they’re putting in their body and how they think and feel. Once you get your nutrition right, you’re much more likely to want to start training as well, because nutrition and exercise work in good synergy. Nutrition is critical for your brain function — that’s the take-home message.”

As well as the Nutritious Minds website, what’s this music project you’re launching?

“Various artists I know have all committed to mentor a young person who has a learning or behaviour difference. They may have school phobia, anxiety, depression, they might be self-harming, they may have ADHD or some type of autism. But ultimately they have a passion in music, because music can be transformative in the way it activates our brain and its networks — it enhances our brain function.

“Basically they’ll get 90 minutes in a state of the art London studio, to be mentored by that artist. My partner Lisa Nash, who used to present Club-A-Vision in the '90s, is now a fitness coach and body trainer. She’s interviewing the young people and the artists about music and its therapeutic and healing properties.

“Because of all the government cuts to funding, children with any type of learning behaviour difference get excluded from school and given fi xed-term exclusions, which leads up to permanent exclusions. Then they’re put in Pupil Referral Units, and there’s this Pupil Referral Unit to prison pipeline. Akala was speaking about this, and it’s something like 40% of children who are given exclusions end up in our prison system.

“These kids gravitate towards music and the arts, and we need to do more amongst ourselves to have this conversation about mental health out in the open and to orchestrate projects that will help ignite a young person’s passions in music. The project is self-esteem-raising, it’s about empowerment, it gets children to focus on their passions and have the opportunity for someone to believe in them and to mentor them — ultimately so that they can believe in themselves.”

So involvement in music can be as important as nutrition for some people?

“So many of my artist friends have dyslexia or ADHD, and what they’ve ended up doing is self-medicating with drugs to normalise their own brain function. It can lead to addictions if the interventions aren’t there as a child. 

“[Much-loved jungle MC] Stevie Hyper D was a good friend of mine. A lot of people don’t realise he had a speech impediment, he was very dyslexic and went to a school for kids with emotional behaviour difficulties, because back then they didn’t really correctly identify underlying issues. In spite of that, he excelled — when he was on the mic, you wouldn’t know he had a speech impediment, he was phenomenal. He was an extremely bright, creative and talented lyrical genius that excelled in a nurturing environment. Music was his platform. So it’s about raising awareness of the transformative and healing properties of music, and building self-esteem and empowering young people to pursue their passions.”

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