Until recent years, one of the most unrecognized factors contributing to mental health has been the role of nutrition.
At best, nutrition was given only a secondary glance or left for moms to notice as they gave their kids a dose of sugar and watch the obvious side effects only minutes later.
But if you think about it, it only makes sense to consider how food might affect your brain and – in turn – your mental health.
Your brain is in charge of all of your bodily functions, from breathing to your thoughts to your movements to thousands of other automatic responses – and unlike you, your brain never sleeps.
So, in order to function properly, your brain needs fuel. And not just any fuel.
It needs premium, high-grade fuel – just like a luxury car.
The problem is that most of us treat our body like we’re an outdated hand-me down Chevy and give our body the bare minimum nutrients we need to get from point A to point B.
And while we might be aware that the types of foods we eat may have a physical impact on our bodies, we wonder why we feel depressed, run down or unable to focus on completing the tasks at hand.
We instead turn to environmental factors or our chemistry without considering whether we’re eating processed foods, sugar, high fat or other nutrient poor foods.
But more and more, science is beginning to see the correlation between the food you eat and the impact it has on your overall health.
Simply put, eating foods that are rich in nutrients helps regulate and stabilize your mental health – giving your brain what it needs to function and operate your cognitive processes and emotions.
Here’s how it really works.
What you eat matters when it comes to your emotional and mental health. Eating high quality foods rich in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients can nourish your brain in a positive way.
The foods we eat interact with the chemicals in your brain and can either keep you going throughout the day, or it can impact you by draining you and slowing you down.
Different types of food can have different impacts on your mental state.
Especially since your body can’t produce some of the chemicals it needs (in the quantities it needs) on its own, the food you eat becomes an important way to supplement your own body’s functioning.
For example, carbohydrates increase serotonin in the brain – causing you to feel more relaxed and calm.
But keep in mind, certain carbohydrates are better than others.
Root vegetables for example provide your body with a big serotonin burst, whereas simple carbohydrates, like sugar and processed foods can zap that serotonin surge.
Protein rich foods can help increase alertness. Other foods – such as those rich in Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids have been linked to reducing rates of depression.
And while some of the effects of what we eat can be noticed within minutes or hours after we eat, the study of nutritional psychology is finding that there are more and more consequences between what you eat and how you feel – long term.
There have also been newer studies showing that the gut and your gastrointestinal tract – the part of our body responsible for digesting food is also closely related to the condition of our mental health.
In many ways that shouldn’t be a surprise because the gastrointestinal tract is lined with millions of nerve cells called neurons – and one function of these neurons is to produce serotonin (which helps calm us).
When it comes to the gut (and gut health), how much serotonin we’re able to develop is connected with how much good bacteria we can build up on our intestinal microbiome. This bacteria protects the lining of your intestines and serves as a protection against “bad” bacteria that might cause inflammation, or decrease your ability to absorb nutrients from your food.
The good bacteria we build helps activate the neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain – thus impacting your overall emotional health.
And while this all may sound a bit complicated, the truth is that individuals who have a higher level of the good bacteria in their gut tend to have less depression, anxiety and stress.
Their overall outlook on life tends to be healthier and they tend to engage in more activities that support their overall health
So what does that mean for you?
It might mean taking a hard look at your nutrition if you’re experiencing anxiety, depression or stress.
Oftentimes, when we feel stress or anxiety – we try to cope with our emotions by using medication or even alcohol to soothe us. And while that can make you feel better momentarily, in the long-term using certain medications and alcohol can only exacerbate the stress you feel.
It can also interfere with sleep – which in term impacts your emotional health.
You might also be tempted to dive into comfort foods like potato chips or fried foods, which in the end has no nutritional value and can only contribute to making you feel more sluggish.
When you’re feeling down,I recommend first – start paying attention to how you feel.
Perhaps you can keep a food log and after you’ve eaten, notice how you feel immediately after and then again a few hours or even a day after.
After that, I also suggest that you try going clean for a while and eat a diet rich in probiotics (sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha).
What that means is that you will want to get rid of processed foods and sugar. Others also benefit from going dairy free and noticing how you feel after eating this way for a few weeks.
If you start to feel better, you’ll know that something in your diet has been contributing to the way you feel.
You can slowly begin to re-introduce foods and then notice what foods might impact your mood or overall emotional health.
Start by trying this over the next few weeks. The fall is a good time to restart your body’s system and take some time to focus on you.
If you need additional support, we have coaches who can help outline a plan for you and support you through your “clean eating” process.
Try it out and share with me – how you feel when you go clean! I bet your body (and mind) will thank you!