Our guest blogger Frank Brogan, RNutr, takes a look at how men deal with mental health issues and what treatments they consider, including diet in relation to brain function.
When boys grow up, we’re taught what being ‘manly’ is supposed to look like. The traditional view of masculinity is a person who is strong, in control, stoic and self-reliant, no matter what. The sitcom trope of the male driver refusing to ask for directions when they’re desperately lost comes to mind. So there has always been this narrative that men are less likely to be open about their feelings and, in turn, less likely to ask for help if those feelings start affecting their lives.
Historically, this narrative has been proven true, as it has been reported numerous times in the past few decades that men are much less likely to ask for emotional and mental support from friends or healthcare professionals, when they feel anxious or low.
A 2019 report from the mental health charity ‘Mind’ has shown that since 2009, the percentage of men who regularly feel worried or low has increased and the number of men regularly experiencing suicidal thoughts has doubled1 – a troubling series of findings, as suicide remains the UK’s biggest cause of mortality in young men.
THE SUFFER-IN-SILENCE TYPE
The reputation of men being the ‘suffer-in-silence type’ seems to be thawing however, as gender roles become more fluid and the modern man becomes more open to discussing their feelings. Men are now much more likely to reach out for help, including being three times more likely to see a therapist (since 2009) and are in line with women for how likely they would be to see their GP for help. It’s worth noting though, that these findings were released at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have been mentally difficult on everyone, with elevated feelings of isolation and uncertainty of health and employment.
There are a few regularly employed methods of supporting mental health, including face-to-face therapies and medications such as antidepressants and anxiolytics. Mental health medications carry with them a certain taboo, however, with fears of side-effects such as sexual dysfunctions. When asked their preferred treatment for anxiety and low mood, only 16% of men mentioned medications – counselling (40%), self-help (24%) and exercise (29%) were all more desirable options, meaning that UK men are more open to a wider scope of help.
Counselling sessions and cognitive therapies, such as CBT and mindfulness have shown significant evidence for their roles in stress, anxiety and mood management. Similarly, regular exercise is a robust tool for decreasing the severity of stress and common mental health issues including anxiety and depression. The role of nutritional/dietary intervention, however, should not be understated for men’s mental health.
The term ‘nutritional psychiatry’ describes a growing field of study and practice, built on the idea that diet plays an important role as a modifiable risk factor in the development and treatment for mental illness. Mental health issues can stem from emotional triggers such as life events, but also biochemical issues experienced by the very physical brain. Like any other organ of the body, the brain depends on and responds to adequate nutrition for proper functioning. Without adequate nutrition, the brain can experience elevated oxidative stress and inflammation – biochemical mechanisms shown to be major drivers in the development of mental health issues such as depression.
EAT WELL FOR MENTAL HEALTH
So, do UK men eat well? According to findings from the recent National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS), there is some work to do. The NDNS has shown that intakes for various micronutrients are below the lower reference nutrient intake (LRNI) and wouldn’t be considered adequate for the body’s needs. Some of these nutrient insufficiencies can contribute to psychological issues, ranging from mood disturbances to poor cognitive functioning. For example, magnesium-dependent enzymes have been shown to play important roles in the release of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the main ‘relaxing’ inhibitory transmitter.2 A deficiency of magnesium has subsequently been shown to contribute to irritability and anxiety, so correcting this through dietary education or supplementation can subsequently support mental health outcomes. Other nutrients of concern include vitamin D, selenium and essential fatty acids from the consumption of oily fish.3
Nutritional psychiatry goes beyond correcting our micro- and macronutrients, exploring therapeutic nutritional compounds and probiotic supplements as well.4 Adjacent to nutritional psychiatry, there is a growing trend in the supplement industry for ‘nootropics’ - compounds that may improve cognitive processes such as memory and processing speeds, though the evidence for such compounds are a mixed bag.
As the clouds of covid part, we’re slowly returning to our regular lives – but mental health is still a significant area of concern for men. Help is available in many forms and as nutrition's role in mental wellness develops, we’ll likely see a rise in men being more mindful of what they consume to support their mental resilience in the years to come.
Frank Brogan, RNutr, MSc
With 12 years in the nutrition industry, Frank is dedicated
to an evidence-based approach to nutrition.
Frank is a writer and speaker and has various areas
of interest including mental wellness.
- Mind.org.uk (2021). Get it off your chest: a report on men's mental health. [online] Available at:<https://www.mind.org.uk/about-us/our-policy-work/reports-and-guides/get-it-off-your-chest-a-report-on-mens-mental health/#:~:text=Our%20report%20%2D%20Get%20it%20off,and%20their%20mental%20health%20today.> [Accessed 25 May 2021]
- Möykkynen T, Uusi-Oukari M, Heikkilä J, Lovinger D, Lüddens H, Korpi E. Magnesium potentiation of the function of native and recombinant GABAA receptors. Neuroreport. 2001; 12(10): 2175-2179
- Derbyshire E (2018). Micronutrient intakes of British Adults Across Mid-Life: A secondary analysis of the UK national diet and nutrition survey. Frontiers in nutrition. 2018 Jul 19; 5: 55.
- Jacka FN (2017). Nutritional Psychiatry: Where to Next?. EBioMedicine, 17, 24-29. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ebiom.2017.02.020