The Gut-Brain Connection

The Role of Nutrition in Mental Health

The brain influences the body and vice versa. We hope by now that’s a no-brainer. But when we look at how nutrition works, we see that the connection to brain health is tighter than imagined. You are what you eat, after all! 

Cutting-edge research is emerging on the microbiome, and one thing is for sure: there is a robust relationship between gut health and mental health. If your nutrients are imbalanced, you’re not alone. Studies have shown that 40% of the population has been found to have inadequate intakes of vitamin A, C, D, and E, calcium, and magnesium. Research developments show that it’s no longer a question about if nutrition plays a role in mental health but how?

If you’re looking to boost your nutrients, here are 13 powerhouse mental health snacks:

Nutrition experts recommend behavioural strategies to combat food cravings and substance use, too:

Nutrition can also be a causal component of a substance use challenge and a critical aspect of resetting when you’re making a change. Why?

Because researchers have found that we use substances to make up for nutrient deficits. Our substance of choice provides clues about those nutritional deficits. 

For example, let’s say you’ve boosted your nutrients and decide to make a change. You reduce your consumption, and suddenly, you’re overwhelmed by an unrelenting sweet tooth. It can feel as if the universe is conspiring against you. Luckily, it’s temporary, and you’re not alone; there is solid evidence that explains the alcohol-sugar swap.

Why do you crave sugar?

Many of us crave alcohol, caffeine, drugs, or sugar and all of these substances have something in common. They trigger the release of feel-good chemicals (serotonin and dopamine) in the brain, making you feel happy, relaxed, and wanting more. When you remove or reduce your consumption, your brain panics. Your brain is clever and persistent; it looks for another substance that will offer the same relief, and that’s when you find yourself digging into the ice cream tub late at night. Scientists refer to this as addiction transfer.

It’s not just that your brain feels better with the support of a substance that promotes dopamine and serotonin release; its absence can make you feel unwell. Some common signs of low blood sugar are irritability, anxiety, shakiness, energy crashes, mood changes, and in some cases, panic. On top of that, heavy drinking can make you prone to hypoglycemia, another term for low blood sugar. So, it’s no wonder that you reach for sweets. It’s important to remember that your body is trying to fill a biological need, so shame and blame don’t belong. Your desire for sugar is not an indication of reduced willpower, and with time, your body will re-balance. Be gentle with yourself.

Here are some tricks to help you through sugar cravings:

The gut and the brain are interdependent, and that’s where the name second brain comes from. The digestive system plays a crucial role in controlling the complex network of nerves and chemicals (over 100 million!) that send messages to our central nervous system. The second brain is responsible for neurotransmitters and the bacteria that regulate brain function. There is an undeniable connection between the brain, nutrients, and the body.

Access the ALAViDA TRAiL.





Free up your finances – how cutting back on consumption makes sense

The most powerful indicator of a person’s potential to change their substance use habit is their reason for the change. This comes down to the why. Why do you want to change your substance use pattern?

You might feel like you have to align your change with social norms. For instance, if you cut back on weekday wine to relieve your partner’s stresses, you will feel that you’re pleasing them. And the same goes if you change to avoid a tough conversation with your doctor at your next annual check-up. But changing is hard work, and to get to the goal line and make your change stick, it’s crucial that you pick a meaningful reason for you. It doesn’t have to be the same motivation as a leading organization or a news headline; it just has to inspire you and have personal value. Substance use can indeed increase the risk of developing certain health conditions, including many cancers, but that might be a secondary reason. Find the thing that makes you tick.

While it may not seem life-saving at face value, saving money is a powerful motivator for change. While you save, you’ll be transforming your well-being in many other ways:

Let’s break down your substance-related spending:

Like any practiced and repeated behaviour, substance use becomes a habit. It changes the hardwiring of the brain. When you drink or use, your brain gets rewarded with dopamine (a feel-good neurotransmitter), which paves a shortcut in your brain pathways that makes you more likely to use substances to celebrate good emotions or avoid negative ones. Purchasing a substance becomes less like a choice and more like stocking up on your morning coffee or cereal. It meets an essential need, and it dictates your spending. This habit loop is strengthened by society’s emphasis on using substances to feel happy, manage stress, or just numb out. It may be subconscious , but you take in a lot of messaging about vaping, drinking, and cannabis in a single day, whether on social media, a billboard, or a television commercial.

Here are some of the ways you might be regularly spending on substances (absentmindedly):

An excellent place to start is to evaluate the costs of your habit. Take a moment to jot your regular spending on paper and use this calculator.

Ready to find out how much you’ll save? Input your regular substance spending into our cost calculator. It can add up, right? There’s no reason to feel shame about your spending. Instead, celebrate the potential reward for a change in your habits.

Here are some potential wins:

It can be hard to think about a birthday party or wedding without the fizz of champagne or an ice-cold beer. Your brain has been conditioned to use substances as an outlet or release valve. Alcohol-free days are a good way to cut down. If it makes you feel dread, you may need an incentive, so set a goal and line up a treat. Maybe you want to take an alcohol-free Friday and go for a celebratory brunch on Sunday. Fit in one per week this month and use those savings for a massage.

Here is a guide for cutting back:

  1. How many alcohol-free days do you want each week?

  2. What’s the maximum number of drinks you want to have per day?

  3. Think about your common triggers and plan coping activities like calling a friend, turning on a podcast, taking a walk, or having a bath.

  4. How will you track your consumption?

  5. Do you have off-limit drinks?

  6. Will you keep alcohol in the house? Or, use a trick like getting into your p.js to make it harder to go to the liquor store?

  7. What is your fixed budget? Put it on paper!

  8. Who will you connect with for accountability?

Do you know that fable about the turtle and the hare? In the end, the turtle won the race.? It is true: slow turtle steps make a big difference when they add up. Take your first action toward change today. Remember, it doesn’t have to happen all at once. Keep an eye on your growing savings to measure your commitment to reducing your consumption.

Access the ALAViDA TRAiL app.


Tips to Survive the Holidays

The RULE for Surviving Festive Family Gatherings

The holidays are upon us. After last year’s lonely COVID Christmas, many of us look forward to gathering in person with family and friends this year. We’re so keen to socialize we may have forgotten how these events can often be fraught; full of fireworks, unmet expectations and drama.

So ALAViDA’s gift to you: we’re sharing a few of the concepts from one of the most successful therapy techniques, called Motivational Interviewing. In a therapeutic context, Motivational Interviewing is all about engaging and empowering the client to change. In Motivational Interviewing, there exists an acronym called “RULE,” which serves as a guide for how therapists should interact with clients. “Many years ago, I employed RULE to smooth over a few difficult family gatherings,” says addictions therapist and ALAViDA advisor Mike Pond, “and I was gratified at how much the dynamic changed thanks to these simple techniques.  This was not about changing anybody else’s behaviour. It was about changing myself. It also gave me a much-needed dose of humility,” he laughs. Pond shares how you can use RULE too.

Interested to read more about how to cope during the holiday season, read more here. 

The “R” stands for “resist the righting reflex.”  Often those who are prone to the “righting reflex,” may have the best of intentions.  We just know the solution to someone’s problem and are insistent on sharing it. We want to make people feel better. But in doing so, we can make them feel worse because we rob them of their own sense of agency. And there is the very real possibility, what you consider right, could very well be wrong for someone else. If someone presents a problem, just listen. Don’t jump in to solve it. Empathize. Which means saying “you understand, you feel for them.” And often that’s all that’s required.

The “U’ is “understand the person’s motivation.” Is there someone you dread being seated beside because they talk only about themselves? That person may be desperately lonely or feel their contributions are undervalued. If you can keep the question, “what’s the motivation behind this behaviour?” front and centre you’ll bring patience and compassion to this situation and feel less resentful. You’ll role-model a much-needed generosity of spirit and who knows, it might spread!

The “L” is ‘listen.” “Kind of  “no duh…” says Pond, “but I continue to catch myself not listening to people I love, never mind the people who irritate me.” We need to practice “reflective” listening, which means, summarize and restate what the person told you. Feeling “heard” is a great gift to give someone at Christmas.

E” stands for “empower.” Very likely, there will be someone at your dinner table who is viewed by the entire family as a failure. This person has suffered much needling at past dinners and probably dreads the impending pile on. Don’t let it start. Take time to consider this person’s successes and point them out. Let them know you believe in them. Cultivate a sense of hope.  Ask “how” and “what” questions, not “why” because that tends to get people defensive.

Now. Sit down and envision your Christmas gathering. Imagine the sea of faces and think about which aspect of RULE will work best with the family members you find most challenging.  You’ll be a change agent. You’ll find yourself truly living what the holidays are supposed to be about: spreading joy and goodwill.

Looking for more strategies to manage during the holidays? Read more here.

Access the ALAViDA TRAiL app.