There’s no two ways about it; mental illness is a beast. A giant, burdensome, invisible beast that our culture doesn’t like to discuss. It’s very own “Fight Club” if you will, as rule number one seems to be “we don’t talk about mental illness.”
However, we are talking about it. We’re indirectly talking about it non-stop. Check your social media feeds, look through your text messages and look all around you. Motivational quotes, inspirational stories, mainstream popular self-help articles and best-selling books on happiness, coping and success are all around. With a society recovering the brutal impacts of a recession and the National Institutes of Medicine reporting an estimated 40 million Americans suffer from some type of anxiety disorder, there is a reason for the mass interest in getting better.
Everyone brings their inner child to the dinner table. Hell in some cases you may as well set out another plate. We must nourish our bodies, minds and souls to truly thrive.
You are what you eat.
What we consume becomes integrated into our bodies to become the compounds that make up our bodies. Consequently, if not fueled with the proper nutrients, the body doesn’t have what it needs to conduct basic functions, emotions, or thoughts.
Conversely, eating foods to nourish overall health and provide key nutrients for mental health fuels the body and mind. A great example of this is serotonin, which is primarily composed of carbohydrate. We literally make our happy out of carbohydrates. Definitely some food for thought.
There are several basic nutritional factors that help individuals across the spectrum, because these factors are the same thing everyone needs to support mental health. Individuals in the grips of anxiety, depression, or any mental illness are most likely deficient in these nutrients and/or have a significantly higher need for them.
Nutrition That Helps:
Overlooked signs and symptoms of dehydration are feeling tired and unmotivated, impaired cognitive function (not thinking clearly) and irritability. Increasing fluid consumption overall can help keep everything on an even kilter. In response to upsets or episodes, sitting down and having a glass of water can be a total game changer.
Overall strive for 8 to 10 cups a day of water. All fluids count in fluid consumption, but not all are created equal. If a beverage is going to yield calories, it best offer some nutritional benefit. Keep in mind that alcohol and caffeine can contribute to signs and symptoms of many mental health issues.
The health of your gut is indicative of your overall health physically and emotionally. Translation, healthy bacteria in your intestinal tract can improve your mood, sleep, weight and complexion. Happy gut – happier human.
Probiotics is a term meaning healthy bacteria. PTSD, anxiety, insomnia and depression can take their toll on the health of your intestinal microflora (healthy bacteria in your gut). Stress projects in a million awful ways and slaying healthy bacteria is just another. Scroll through a brief Google search on probiotics and mental health and you’ll find plenty of information supporting probiotic supplement helps with mental health.
Look for supplements containing both a Bifido- bacteria and a Lactobacilli- bacteria. The bacteria contents of yogurt alone are not enough and are a moot point for those who are vegan and/or lactose intolerant. Probiotic enriched products are all around and make excellent additions to a daily probiotic supplement.
Interestingly there are roughly as many neurons in your abdomen as there are in your brain. This is known as the “gut brain.” The majority of the serotonin (happy) in the body is actually made in the gut, yet we focus on the small bit made and used in the brain. No Bueno.
Imagine how you feel 20 minutes after you’ve down a fast food combo meal. There’s a giant, heavy blob sitting in your gut and you feel lousy. As time progresses you feel tired, irritable, gassy and gross. That food bolus (gut blob) is sitting on your serotonin (happy).
Your neurons try real hard to pump out serotonin, but the food isn’t moving anywhere fast, gumming up the works. As we all do when our work goes unnoticed, the neurons stop producing serotonin. After all, it’s just piling up while your belly swells with gas.
Finally, through the power of gravity and peristalsis (the churning movement of your intestines to move food along) the food and gas pass. All that serotonin that was piling up now floods outward. You now have all the sensations associated with happiness without an emotional trigger. Increased excitement, heart rate, etc. all at once for no reason… sounds like the signs and symptoms of anxiety.
Eating plenty of fiber at each and every meal helps food move along at a steady pace. Fiber binds to water, making the food bolus bigger and physically press against the intestinal walls. This tells the intestines to get things movin’ along and a looser, water mass takes less work to do so.
Fiber helps keep you regular, which helps keep you on an even keel. However, too much fiber too fast will result in food moving out to fast. Think cattle drive versus stampede. Don’t give fiber a bad name, slowly increase your fiber consumption over time.
Fiber is found readily in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Unless necessary steer clear of fiber supplements. They tend to come with a high price, side effects and dependency.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help greatly with mental health. These fatty acids are found in fish, nuts, seeds and some whole grains. Think of the 3 as the number of hinges in the fatty acids. Saturated fats don’t have these hinges or bends in them. They are very rigid. Omega-3s however hinge/bend in 3 different spots making them more flexible. They’re not only pro-healing, they’re very zen go with the flow type of compounds. Like learning new mental approaches in life to be less rigid and go with the flow, these healthy fats help the body and mind stop being so reactive.
Adequate Caloric Intake
That’s a fancy way of saying make sure you eat enough on a regular basis so you don’t become hangry. Hangry (anger derived out of hunger) is a real thing. This concept is reflected in a certain candy bar’s commercials where a celeb just isn’t themselves when they’re hungry. Don’t allow yourself to get in the headspace where you’d body slam Betty White. Make sure to get enough food to fuel your physical and mental health.
Adequate Protein Consumption
Protein is the building block of the human body. We need it to make up, repair and maintain all our tissues. Our hormones and enzymes are made out of protein as well. Protein is readily found in animal products, seeds, nuts and whole grains. It can be found in smaller amounts in a variety of fruits and vegetables. Avoid protein supplements as much as possible (unless recommended by your healthcare provider) as they can be very hard on your kidneys and colon.
Boy howdy there are many B vitamins and they do so many different things. One set of their functions can help improve mood and cognitive function (make you feel and think good, real good). Many medications negatively affect B vitamins in the body, making supplementation a good idea. It’s important to review your medication with your prescriber and/or pharmacist to see if this affects you.
Supplementing with B vitamins can help individuals getting over the initial hurdles of healing. This can help provide energy and mental clarity. Because B vitamin supplements can cause a boost in energy and alertness, it's best to take them at least 4 hours before wanting to go to bed. B vitamins are also readily found in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
Google vitamin D and depression and you’ll get over 14 million results! There is a reason for this. Vitamin D plays a huge role in mental health and the majority of individuals in the US are vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D is our sunshine vitamin and it has over 200 functions in the human body.
In our positive efforts to prevent skin cancer we inadvertently decreased our exposure for vitamin D. Additionally, working indoors, wearing clothing, stress, medication, skin color, age and more can negatively affect vitamin D levels.
Vitamin D supplementation can improve overall mood and strengthen efforts towards mental health. Most insurance will cover a portion, if not all, of vitamin D testing, but you have to ask for it in addition to standard blood work. If you’re paying out of pocket, this important test will only set you back about $60. It’s important to have your levels taken and to speak with your counselor, primary healthcare provider or nutritionist about supplementation. Vitamin D can make a huge positive impact.
Copper helps messages travel up and down nerves/neurons. This nutrient is found in seeds, nuts and beans and can help improve thought patterns, as well as sleep.
Simply put, iron is needed to grab oxygen. If you’re low in iron you’re not getting enough oxygen into and throughout the body. Your quality of life suffocates. The signs and symptoms of iron deficiency are miserable and can only make dealing with mental health issues worse: fatigue, irritability, impaired cognitive function, increased pain and always feeling cold.
Iron supplementation can cause constipation, which further contributes to a decline in mood. It is recommended only to do so under the orders of your primary healthcare provider.
Eating iron rich foods comes with the added benefit of other nutrients that can make a person feel better. Iron is found in food in two different ways heme (meat) sources and non-heme (not-meat) sources. Get the most iron out of non-heme sources pair them with foods rich in vitamin C. Fresh salsa helps you get more iron out of your beans. Pretty awesome.
Magnesium is my soap box nutrient for sure as it is needed in over 300 enzymatic functions in the human body and the majority of individuals are deficient in it! The majority of these functions overlap with the functions of magnesium’s bestie, vitamin D.
Magnesium is akin to an off switch. Yes, you need to know that there is pain or something setting off your nerves, but you also need to know it’s okay and calm down. That’s what magnesium does.
Magnesium supplementation is NOT recommended overall unless expressly under the orders of a healthcare professional. It’s an electrolyte and throwing it down the hatch in it’s pure form can not only cause severe nausea and muscle cramping (dude you just literally threw a rock in your stomach – rude), it can cause SEVERE DIARRHEA! When a person goes in for a colonoscopy, they are given magnesium citrate prior to “clean them out.” It’s so effective that it’s not medically recommended to leave your home for 24 hours after consuming it. Pipe cleaner for sure.
A positive solution is to eat “baby plants.” Anything you could plant in the ground and some day it would grow up to be a big plant (seeds, nuts and beans) is loaded with magnesium! Also dark green leafy vegetables are loaded with magnesium as well because they are boss at being nutritional powerhouses. Think creatively with seeds as they are found in places we don’t necessarily think of right off the bat: strawberries, raspberries, cucumbers, zucchinis, etc.
Another electrolyte and another very common nutrient deficiency that I see in clients. Also another nutrient NOT to supplement with unless Doc says to. Inappropriate potassium supplementation can cause heart problems.
Take the safe route and eat more fruits, vegetables and legumes (beans and peas). While bananas are the most commonly known source of potassium, other great sources are spinach, Swiss chard and sweet potatoes. Nom nom nom.
Added bonus, regularly consuming potassium rich food supports your efforts in the gym, a healthy weight and decreases your sweet cravings. Boom!
Oh zinc. Only discussed for its alphabetical placement in the list of nutrients. This metal micronutrient is antimicrobial – meaning kills viruses and bacteria. It also can help kill a chronically bad mood. Supplements tend to leave your mouth tasting like you’ve been chewing on a fork and can cause upset stomach. If you choose to take a supplement, do so with your last meal of the day and after making sure it won’t counteract with any medications you may be on. Naturally occurring sources of zinc include red meats, molasses, dark green leafy vegetables and seeds.
Foods & Food Additives to Avoid:
Additionally, it is important to focus on foods and food additives that can significantly impair proper cognitive function or exaggerate the signs and symptoms of mental illness. To simplify this concept just think of how difficult it would be for anyone to function well in their daily lives with chemical compounds bouncing off their neurons, causing systemic inflammation, and gastrointestinal distress.
Food Additives to Avoid:
· High Fructose Corn Syrup
· Partially Hydrogenated Oils (Trans-Fats)
· Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
· Artificial Food Dyes (Caramel Coloring, Red 40, Blue 3, etc.)
Exclusion of toxic food additives has been shown to make HUGE differences in the thought patterns and moods of many individuals. For example, many parents will vouch for the huge difference made in their child’s academic performance once they stopped giving them food containing artificial food dyes.
Be wary of monosodium glutamate, AKA MSG. This poser looks like a neurotransmitter (the guys that travel along our nerves telling us how to feel, act and function) and thus actually gets into our nervous system! It can cause swelling of the brain and spinal column, which translates to a whole lot of problems, including migraines. This nasty chemical should be avoided at all costs.
I recommend that if you find it in a food, use that as an opportunity to practice effective communication by emailing the food company. Mental health is all about answering the “why” we do things. Let the food company explain “why” they choose to slap MSG in their food.
Everything I’ve included here is meant to help you on your road to mental health. It doesn’t replace your need for a mental health care professional and/or any medications you are currently taking. Eating less processed food and more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts and beans are good ideas across the board. (Unless you are allergic to one of these foods, then don’t eat them.) At your next session I recommend discussing integrating nutritional improvements into your overall healthy lifestyle and mental health approach.
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” _Hippocrates
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