Eating for Mental Health

With the winter season fully upon us, some other chilly realities are also creeping their way back in. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, as well as many other mental ailments- ranging from depression to anxiety to mental fog to downright negativity- seem to be on the rise as the days get shorter, darker and colder by the minute. While the causes of these disorders are not always clear, their effect on the overall health of a good chunk of the population (exact statistics aren’t available due to the difficulty in diagnosing this disease) is undeniable. Symptoms can vary from person to person, but sadness and sleepiness are prevalent.  SAD sufferers in particular may have some side effects that vary from those that are ‘normal’ to depression, like increased instead of decreased appetite and cravings.

           Some people experience increased “comfort food” cravings, which can lead to weight gain- something that does not do wonders for improving mental health for most people. It doesn’t have to be a losing battle, however. Many doctors or professionals may recommend exercise, socializing, or a regular sleeping schedule. There are many actions you can take to improve the state of your mind and emotions, whether or not you suffer from SA. One aspect that you may not realize has great effects is your diet. It’s no secret that a healthy lifestyle can combat physical diseases, but what about mental illness? You are what you eat, and we may be neglecting the most important and easily accessible medicine available to us.

           Many doctors will throw antidepressants or mood-altering pills at you and tell you to medicate to feel better. Some people don’t even see positive effects or improvements from taking said prescriptions, and what if you want a more holistic approach to better mental health? While we know that too many restrictions in your diet can cause other issues entirely, cutting back on some of the foods that may not be serving us best and implementing some extra micronutrients or whole foods can make a world of a difference. Nutrition is a very powerful tool, and here are some practical examples of changes that can but the joy and energy back into your life this winter- and every season.

           Before I share some tips on what adjustments you may have to make in your diet, let’s first spend a minute focusing on gut health. This has been a growing topic among the health and fitness industry lately, and although it seems to have every characteristic of another fad diet, this one is actually extremely important. The connections between the microbiome in your stomach and your brain have been extensively researched, and the balance of good and bad bacteria, or lack thereof, can seriously impact your health. There is a lot of communication between our brains and our stomachs, and if either senses a stressor or intruder, it will notify the other. While it may seem strange if this is a new concept to you, mental wellbeing very much starts with a healthy foundation-our gut.

We want to favor the good bacteria and create a healthy environment for them to grow and live. This looks like adding in probiotic (live microorganisms that live in your intestines) and prebiotic foods (what those microorganisms feed on), fiber, and possible supplements. Usually, you can find probiotic ‘live cultures’ in things like kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, greek yogurt, and apple cider vinegar. These are extremely effective, especially when superset with good sources of insoluble fiber and prebiotics like oats, onions, asparagus, garlic, and cabbage.

           Now for the tips! First things first, we have to ditch the sugar. Your anxiety, your depression, your moodiness and your lethargy thrive in an environment fueled by sugar. It heightens symptoms you already deal with on a daily basis and make life way harder than it needs to be. The blood sugar spikes that keep your body in a constant limbo of highs and lows do no favors to your mental health, and once you remove this addictive little devil, you will notice your natural energy levels increase dramatically. Too much sugar decreases certain proteins in the brain that can contribute to the development of depression and anxiety. Just a warning, the withdrawal symptoms you may feel when going without sugar can mimic a panic attack (which you may experience with cravings that you fuel and then restart the vicious cycle) but once you surpass these and break the addiction, any negative effects subside.

           My second tip is to add in healthy fats! Sources of Omega 3’s like eggs, fish oil, walnuts, flaxseed, and avocados also give your blood sugar that levelness that help provide a stable mood and energy levels that build your foundation for an all-around health body and mind. Studies have shown that students who consciously increase their omega 3 intake saw significant drop in anxiety attacks and other symptoms.

           Another trick to try: mood boosting foods! Yes, it’s a thing. Going back to the gut-brain axis, our hormones can also be affected by this. Our stomachs are full of nerves that send information to our brain, and our guts are responsible for 90% of our body’s serotonin hormone. Many foods boost serotonin, which is a mood stabilizer that is essentially responsible for making you feel good. Foods like eggs, cheese, pineapple, salmon, turkey, nuts and seeds can give you a little food “high” without the nasty crash of blood sugar that you might experience from eating sugary carbs. You also may want to test out foods high in magnesium- a natural stress-response reducing vitamin found in a lot of the healthy fats I listed as well as whole grains. A whole magnesium supplement could also be beneficial!

           To wrap it all up, eat to feel good! There aren’t one size fits all diets or a fast track to having great mental health or complete recovery. However, there are practical steps that we can take to improve our daily lives and put how we feel back into our own hands. You may even want to start a food journal if you’re finding some things make you feel better or worse, and just categorizing a “yes” or “no” list for what makes you feel optimal! Good digestion, which is a whole other extensive (but very interesting) topic- is going to be extremely important for strong mental health as well, and having an equally strong digestive system is one of the first steps! Listening to your body, treating it with respect, care and tenderness will only benefit you in the long run. You’ve got too much to lose to waste any more time disregarding your health or happiness! Do some of your own research, make note of what your body responds well to, and make prioritizing these little tweaks a habit- it will only lead to a better you, and you are worth the investment! Here’s to happiness, health, and good food!