The Health Reflex

The Escalation of Mental Health: The Latest Statistics & How Nutrition is More Important than Ever

The Escalation of Mental Health: The Latest Statistics & How Nutrition is More Important than Ever

11 Apr, 2024 - Posted By: The Health Reflex Category:

The rise in mental health in recent years is a major concern for all of us and requires meaningful discussion to determine additional ways we can all work to tackle this rising problem.  The purpose of this article is to raise awareness about the real and positive impact diet and nutrition can play in mental health and the benefit of looking beyond pharmaceuticals alone to address this escalating crisis. It is especially important for our younger Australians, who are suffering the most and need support in helping them to understand the fundamentals of healthy eating and why it matters to their mental health.


What are the current facts


Data released by the Australian government in Feb 2024 estimates that 1 in 5 Australians experienced a mental disorder in 2020-2022 and that there has been a significant increase, since previous data was collected in 2007, in the 16-24 age bracket. In 2007 26 % of this age bracket reported a mental health disorder – this compares to 39 pct for the period 2020-2022 – representing an alarming 66 pct increase. We also know that a person does not need to meet the criteria of a mental disorder to experience negative effects on their mental health, which makes these statistics even more concerning, as it is likely not showing the complete picture.


What are the connections between diet and mental health


A profound connection between what we eat, and our mental wellbeing has come to light, as research illustrates the intricate relationship between nutrition and psychological health. For example –

We know that adequate levels of specific nutrients such as tryptophan, tyrosine and essential fatty acids are important in the production of balanced brain chemistry that is crucial for regulating mood.


Additionally, the direct impact of blood sugar fluctuations on brain energy levels and its impact on mood and focus is well documented. Similarly, stable energy levels help precent mood swings.


The role of a healthy digestive system in influencing mood and cognitive function is also well studied. We know that inflammation in the gut lining can be transported throughout the body ultimately crossing the blood brain barrier and affecting neuro chemistry.

We also know that stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline alter the pH of the digestive tract and interfere with the digestive function. This is evident when considering the relationship between mental health issues and digestive conditions such as reflux and irritable bowel syndrome.


Let’s address a major culprit: Sugar. Over the past five decades, sugar has undergone a significant transformation in terms of sweetness, and this has had a flow on effect on our mental health. Sugars effects on mood are profound, and maintaining stable blood sugar levels is crucial for managing mental health. It is not a surprise that symptoms of anxiety and panic often resemble those of hypoglycaemia. Research indicates that fluctuations in blood sugar can also disrupt neurotransmitter function and adrenal output, leading to mood swings and exacerbating symptoms of anxiety and depression. Adopting a diet rich in complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats can help stabilize blood sugar levels and support optimal brain function.


The pervasive influence of sugar on mental health cannot be overstated. As discussed in our previous blog post, “Energy: How We Make it and the Illusion of Adrenaline, Caffeine, and Sugar” sugar addiction is a genuine phenomenon with implications for dopamine regulation and addictive behaviour. A 2007 study with rats showed that they preferred the sweetness of sugar over intravenous cocaine, highlighting the addictive nature of sugar and its significant impact on the brain’s reward system. Excessive sugar consumption can lead to dysregulation of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, contributing to mood disorders and addictive tendencies.


Another aspect of the nutritional approach to mental health care is the correlation between gut and brain health. By nurturing beneficial gut bacteria, we can reduce gut inflammation, preventing it from crossing the blood-brain barrier and triggering inflammatory responses within the brain that can be associated with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Certain probiotic strains such as B. longum 1714 have shown good evidence in reducing mental fatigue and reducing responses to social stress in human studies. This illustrates the interplay between a healthy microbiome and a healthy brain.


We’re all familiar with the sensation known as “butterflies in the stomach” when we’re nervous or excited. It’s a great demonstration of the link between our nervous system and our gut. It is a natural response that can occur almost instantly. However, if left unaddressed for prolonged periods, it can disrupt digestive function. It’s no coincidence that anti-anxiety and stomach-reflux medications rank among the top 10 most prescribed medications in Australia.  Unfortunately, more and more children and teens are being prescribed both these medications. There needs to be another approach. Education around what foods exacerbate gut inflammation and impact stomach acid, as well as using natural solutions to heal the gut tissue, such as glutamine and wound healing nutrients, can go a long way in addressing this cyclical issue. Good research also exists for the use of certain herbal medicines such as chamomile, lemon balm, fennel and carraway that exhibit anti spasmodic and carminative actions within the gut and thereby work to reduce hypersensitivity and gastrointestinal inflammation.


In conclusion, as mental health disorders continue to rise, especially among younger Australians, understanding the crucial link between nutrition, gut health and mental wellbeing is essential. From important nutrients regulating brain chemistry to the harmful effects of sugar on mood stability, diet plays a pivotal role and it starts at home with family eating habits. Additionally, nurturing gut health is vital for overall brain function. By prioritizing dietary interventions and promoting healthy eating habits, we can work towards addressing key drivers of mental health challenges and pave the way for a healthier future.


Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2020-2022). National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing. ABS.


Lenoir M, Serre F, Cantin L, Ahmed SH. Intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward. PLoS One. 2007 Aug 1;2(8):e698. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0000698. PMID: 17668074; PMCID: PMC1931610.


Wang H, Braun C, Murphy EF, Enck P. Bifidobacterium longum 1714™ Strain Modulates Brain Activity of Healthy Volunteers During Social Stress. Am J Gastroenterol. 2019 Jul;114(7):1152-1162. doi: 10.14309/ajg.0000000000000203. PMID: 30998517; PMCID: PMC6615936.


  1. Thanks Health Reflex. Great article–informative and clear. When my afternoon mood takes a dive, I reach for something sweet. I thought I was helping my blood sugar but maybe I’m making it worse? So…what do I do when I get the 4pm sugar cravings!!

    • Great question Elise. The mid afternoon slump is a real thing that affects a lot of people. Try increasing your protein portion at lunch time and aim for a healthy snack around 2.30 / 3.00 pm well before the slump kicks in. Carrot and hummus, chia pudding are great low sugar, high protein options.

  2. Thank you so much!! Both really helpful ideas that I will take on board. I didn’t realise protein was so important in managing blood sugar.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *