As the workforce in Hong Kong returns to the office with the easing off of the COVID-19 in Hong Kong, Corporates face two significant challenges in reinstating productivity as mental health has come to an all-time low in Hong Kong:
- Increasing mental health issues as social distancing mounts. Supporting quarantined employees returning to a healthy working community.
- Societal polarity issues have been swept under the carpet temporarily during the COVID-19 but have never gone away.
Mental health is an integration of Mind-Body-Spirit. The body has always been considered the part that takes the hit under this particular case of Mind-Spirit. However, this simplistic view has ignored the influence of the body on the mind. What can we do to help to support mental health from within?
Enhance the Gut-Brain axis to feed the mental health
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the body. Their job is to transmit signals from nerve cells to target cells. These target cells may be in muscles, glands, or other nerves. In the brain, the neurotransmitters work together to regulate heart rate, breathing, sleep cycles, digestion, mood, concentration, appetite, and muscle movement. The primary “messengers” produced in the gut include:
- Serotonin is the “happy” hormone. Serotonin is also the precursor of melatonin – the “sleep” hormone
- GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric acid) is the “relax” hormone
- Dopamine is the “achievement” hormone. It helps to focus, motivate, lowers anxiety, enhances energy, and learning.
80-90% of serotonin is produced in the GI (GastroIntestinal) tract and its production relies on a healthy microbiome in the gut. Prebiotics feed the probiotics and keep the healthy microbiome in stake. Foods that contain insoluble fiber become prebiotics in the GI tract, such as the whole oat. Other rich sources of prebiotics include:
- Fermented food such as Kimchi, Saukeraut, Kefir, Miso
- 100% milk yogurt
- Leeks, garlic, and onion
Other foods that are rich in tryptophan, polyphenols also help in the production of neurotransmitters in the gut, examples include:
- Seeds and nuts (raw)
- Dark leafy greens
- Cacao beans (or dark chocolate at least 80%)
- Whole Eggs
- Berries and apple
Mix and match your favorite dish will feed your gut and the “happy” messengers to your brain.
Make time for the Gut-Brain axis to Integrate
The brain, under the Central Nervous System, generates thoughts and emotions. When a person is under stress (physical or emotional), the Sympathetic Nervous System (under Peripheral Nervous System) is in charge. The person will enter a “Fight or Flight” state where energy is diverted to muscles to handle the situation. The body will temporarily suppress the digestive actions, like secretion of digestive enzymes. The stress may initiate secretion of stress hormones that can put the stomach or intestines into spasm. Suppression of digestive enzymes and spasm can trigger dyspepsia or diarrhea. Undigested food is also the beginning of dyspepsia and other chronic digestive issues, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). With indigestion, neurotransmitters cannot be produced efficiently, and gut-brain communication suffers.
Mindful Eating (i.e., paying attention to our food, the color, the smell, the taste, the texture, the sources, without judgment) is an approach to food that focuses on our sensual awareness of the food and our experience of the food, good or bad.
Scientists support Mindful Eating as a way of self-calming and can help to change eating behaviors. Distracted eating has shown to affect leptin and other chemical pathways in the body that affect digestion, appetite as well as snack craving behavior. Next time when you have your breakfast, lunch, or dinner, focus on eating and enjoy the food. In this way, you will support the parasympathetic system in helping the digestion that ultimately benefits your nervous system.
- Nelson JB. Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat. Diabetes Spectr. 2017;30(3):171‐ doi:10.2337/ds17-0015