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Ashwagandha is a herb with incredible qualities. It acts as a gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) mimetic, effective at reducing symptoms of anxiety and stress, and supports mental focus and wellbeing. Studies have also demonstrated its ability to reduce anxiety, depression and stress by 71 per cent over eight weeks.
B vitamins are essential for energy production, the normal functioning of the nervous system and (vitamin B5 in particular) the production of the glucocorticoid hormones, such as cortisol, in the adrenals. Sources include whole grains, eggs, beans and lentils, a range of vegetables, fish and meat. A vitamin B complex supplement can be supportive.
Magnesium is essential for producing energy and the production of neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin. It is used up quickly when we are stressed. The best sources are nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin seeds and hemp seeds; and hemp protein powder), buckwheat groats or flour (buckwheat is a seed and not related to wheat), greens such as spinach and kale and fish and shellfish. If sleep is an issue, a supplement at night can help.
Probiotics: The gut is the engine room for so many important aspects of health, including mental health. The gut is known as the ‘second brain’, as it is the primary site for many neurotransmitters and hormones, including serotonin and GABA, the feel-good and anti-anxiety brain chemicals. The bacteria genus lactobacillus rhamnosus have been shown to influence the production of GABA. Other studies indicate that good bacteria in the gut can change how adaptable we are to stress in our environment (whether it’s stress over an altercation with a colleague or stress from air pollutants).
The hormone melatonin – needed for a healthy sleep-wake cycle – is affected by the balance of gut bacteria. It is thought that it is produced by the pineal gland, but 400 times more is created in the intestinal tract from the amino acid l-tryptophan. Probiotics, in the form of supplements or food, can be helpful in reinoculating the gut. Probiotic powders are versatile and argued by some experts to be more effectively utilised by the body. As more is understood about the complexity of the human microbiome, we are also recognising that strains of beneficial flora work best in synergy. Look for complexes with multiple strains, such as those containing lactobacillus, bifidobacterium and streptococcus.
Essential fatty acids are required to help friendly bacteria stick to the gut wall and support the efficiency of hormones and brain chemicals, including serotonin. For a boost of healthy fats, slice avocado into your salad or onto your morning toast, drizzle with olive oil and add wild salmon. Mix poached wild salmon with horseradish and plain yogurt to make a mood-supporting paté.
Protein is rich in zinc and tryptophan, which boost serotonin levels. Dip steamed asparagus into boiled eggs as a morning mood enhancer. Grains such as quinoa are full of protein, minerals such as magnesium, and B vitamins, needed to produce anti-anxiety brain chemicals. Use quinoa as an alternative to rice or wheat pasta (research highlights the link between gluten sensitivity, gut health, inflammation and depression). Lean proteins, such as fish and chicken, provide a complete mix of amino acids – the building blocks of neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine.
Downtime: It is easy to overcommit, where output outweighs input. We are left with scant time for rest and nurturing. Quiet, restorative time is not laziness; in fact, plotting rejuvenation into your diary is essential. Experiment with choosing a few nights a week when you have a break from social media and your phone. Have a bath, practise yoga or make a nourishing meal.
Sleep quality: Restful sleep regulates appetite and hormone production, and has a qualitative effect on mood and resilience to stress. Turn down bright lighting and surround yourself with dim, calm light. To support the rise of the sleepy hormone, melatonin, reduce exposure to blue light from TVs, phones and computers. Try relaxing magnesium or ashwagandha as a sleep aid.
Our expert, Henrietta Norton, is a registered nutritional therapist, a women’s wellbeing writer and expert, and co-founder of food-grown supplements brand Wild Nutrition.