When you look at the financial costs of mental health issues like depression and anxiety it’s no surprise that many leading companies have begun to take the issue seriously. According to a 2016 Conference Board of Canada report, depression and anxiety cost the Canadian economy at least $32.3-billion a year, and $17.3-billion a year is lost in foregone GDP due to lost productivity. During an average week, 500,000 Canadians call in sick due to mental health problems or illness.
There’s a lot that needs to be done to address this issue, including providing employees with the right support and health care, as well as assessing how much your workplace perpetuates mental health issues like anxiety, stress and burnout. In our experience though, there’s an important piece of the puzzle that we believe is often missing from strategies and that is the important role of nutrition in prevention of mental health issues. Often nutrition is thought of as something that only helps chronic physical conditions, but we now know that the link between nutrition and mental health is very clear.
Let’s start with simple nutritional deficiencies. Studies have shown that many essential vitamins (e.g. folate, B vitamins), minerals (e.g. magnesium, selenium, zinc) and Omega-3’s are often very deficient in patients suffering from mental disorders including depression, anxiety, ADD/ADHD and addiction. When patients supplement with the nutrients in which they’re deficient, it has been shown to reduce symptoms in many cases. Addressing nutritional deficiencies could be done with simple education on what fats are considered optimal for brain health (Omega 3s may help ease depression symptoms), how to eat more anti-inflammatory vegetables, and where to get what nutrients from what foods. We do this through lunch and learns on topics like Optimizing Brain Health Through Nutrition, and Busting Stress & Boosting Happiness.
If you look at the link between gut health and mental health, there are countless examples of chemicals involved in mood and cognitive function that are influenced by your gut bacteria. It’s estimated that at least 90% of serotonin and much of its precursors, are produced in your gut thanks to the bacteria that live there. Serotonin is your “feel good” neurotransmitter, helping to regulate mood and cognitive function, and low levels of serotonin may be associated with depression and suicide. Your gut also plays an important role in the production of other neurotransmitters, including GABA and dopamine, which are thought to be implicated in mood disorders including depression, while others influence the memory and learning process in the brain. In the HEAL Wellness Challenge we spend a full week on digestive health and educate employees on how to achieve optimal levels of vitamin D, which is an important component of neurotransmitter production (source). We also address stress management techniques and provide an introduction to meditation, which helps regulate the stress response and therefore supports gut-barrier function.
At the most basic level, dietary choices and a lack of movement affects your productivity and mental clarity and can have major implications for the quality of work you put forth on a daily basis. While sugar consumption is on the decline, it’s still a problem. Studies have shown that a diet high in added sugar lowers the production of a brain chemical known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a substance that influences the formation of new memories and learning. Sugar also has been shown to worsen mood disorders, such as depression.
What if, by contrast, you educated and challenged employees to cut down on sugar and balance their blood sugar levels with the right choices for breakfast, lunch and snacks? The result would be reduced brain fog and increased energy levels and focus, not to mention a start on improving anxiety and depression.
There’s no doubt that addressing mental health in the workplace is a complex issue that requires more than one approach. We feel strongly that the nutrition aspect shouldn’t be overlooked and rather should be focused on as a preventative tool for companies looking to improve mental health in the workplace.