Nutrition is a major factor in gut and digestive health, which impacts brain and mental health and overall well-being, said Heather Barnes, a registered dietitian at Shoppers Drug Mart, during Benefits Canada’s 2022 Mental Health Summit in November.

Making healthy eating less stressful and more accessible to employees could help reduce stress and improve their mental health, she added.

The brain and the digestive system are connected by the vagus nerve, the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis — which involves stress hormones — and the gut microbiota and metabolism. “They can talk to each other using different means and different metabolic pathways,” said Barnes. “And all of these pathways are nutrition-related.”

Read: Ericsson adds sleep, nutrition to online wellness program

Post-traumatic stress disorder, complex PTSD, eating disorders and disordered eating, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and irritable bowel syndrome — which was recently reclassified as a gut-brain axis disorder — can all be affected by nutrition.

Some of the substances that can have a negative impact on gut microbiota are

Antidepressants and other psychotropic medications, as nicotine and alcohol are some of the substances that can have a negative impact on gut microbiota, said Barnes, noting coffee, tea, chocolate and other xanthines have positive impacts.

The field of nutritional psychiatry can play a role in helping people manage their mental-health challenges, she said. The field looks at how certain nutrients can affect or help manage certain mental-health disorders. As examples, Barnes referred to vitamin D’s role in reducing symptoms of depression, the potential for magnesium to affect anxiety, the value of omega-3 fatty acids to overall brain health, mood disorders, ADHD and a reduction in brain and body inflammation.

Omega-3 fatty acids — which can be found in olive and canola oil, nuts and seeds and salmon — are the most important nutrient for brain and mental health,” she said. Thirty-five per cent of brain tissue is made up of polyunsaturated fatty acids, which help protect against inflammation and play a role in preventing mood disorders and cognitive decline. Taking omega-3 supplements can have a beneficial impact on depression symptoms, she added, particularly for people who are already taking medication and not seeing the level of symptom reduction they hoped for.

Read: Carproof engages employees in nutrition

Barnes also highlighted the value of fibre and polyphenols in improving gut health and decreasing inflammation in the brain and oxidative stress, which helps with memory and learning capabilities and increases blood flow in the brain. Good sources of fibre include whole grains, beans, lentils and fruits and vegetables, while polyphenols can be found in berries, cherries, herbs and spices, coffee, tea and cocoa powder.

Most people don’t get enough fibre per day, she said, but noted that, when increasing fibre intake, it’s important to go slowly and drink more water to help increase the body’s fibre tolerance and avoid side-effects such as bloating and gas.

Barnes also said many of her patients come to her with existing mental-health challenges or stress, even if that’s not the main reason they came to see her. Part of her practice involves being trauma-informed and meeting clients where they are by creating nutrition plans that are realistic and accessible given their history and current lifestyle. She said she regularly encourages nutritional supplements for patients that find them more accessible than food changes.

“I think it’s very important to include empathy and compassion, because we do want them to make changes to their diet; we want them to be healthier overall.” 

She encouraged employers to make nutrition a part of their mental-health strategies and hold corporate wellness sessions hosted by dieticians to help employees learn about the connection between mental health and nutrition.

Read: 5 steps to promoting nutrition in the workplace

While one-time seminars and sessions can be a good jumping-off point for employees to begin considering and incorporating changes, Barnes said allowing for individual coaching by including registered dieticians as covered practitioners in the benefits plan can help employees work with a professional on specific nutrition goals and make long-term sustainable changes.

“With proper assessment, you can identify what things that person wants to work on, what they’re able to work on in their current situation and then follow up with them and see how it’s going. You’re really able to follow people through their journey and help them to achieve results.”

Read more coverage of the 2022 Mental Health Summit.