The body and mind are intrinsically connected. Are there dietary solutions to widespread mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and stress? Yes. I believe that the right diet can greatly help these conditions. While Western medicine treats the body as a group of separate parts that function independently of one another, the truth is that our bodies are holistic organisms that need attention paid to the entire biological system as opposed to its various parts. This includes the mind and emotions, which can benefit from a holistic, nutritional approach to self-care.
THE BODY-MIND CONNECTION
Your body is not a series of separate systems that operate independently. Instead, all of your body’s systems are intertwined, controlled by the brain and nervous system. In fact, multiple scientific studies have showed just how strong a connection there is between the body and mind.
THE EMOTIONS AND BIOLOGY
For example, a firm causal link has been established between stress and heart disease. Once thought to be purely emotional, it turns out stress has significant physiological effects on the body. When people are put in a situation they perceive as threatening, they experience what is known as the stress response. While the stress response begins in the brain, it quickly spreads to the rest of the body through the release of chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol. Continually high levels of stress hormones affects multiple systems in your body including glucose metabolism, blood pressure regulation, immune function, and inflammation.
THE BIOLOGY AND EMOTIONS
If your emotions can affect your biology, then it stands to reason that the opposite can occur, as well, and biology can affect emotions. While depression and anxiety were once believed to exist purely within the realm of mental and emotional health, scientists have come to realize that many mental health conditions also have a strong biological component. According to University of Massachusetts Medical School Professor Anthony J. Rothschild, depression stems from many biological aspects including neurotransmitter levels, receptor malfunction, and regulation failures in neurotransmitter systems. These understandings have led to the development of many medications to help neurotransmitter systems where they are impaired, thus creating the appropriate biology for improved mental health.
FOOD AS MEDICATION
If medicines can affect depression, can the way you eat have a similar affect? Many foods do affect the brain’s neurotransmitter systems, increasing levels of chemicals that commonly inversely affect depression and anxiety.
“YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT”
Food is a powerful and under-utilized tool when addressing mental and physical imbalances in the body, which can help balance your overall moods. . There are a myriad of foods that can stimulate your central nervous system while satisfying your palate. These foods are nutritiously dense foods that can provide a variety of benefits to your body, including stabilizing your blood sugar and making you feel happier in the process. Here are a few of the most effective mood-enhancing foods that top my list:
Foods rich in Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
More studies are amounting that show a link between consuming omega-3 essential fats and fighting depression. With such an emphasis on “fat-free” and “low-fat” in Western food culture, many people fail to realize that fat plays an important role in our bodies. It assists in the absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fatty acids also play a significant role in brain health. In fact, a 2007 study showed just how important fatty acids were when researchers showed a link between Omega-3 fatty acids and protection against Parkinson’s disease. The trick is in obtaining the right types of fats for good mental health. These include fats in raw nuts and seeds, avocados, and coconut oil. Eat plenty of these foods to protect your overall brain health, particularly those containing Omega-3 fats like chia and flaxseeds. Along with increasing nutrient absorption, avocado contains a remarkably high amount of healthy saturated fat. Individuals with a low amount of healthy fat in his or her diet will experience fatigue, anxiety and depression. The reason being that your brain and connective tissues are made mostly from fats. By giving your body a high level of nutritious fats, you are literally feeding your brain (which is about 60% fat) and stimulating healthy functioning. I recommend eating a half avocado at a time either plain or dressing it up with some cayenne and eating it with some sliced tomatoes.
Eating healthy complex carbs, such as quinoa, and boosting mood are linked through the brain chemical, serotonin. So don’t cut all carbs — just stick to the good Beauty Detox grains, and cut out refined carbs. One of my favorite dishes to make is quinoa stuffed veggies, the perfect meal at any time. Gluten is found in wheat, rise, barley, and some oats. It is also present in many other foods such as soy sauce. For many people who are sensitive to gluten (and I believe most people are), consuming it causes a reaction that damages the nutrient absorbing villi in the small intestines. This hampers the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, which can lead to significant nutritional deficiencies.
Folic Acid and B vitamins are the two superstar ingredients in oats that will restore and maintain your mood.
Having one occasional glass of red wine will promote relaxation by inhibiting the formation of minor blood clots through a process called vasodilation (the process of increasing the blood flow through the body). Improved circulation will automatically raise your energy level in the short term while allowing you to mentally unwind. Alcohol serves as a depressant, and can heighten depression and anxiety. If you suffer from these conditions, limit or cut out alcoholic beverages altogether.
Support your thyroid:
Low thyroid function is linked to depression, while high thyroid function is linked to anxiety. Providing thyroid support is essential for maintaining good health. Coconut oil, almonds, Brazil nuts, and sea vegetables all contain nutrients that support thyroid health.
Eating for Mental Health:
How can you eat to combat depression and anxiety? Here are some suggestions:
Get vitamin D:
According to the Vitamin D Council, low serum levels of vitamin D can lead to anxiety or depression. Many people can get the vitamin D they need from the sun; however, in some northern locations or in the winter, vitamin D levels may wane. Consider supplementing vitamin D for optimal mental health, and try to spend at least 10-20 minutes in the sunlight without sunscreen each day.
Eat a healthy, plant-based diet:
If your body chemistry is off, chances are your brain chemistry is, as well. Not only that, but when you physically feel terrible, it can negatively affect your emotional state.
Cut out the chemicals and eat organic:
Human beings were not meant to eat all of the chemicals we consume in the form of additives, preservatives, artificial flavorings, and artificial colorings. All of these ingredients increase toxicity in our bodies, which can affect both mental and physical health.
Choose hormone-free foods:
If you’re consuming dairy, eggs, or animal proteins, then chances are you’re also consuming the hormones and antibiotics ranchers use to increase growth, improve milk production, and keep the animals from getting sick. Hormonal imbalances can significantly affect mental health, so avoiding foods that are likely to contain them can help you avoid this problem.
Eat a varied diet of brightly colored fruits and vegetables:
Vitamin deficiencies can lead to stress, tension, depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. By selecting a variety of colorful plant foods, you can ensure you are getting the vitamins and minerals you need for optimal mental and physical health.
Avoid caffeine and sugar:
These stimulants may give you a little kick of energy to start, but they ultimately deplete serotonin, which is a necessary “feel good” brain chemical.
Lastly, remember the expression “you are what you eat.” It’s no coincidence that when you eat a greasy, sugary meal low in nutritional value, you feel sluggish and tired. Responsible eating and healthy nutrition are the first steps to a happier, more vibrant you!