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Three Practical Neuroscience-Based Ways to Boost Your Mental Health at Work

Mental health and wellbeing are critically important aspects of living a thriving and fulfilling life. The latest neuroscience has some simple but powerful suggestions for improving mood by tweaking what we eat. After all, we take our physiology to work!

Happy work team

A growing body of evidence reveals that there is a relationship between nutrition and mood. There is also recent research showing a causative link between specific dietary patterns and symptoms of depression.

With a number of mental health awareness initiatives in Australia, such as ‘Liptember,’ a women’s mental health initiative for September, ‘RuOK’ day around the corner, October as ‘Mental Health Month’ and internationally recognised World Mental Health day on the 10th of October, we are being encouraged to bring the discussion about mental health and wellbeing out of the shadows.

By sharing what many people have been loath to discuss, we can help support people who are battling with mental health challenges. And with depression being the leading cause of disability globally, these discussions are critical.

Although personal situations and challenges significantly contribute to mental health and wellbeing, as do other factors such as age, genes, gender, fitness, sleep and general stress levels, the connection between mental wellbeing and nutrition is rarely discussed informally. This is unfortunate considering the impact that nutritional choices have on our physiology. After all, cognition occurs across a vast and very sophisticated network of cells and chemicals all of which are dependent on the nutrients that we consume. 

Healthy, clean, brain food

1 Stabilise blood glucose to manage mood, focus and concentration

Our brains primary and preferred source of energy comes from carbohydrates. Although the brain is capable of using fat in the form of ketones as a source of energy when carbohydrate supply runs low, it evolved to use glucose derived from carbohydrate consumption. Through digestion and absorption, and using specific nutrients that need to be supplied by our diet, carbohydrates are converted into glucose. Glucose finds its way into the brain via our blood supply, in the form of blood glucose.

Nutrient- and fibre-deficient carbohydrates provide a quick rise in blood glucose, which is followed by a drop, leading to reduced mood, focus, concentration and learning. The desire for another quick boost in energy leads to the consumption of more such food, leading to an ongoing cycle of blood glucose ups and downs, including weight gain over time.

Poor food choices also impact the synthesis of neurotransmitters, which also impact mood and cognitive functioning. Furthermore, such food choices lead to gut and general inflammation over time, which also have a direct impact on brain function and mood, and provide few brain-required-nutrients overall.

Therefore, keeping blood glucose stable while also consuming brain-supporting nutrients is a foundational step to mood – and focus, concentration and memory – improvement. Choose raw or activated nuts, seeds and berries for blood glucose stability and nutrient-density and add fresh greens to at least one meal per day. 

Calm, happy mindful moments at work

2 Use mindfulness to manage stress (and blood glucose)

Stress impacts brain function directly, regardless of where it originates. Unfortunately, chronic stress can also lead to blood glucose instability over time. Such stress leads to the body constantly being directed toward a state of ‘flight or flight,’ which leads to ongoing surges in blood glucose – and later, dips – as the body prepares for survival.

Keep in mind that the brain does not distinguish between a real threat to survival and a psychological threat, although psychological stress introduces the human tendency for rumination, which extends the stressful experience. This situation also drives poor food choices, which combined with blood glucose instability leads to weight gain, which becomes another stressor for the individual.

Furthermore, stress on its own also impacts decision making negatively due to the brains preoccupation with survival. In addition, stress at work can also contribute to an individuals stress load. However, recent research showed a reduction in work-related stress via mindfulness training.

Managing stress, via mindful practices and stress-busting foods, are therefore important steps to take in managing mood and supporting optimal brain function. 

Happy, co-operating colleagues

3 Improve mood, cognition and relationships

People that are in a good mood and feeling positive interact well with others and may collaborate and cooperate more willingly, leading to a state of thinking that researchers term ‘cognitive flexibility.’ On the other hand, people who are in a bad mood tend to limit their interactions with others and are also less creative.

A small study showed that people who were in a bad mood were more likely to delay dealing with emails, which may extend to other work-related responsibilities. In relation to blood glucose ups and downs, this instability can also lead to feelings of irritability, which further reduce positive interactions among people.

Every felt ‘hangry?’ This amalgamated word appropriately describes the extreme irritability, and even anger, that a hungry person can experience. Ever make a good food decision when in this state? Or any other decision? Low blood glucose leads to this negative mood state and individuals experiencing such are unable to think clearly. Unsurprisingly, research has revealed that blood glucose does indeed impact decision-making.

However, there is limited research that has examined how blood glucose and mood impact business directly, although if it impacts decision making negatively, it is likely to do the same for business outcomes. In addition, anyone who has dealt with a moody team member, or been exposed to such in a customer-client situation, will be hard-pressed not to see a likely correlation between such experiences and business success overall.

In addition, improving personal and business interactions, creativity, ‘cognitive flexibility,’ and decision making can combine to improve mental health, via different pathways – increasing positive feedback, personal efficacy and confidence.

In conclusion, although we have embraced the benefits of openly discussing mental health, we need to become more enthusiastic about discussing the potential role and possible domino effect of preventative strategies.

Managing mood and stress with natural strategies, such as specific food choices, exercise, sleep and mindfulness training has the potential to contribute significantly to improved mental health for those willing to embrace the latest evidence.

This approach has the potential to improve the mood and mental health of individuals, reduce stress levels, and improve the performance and experience of all team members in a work environment.

References

Chin B, Slutsky J, Raye J, Creswell JD. Mindfulness Training Reduces Stress At Work: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Mindfulness. 2019 Apr;10(4):627-38. 

De Dreu, C. K. W., Baas, M., & Nijstad, B. A. (2008). Hedonic tone and activation level in the mood-creativity link: Toward a dual pathway to creativity model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(5), 739–756.

Felger JC. Imaging the Role of Inflammation in Mood and Anxiety-related Disorders. Curr Neuropharmacol. 2018;16(5):533-58.

Gianferante D, Thoma MV, Hanlin L, Chen X, Breines JG, Zoccola PM, et al. Post-stress rumination predicts HPA axis responses to repeated acute stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2014 Nov;49:244-52.

Gibson EL. Emotional influences on food choice: sensory, physiological and psychological pathways. Physiol Behav. 2006;89(1):53-61.

Jacka FN, O’Neil A, Opie R, Itsiopoulos C, Cotton S, Mohebbi M, et al. A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BMC Med. 2017 Jan 30;15(1):23.

Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Fagundes CP, Andridge R, Peng J, Malarkey WB, Habash D, et al. Depression, daily stressors and inflammatory responses to high-fat meals: when stress overrides healthier food choices. Mol Psychiatry. 2017 March;22(3):476-482.

Lai JS, Hiles S, Bisquera A, Hure AJ, McEvoy M, Attia J. A systematic review and meta-analysis of dietary patterns and depression in community-dwelling adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jan;99(1):181-97.

Lerner JS, Li Y, Valdesolo P, Kassam KS. Emotion and decision making. Annu Rev Psychol. 2015 Jan 3;66:799-823.

Marcovecchio ML, Chiarelli F. The effects of acute and chronic stress on diabetes control. Science signaling. 2012 Oct 23;5(247):pt10.

Marx W, Moseley G, Berk M, Jacka F. Nutritional psychiatry: the present state of the evidence. Proc Nutr Soc. 2017 Nov;76(4):427-36.

Mergenthaler P, Lindauer U, Dienel GA, Meisel A. Sugar for the brain: the role of glucose in physiological and pathological brain function. Trends Neurosci. 2013;36(10):587-97.

Moreland, R. L., & Levine, J. M. (Eds.). (2006). Socialization in organizations and work groups. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Nadler RT, Rabi R, Minda JP. Better mood and better performance. Learning rule-described categories is enhanced by positive mood. Psychol Sci. 2010 Dec;21(12):1770-6.

Parletta N, Milte CM, Meyer BJ. Nutritional modulation of cognitive function and mental health. J Nutr Biochem. 2013;24(5):725-43.

Shirren S, Phillips JG. Decisional style, mood and work communication: email diaries. Ergonomics. 2011 Oct;54(10):891-903.

Starcke K, Brand M. Decision making under stress: A selective review. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2012;36(4):1228-48.

World Health Organisation. Mental Disorders. Fact Sheet. Geneva: World Health Organisation; 2017 [cited: 2017 April 20]. Available from: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs369/en/.

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