What is in your refrigerator? I sometimes use this as a conversation starter to explore nutrition patterns and open up a dialogue about the connection between mental wellness and healthy eating.
As mental health providers, we are more and more realizing the value of good nutrition in mental wellness. So just what food factors can influence our mental health?
Your brain is like an expensive car. Feed that car low grade fuel and the results are likely a poorly functioning engine. Likewise, if we feed our brains excess sugar, processed foods and saturated fats (pretty much the staples of our “Western” diet), we are going to have poorly functioning brains.
Your brain is a complex organ and needs a steady supply of high grade fuel to work effectively. In fact, about 60 liters of blood is pumped to your brain every hour, sending essential nutrients that enable us to perform our complex daily tasks. Nutrients not well represented in the blood? Such deficiencies can actually present as mental health problems. For example: Vitamin D deficiency can present with symptoms of depression, anxiety or seasonal affective disorder. Vitamin B -12 deficiency can present as memory changes and depression.
New research points to the role of inflammation as a factor in many diseases such as hypertension, elevated cholesterol and mental health problems. Healthy eating fights that potential for inflammation. The brain uses nutrients to produce brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that is essential to the central nervous system. BDNF supports the brain’s ability to adapt, rewire and resist inflammation.
Serotonin is well known for modulating everything from sleep to mood to response to pain. This amazing chemical is produced both in the brain and in the digestive system. Of note, 95 % of serotonin is produced in the digestive system. Through research, we are beginning to understand that the digestive system serotonin and the brain serotonin are in constant communication. Poor nutrition can block the effective serotonin production in the gut and consequently disrupt this communication. The result? A negative impact on our mood.
The above points are really just the tip of the iceberg as we promote the value of healthy eating and good mental health.
None of us likes the idea of a restricted diet, so look at this as an adventure in trying a new approach to mental wellness. I will leave you with three things to try:
Eat more things that come from plants and less things that come from a box (To paraphrase the words of Michal Pollan, educator and food activist, if you cannot pronounce the ingredients on the label, best not to eat the product.)
Pay attention to how you feel after you eat processed food and how you feel after you eat fresh food. Jot down your feelings for a week and compare.
- Use more spices, less salt. Spices like turmeric and cumin can actually help with fighting depression and reducing inflammation.
The goal of this short blog is to remind all of us just how important good nutrition is in maintaining mental wellness. In the future blogs, I would like to dig in to more specifics of innovative strategies to make healthy eating a little easier.