We talk to Sian Baker, head of health and nutrition services, Health Hub – an online health platform helping individuals to take control of their health – and discuss why diet is so important to an individual’s overall mental health, and how it can support productivity in the workplace.
‘You are what you absorb’
“A lot of people don’t realise the effect diet has on your overall mental health because they don’t realise how much of the serotonin we produce is made in the gut,” says Sian Baker.
“A huge 95% of all serotonin in the body is made in your gut, meaning if it isn’t healthy or happy, your ability to produce the hormone can be impaired.
“Serotonin is your natural mood stabiliser. It regulates anxiety, happiness, sleep and overall mood, so if production is inhibited, this can have an impact, sometimes a profound one, on how you feel.”
Supporting your mental health with your diet
“For optimum serotonin production, the amino acid, tryptophan, is important and can be found in various high protein foods, such as nuts, eggs, cheese and red meat, for example. A low protein diet can reduce the ability to produce serotonin effectively and increase the possibility of mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression.” continues Sian.
“If you’re struggling with your sleep, it’s important to ensure you’re incorporating enough magnesium into your diet, which can be found in wholegrains and vegetables and can often be found wanting in a diet high in processed foods.
“We can all admit we’re guilty of using caffeine, sugar and alcohol as stress relievers, but these can perpetuate mental health problems by elevating the stress response, blood sugar spikes and causing inflammation in the gut.
“Getting the ratio right between omega 3 and 6 fatty acids is important for the body as a whole, and definitely for the gut when talking inflammation. Most people consume enough omega 6, as it’s found in oils used in many pre-packaged foods, however omega 3 – found in oily fish, seeds, nuts and green leafy vegetables – is frequently under consumed. Omega-3 is anti-inflammatory and can help to boost gut health to improve mental health.”
The effect of nutrition in the workplace
“As people often don’t recognise the link between nutrition or physical health and mental health, employers will often focus on tackling workplace mental health with programmes, such as resilience training, rather than looking at the whole picture,” comments Chris, our director here at Lumien.
“Our data shows how poor wellbeing impacts employees 27% of the time, which is seeing companies lose an average of 17% in productivity. This annually equates to approximately £5,318.45 per employee. In addition, research has shown poor nutrition can reduce an employee’s efficiency by 20%.
“However, it’s not just nutrition and poor mental health affecting the workplace, it works the other way around too.
“For example, increased workload and stress can affect an employee’s nutrition. If they’re unable to take time to eat in the working day, reliant on caffeine or sugar to boost energy, or relieving stress with fatty foods or alcohol after work, this will affect their gut health, which in turn will affecting mental health and productivity at work.”
Supporting employees’ mental health through diet
“Most businesses think of nutrition as something that individuals need to address for themselves at home. However, due to the effect employee nutrition has on business performance, it’s time to consider how a holistic approach can boost business growth and team retention rates,” continues Chris.
“Workplace nutrition programmes can include coaching programmes or subsidised nutritious lunches or snacks, for example, to promote a balanced diet alongside wellbeing and mental health support.”
“Most importantly, it’s about employers taking responsibility for their employees’ health with a proactive strategy to support happiness and health in their roles. However, each company is different, and developing an evidence-based strategy can demonstrate to employees how they’re being listened to while supporting their health,” concludes Chris Golby.