Treating Mental Health With Food
Most clients initially join our program with weight loss and physical health and wellbeing as their goal; however, they are always delightfully surprised with the accompanying positive changes in their mental and emotional health after just a few weeks of “cleaning up” their diet. This is not a coincidence! When you improve the dietary choices you make, it has a tremendous impact on both your body and brain. Our gut flora plays a critical role in our mental health: a healthy microbiome decreases inflammation and boosts levels of the “feel-good” hormone, serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood, sleep, memory, and behavior, improve brain function and relieve anxiety. In fact, about 95% of serotonin receptors are located in the gut lining! Studies show that when people transition to a “clean”, anti-inflammatory diet, they can decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety up to 60 percent– better results than most prescription drugs!
Here are seven basic principles that all of our programs adhere to in order to support both physical and mental health:
- Limit or avoid wheat, dairy, soy, corn and sugar. These are five highly inflammatory foods which disrupt the gut microflora which has a significant impact on mental and emotional health – both long and short-term. Additionally, too much sugar decreases the BDNF protein which is involved in the development of depression and anxiety.
- Eat plenty of monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids- they are essential for the proper functioning of the brain and gut microbiome. Some great sources of monounsaturated fats are seeds (pumpkin, chia & flax), nuts (almonds, cashews & walnuts), cold-pressed olive oil, and avocados. Wild Alaskan salmon, cod, sardines and anchovies are rich in Omega-3’s while also low in mercury. Omega 3’s provide 2 essential fatty acids- EPA + DHA - which regulate neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), lower inflammation and support healthy brain function.
- Eat plenty of lean protein such as poultry, seafood, legumes, eggs and nuts. Organic, lean protein provides energy to help your body think and react quickly. It also contains amino acids which the body converts into mood-boosting neurotransmitters such as serotonin.
- Eat plenty of antioxidant-rich veggies and berries. Vitamins help the function of enzymes responsible for serotonin synthesis; therefore, enhancing your diet with foods rich in antioxidants may be beneficial in both the prevention andreduction of anxiety. Blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, blueberries, kale, spinach and arugula are all fantastic sources of Vitamin C. When we’re anxious, sad or stressed-out, our bodies crave vitamin C to help repair and protect our cells. Ensuring we eat enough Vitamin C-rich foods may help to elevate mood, behavior and concentration.
- Drink plenty of water, as even mild dehydration negatively impacts mood, focus and energy levels.
- Limit or avoid alcohol– it is a depressant and can interfere with sleep. Drinking depletes the “feel-good” neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) which over time, can lead to chronic dysregulation.
- Limit or avoid caffeine – it can interfere with sleep and make you feel jittery and anxious. One exception to this is antioxidant-rich green tea (especially matcha), which also contains the amino acid Theanine has a calming effect on the central nervous system and may stimulate serotonin and dopamine production.
In addition to following the above guidelines, there are a few other nutrients that may be particularly beneficial for mental health.
- Eating foods rich in magnesium may help a person to feel calmer and reduce symptoms of depression. Some examples include leafy greens (spinach & Swiss chard), almonds, legumes, seeds, avocado and everyone’s favorite – dark chocolate.
- Tryptophan is an amino acid that helps to create serotonin, and is abundant in eggs, pineapple, bananas, soybeans, turkey and…dark chocolate!
- Zinc, a mineral essential for nerve and brain development, is stored primarily in the brain regions responsible for emotions. Foods rich in zinc are oysters, egg yolks, beef, cashews and pepitas.
- Anti-inflammatory spices such as ginger and turmeric may help to lower stress and anxiety by decreasing oxidative stress often found in people experiencing mental illness.
In a nutshell, we advise eating a balanced diet of whole, real, organic foods – the way Mother Nature intended -and decreasing (or hopefully eliminating) your intake of processed foods in order to optimize all areas of health and wellbeing. Regardless of where you fall on the “spectrum of mental health” your diet is always a key component. If you are presently taking prescription medications, they are obviously going to be more effective if you’re eating a brain-healthy diet, not skipping meals, eating a protein-rich breakfast, and paying attention to food allergies or sensitivities. Of course, always discuss with your doctor any major dietary changes or potential contraindications to medications.
These are challenging and unprecedented times that we are living in, so we wish you all a safe, healthy and easy winter. Godspeed to spring!