29 Feb 2016
Sustainable and profitable companies ultimately depend upon the performance of their staff. For long-term high performance they must be healthy in mind as well as body. Such people are more productive, agile, efficient and resilient. They thrive in the workplace, have higher morale and suffer less debilitating stress. As a result, they reduce company costs by lowering the incidence of chronic disease, injury, disability and absenteeism.
For most of us, all this is plain to see. Less well known is the fact that people with mental health conditions (anxiety, depression, stress) take more time off work per year on average than those with physical work-related illnesses.
Mental ill health is the largest single cause of absenteeism, costing the economy between £70 and £100 billion a year.
According to The Mental Health Foundation, one in four of us experience a mental health problem in the course of a year. Currently, treatment of individuals with mental health conditions is primarily managed with medication and ‘talking therapies’ by primary care physicians. In the workplace, strategies for tackling mental health problems include changes to workload, work patterns and work environment.
Whilst these tactics may be necessary elements in the treatment, they do not (and are not designed to) address the root causes. Inevitably these processes represent additional costs to the enterprise.
We all know that what we eat affects our performance in the short term. Chronic and excess consumption of sources of sugary food and drinks along with refined carbohydrates (such as white bread) cause blood sugar highs and lows. A doughnut, a coffee … you get the idea. A quick mood improver plus a performance hike to meet that deadline, or at the very least to stop us dozing at our desks mid-afternoon. We also know that there is always a price to pay later, as we endure the inevitable come-down.
Poor control of blood sugar underlies fatigue, poor concentration, mood swings, anxiety and predisposes to excessive cravings, resulting in compulsive, addictive-like behaviour.
In the longer run, this is a simple strategy for disaster – both at the individual level and, by extension, the enterprise. Poor diet is now known to increase mental health risk; a study of 3500 office staff found that a high intake of processed foods (sugar, fried food, processed meat, refined grains) is a risk factor for depression in middle age, whereas a whole food diet (vegetables, fruit, fish) is protective. Even mild dehydration can alter a person's mood and performance.
Current approaches to tackle mental health problems do not include nutritional interventions. This is indefensible given that intensive farming practices, food manufacturing, production and storage have fundamentally changed the amount and balance of nutrients in our food, thereby affecting the function and structure of the brain, and that our food choices are being increasingly corrupted for the convenience of Big Food and their PR machinery.
Health education, however, can only go so far. Many people with chronic depression are unable or unwilling to eat a healthy diet at a time when they need it most, and consequently suffer from nutrient imbalances which further exacerbate their depression, their own performance and often the morale of close colleagues.
When dealing with mood disorders, the Nutritional Therapist will - often with the help of functional lab testing - consider the whole health history of a person, including diet, lifestyle and current medications. There’s a lot of medical and dietary history to unravel and a detailed intake is crucial.
Take digestion: poorly digested food, stress, drugs and exposure to allergens or toxic substances all affect the integrity of our delicate intestinal membranes and may compromise nutrient absorption. Low levels of the minerals magnesium, zinc, iron and the vitamins B and D have been associated with an increased risk for depression. Low levels of omega-3’s are also linked to mood disorders.
Such compromised digestive function, along with a typical Western diet high in refined carbohydrates - and a history of taking antibiotics - significantly disturbs our delicate bacterial ecology and gut immunity, promoting intestinal inflammation. It is well established that depression occurs more frequently in those with chronic low-grade inflammation and immune dysfunction. Typical symptoms of raised levels of inflammatory markers are sleep disturbances, mood changes, loss of interest, energy and appetite.
So how do we tackle this? Nutritional and behavioural interventions to improve nutrient status, support digestion and resolve inflammation are highly effective. These include targeted dietary strategies and nutrient, probiotic and enzyme therapy. It is important these are considered on a case-by-case basis alongside traditional care options because we all have our own unique baggage and biochemistry.
Bottom line: mentally resilient and energetic employees make for resilient and profitable enterprises. Motivated and coached to make and maintain smart food choices, they enjoy healthy habits and get the right help to ensure their gut is fit for purpose. Sustained high performance increases their productivity and ultimately the profits of the companies they work for.
Martina Watts MSc Nut Med is a Registered Nutritional Therapist in Brighton, UK and Editor of “Nutrition and Mental Health: a handbook. An essential guide to the relationship between diet and mental health”. Pavilion Publishing Ltd.
 Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer 2013, Public Mental Health Priorities: Investing in the Evidence,
 Akbaraly, Tasnime N. et al. “Dietary Pattern and Depressive Symptoms in Middle Age.” The British Journal of Psychiatry 195.5 (2009): 408–413.