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Mental health conditions are the leading cause of work absence and long-term work incapacity in Australia. One way in which employers can help their employees to achieve and maintain good mental health is - surprisingly - through their stomachs. Believe it or not, we have a ‘second brain’ in our gut, and by keeping our bellies healthy with what we eat and drink, we can influence our mental health for the better.

What is Mental Health? 

Mental health encompasses the emotional, psychological and social wellbeing of an individual. It determines how a person realises their potential, the happiness and satisfaction they feel on a day-to-day basis, and how they cope with the normal stresses of life. 

The average Australian will spend over 90,000 hours of their lives working, so their place and nature of work is likely to impact their mental health. And, conversely, their mental health is likely to affect their work. This is why it is so crucial that employers consider their responsibility towards their employees’ mental health to avoid mental health issues from arising or becoming exacerbated. 

What Are Mental Health Issues and Why Should Employers Be Concerned? 

Mental health issues are extremely diverse. A mental health condition can be a relatively short period of depression that occurs as a result of a life stressor, and will often resolve itself with or without help, or it can be more long term and considerably more serious. Mental illness is a clinically diagnosable disorder that can be life changing for the individual and their loved ones. 

Mental health issues have a huge impact on Australian businesses.   

• The average time off work for mental injury is 15 weeks.

• The typical compensation payment per claim for mental injury is $24,500.

•  The ultimate cost to the economy for reduced productivity for employees with ill health is $9.9 billion. 

• 96 per cent of employees believes mental health conditions impact their productivity and engagement. 

All too often, mental health is dismissed, not taken seriously, or only addressed when issues arise - instead of doing all we can to prevent those issues from occurring in the first place. Mental health is just one aspect of our health and wellbeing and needs to be considered holistically, along with other essential factors. 

Sleep - We need enough sleep that is of sufficient quality. 

Security - A work and home environment where we feel safe and valued is essential. 

Activity - It’s necessary for good health to have physical and mental stimulation and exercise. 

Nutrition - We need a balanced diet so we can obtain essential nutrients. 

Good Habits - We may need to cut back on habits such as smoking, alcohol and drug-taking. 

The Relationship Between Mental and Physical Health 

Mental health and physical health go hand-in-hand. A person with poor physical health could be more susceptible to mental health issues due to factors such as worry, stress, fatigue, or an inability to go out or pursue hobbies and interests. 

Similarly, Australians living with mental health conditions are more likely to experience poor physical health conditions. Physical health issues could arise as a consequence of medication side-effects, or due to behaviours associated with mental health issues, such as smoking, drug-taking, and unhealthy eating. 

So, to maintain good mental health, we need good physical health, and to be physically healthy, our mental health must be nurtured. This is why the approach to health and wellness must be a holistic one, with a focus on promoting healthy minds and bodies.

Employers cannot be responsible for every aspect of their employees’ lifestyles and the choices they make. However, there are ways to protect and improve employees’ mental health in their organisations. Since what we eat and drink impacts our mental health, one of those ways is in encouraging healthy eating at work.

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Hippocrates said, ‘all disease begins in the gut’, and when you learn about human physiology and how your gut communicates with your brain, you begin to understand why. To keep things simple here, let’s put it into context with the age-old idiom, ‘you are what you eat’. In other words, what we consume has an impact on every aspect of our health, and you might be surprised to learn that includes our mental health.

That’s because inside our gut is a multi-trillion strong population of microbes, and they play a crucial role in our health and wellbeing in a number of ways. 

Why We Need to Keep Our Gut Healthy

By keeping these gut microbes healthy, we are more likely to be able to resist chronic disease, acute illness, and stress. The bacteria in our gut aid our digestion, supports our immune system and helps with the production of some vitamins, including vitamin K and the group of B vitamins, which keep our nervous system healthy and turn food into energy. These gut microbes play an important role in the immune system and inflammation by controlling what is passed into the body and what is excreted. Brain disorders like depression and Alzheimer’s disease are associated with inflammation as a result of the immune system being switched on too long. Research also suggests that our gut microbiota could be critical for regulating our immune system to encourage it to fight cancer. 

In addition, these gut microbes affect our mood and our energy levels, and they also play a vital role in our psychological health. Research suggests that stress and psychological problems such as anxiety, depression and low self-esteem can be linked to a bad diet. On the other hand, eating the right foods can influence how you feel and behave, and can even prevent depression

The Relationship Between the Gut and the Brain 

Have you ever felt as though you have ‘butterflies in your stomach’? Perhaps you’ve experienced a ‘gut-wrenching’ experience, felt ‘sick to the stomach’, or acted on a ‘gut instinct'? 

Those difficult-to-describe feelings in your stomach are real! This is because our gut and our brain interact far more closely than you might think. The enteric nervous system (ENS), which is a complex system of nerves found in the lining of the gut, is even referred to as the ‘second brain’. Both ‘brains’ communicate back and forth via hormones, transmitters, and electrical impulses through a pathway of nerves. 

This intricate form of communication enables our gastrointestinal systems to perform the vital role of digestion and even has its own reflexes, independent of the brain or spinal cord. 

This is why stress can trigger symptoms in the gut; in other words, you feel the mental effects of stress in your stomach. Stress can even alter the balance of bacteria in the intestine leading to immune system problems. Poor gut health has been implicated in neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders, and it’s essential that we consider how to keep our stomachs healthy. 

Why Bacteria Can be a Good Thing 

Since the health of our gut defines our overall health, energy levels and moods, what we eat and drink is one of the biggest determinants of our gut microbiome health. The right levels of bacteria in our gut can lift our mood, and can even help combat mental disorders, including anxiety and depression.

The good bacteria that protects the lining of your intestines ensures you have a strong barrier against toxins and bad bacteria. These good bacteria influence what your gut digests and absorbs, improves your ability to absorb nutrients from your food, and helps limit inflammation throughout your body. They also activate those neural pathways between the gut and the brain. 

The Role of Neurotransmitters 

Your gut and brain are also connected through chemicals called neurotransmitters. Eating certain foods can help you boost the levels of neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, naturally.

Serotonin, dopamine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) are chemicals in the brain that affect mood, brain function, and healthy sleep patterns. The enteric nervous system produces about 95 per cent of our serotonin and half of our dopamine in our gut.  Serotonin helps regulate sleep, appetite, moods and pain. 

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• Serotonin: Foods that contain tryptophan, an essential amino acid, boost serotonin levels. Foods that are high in protein and iron tend to contain more tryptophan, for example, turkey, chickpeas, cottage cheese, soy products, salmon, eggs, nuts and seeds. Combining these with healthy carbohydrates like quinoa and sweet potatoes will help to promote their absorption. 

• Dopamine: Scrambled eggs, salmon, mackerel, omelette, unprocessed meat, a protein smoothie, high-protein vegetables such as broccoli and spinach, and pumpkin and sesame seeds are good for increasing dopamine levels. 

• Gamma-aminobutyric acid: Foods containing glutamine help with GABA levels, such as brown rice, gluten-free whole oats, oranges, bananas, spinach, broccoli, almonds and walnuts. 

• Gut microbes make other chemicals that affect the brain, including short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate, propionate and acetate. 

• Oily fish, high-fibre foods, and fermented foods like yoghurt, kimchi, tempeh, sauerkraut and soy sauce, can help increase the good bacteria in your gut and improve brain health. 

• Probiotics, or live bacteria, and prebiotics are also good for a healthy gut and brain. Probiotics introduce good bacteria into the gut, and prebiotics help the good bacteria to grow. Eat live yoghurt for probiotics, and asparagus, leeks onions and Jerusalem artichokes for prebiotics.

• Eating more plants, especially green leafy vegetables, can help build and maintain microbiota diversity.

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Employers that consider the factors that contribute to good mental and physical health, and incorporate practices to promote them in the workplace where they can, will reap the rewards. 

While you can’t necessarily put on a daily buffet of fresh seafood, spinach omelettes and probiotic yoghurt drinks for staff, there are things you can do. Employers should encourage staff to take a regular lunch break where they leave their workstation and get out of the workplace, or go to a separate eating area. This way, individuals are more likely to make healthy food choices than if they grab the nearest snack while remaining at their desk. Plus, they get exercise and a change of scene, and return to their work feeling fresh and will ultimately produce better work. 

Employers can provide bowls of fruit, and healthy, nutritious snacks, so staff are satiated throughout the day, thus avoiding a craving for instant food, which often leads to poor choices and junk food. If this feels like too much hassle, you can leave it to Snackwize to collate the snacks for you. All you need to do is place an order online, and a box of healthy snacks are delivered direct to your workplace. 

The key is to provide a variety of snacks to prevent boredom, to make the snacks freely available so there is no need to scramble for the right money or search them out, and to cater for all dietary requirements, food intolerances, and taste preferences. Some people will want sweet, others will prefer savoury, some will only eat bland or neutral flavours, and others love a strong or spicy taste. Snackwize will make sure there's a balance of food items included in your box so employees are tempted to grab something while they work. They benefit from a boost of energy and they form positive eating habits. 

Finally, promote a healthy workplace environment and culture. Consider subsidising gym memberships, organising a lunch-time walking group, or arranging lunch-time exercise classes. Provide facilities for snack preparation at work, including a fridge so staff can store freshly chopped fruit and veggies for snack time. 

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Do you prefer to let staff bring their own snacks to work? It’s widely known that diets high in refined sugars are bad for our health. Studies have found a link between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function, and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders such as depression. Further, sugars and processed food impair the important diversity of bacteria in our gut. This can create cycles of chemical reactions that contribute to diabetes, obesity, depression and other conditions.

Making poor food choices during the day can result in weight gain, or feeling overfull or sluggish in the afternoon. In turn, this leads to sub-standard work, missed deadlines, letting clients down, and, ultimately, stress. Poor quality food choices can also irritate the gut leading to problems such as bloating, constipation and diarrhoea. In addition, if the immune system is not at its strongest, staff are more likely to pick up bugs and become unwell - which means time off work. 

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In any one year, it is estimated that one in five Australian adults will experience a mental health condition. That means it’s quite likely that you or one of your colleagues is experiencing some form of mental health challenge right now. 

Mental health concerns are a leading cause of absence and long-term inability to work, so that can mean time off work, a drop in productivity, or worse, an inability to work, resulting in the need for you to recruit and other cost implications. Further, stress has been linked to the alarming levels of suicide.

Ultimately, your brain affects your gut health and your gut affects your brain health. Nutrition is essential for a healthy, balanced state of mind, so an individual can thrive and avoid mental health issues, including depression. Encourage healthy eating and make nutritious snacks available, and you can look forward to increased productivity, engagement, and profitability. By delivering mentally healthy workplaces, you can expect to see workforce participation rates improve by 30 per cent. Everyone stands to benefit; your employees, your business, you, and your bottom line. 

Conor Reynolds