Eating for Better Mental Health
Food & Mood
I think we can agree that mental health issues are at an all-time high. If you are like me you are wondering WHY?
The answer is complicated...especially if you just watched "The Social Dilemma."
But what if maybe it's time to also look at the foods/beverages we are eating and drinking as big part of the solution?
Our mental health has been severely tested in 2020, but what does good mental health or bad mental health really mean? The basic definition of being mentally healthy is to be “functioning at a satisfactory level-behaviorally and emotionally”. I like to say mental health is about how we act and how we feel.
"how we act and how we feel"
We hear about it in the news or perhaps you, or someone you love and care about, are struggling with the symptoms of anxiety, ADHD, depression, or suicide ideations.
My goal in writing this blog is to give you some information, inspiration, and personal invitation to take a deeper look at what you can do to improve your mental health.
So here we go. Let us start by looking at the foods and beverages we are eating and drinking as big part of the problem and work toward a solution.
How would you rate your mental health?
How do you feel?
How are you acting?
The purpose of this article is not to solve the mental health dilemma, the purpose is to bring light to the fact that what we eat, and drink, influences our mental state. The link between good mental health and proper nutrition is not a common connection for most. Even more alarming is the lack of awareness and education of many health professionals who are treating mental health.
What if the food we consumed (or did not) had an impact on our mental health?
Now, this is where I will start connecting these dots. The foods we eat directly affect the structure and function of our brain. The brain is working 24/7 and the fuel it burns comes from the food we eat.
Overview--Eating to Better Mental Health
- Food & Mood
- Good Digestion = Healthy Nervous System
- Carbs, Proteins & Fats
#1 Food & Mood
Have you ever been exhausted, low on energy, and running on fumes? Of course, we have all been there. We also know our mood, attitude and mental state suffers. For many of us we just need a warm meal and a good night's rest, exhaustion happens occasionally. But for others, chronic fatigue and poor energy is the norm—and it is an escalating problem in our society. That is why manufacturing energy is a gigantic business--caffeine, energy drinks, stimulants, and processed food. We know we need the energy, but we just don’t know how or where to find it.
"our energy comes from--food"
This is step one towards better mental health. To have our optimal mental health requires us to have our optimal energy. Think about human energy and where it comes from? It is really pretty simple: it comes from the foods and beverages we consume. Our mood is directly related to our energy level and if we do not properly fuel the body, it will drastically impact our mood.
#2 Good Digestion = Healthy Nervous System
The "gut", or the gastrointestinal tract (mouth to anus) is called the second brain. Even more scientific, your "gut" is the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). The gut has over 100 million nerve cells and beautifully coordinates with the Central Nervous System. Western medicine really struggles with this mind-body connection. Our medical system is designed on isolation and specialization, so it is no wonder we lack the research and education on this connection.
This connection goes both ways—bad gut leads > poor mental health, poor mental health > bad gut. Think about this: 30-40% of the population has a functional bowel or GI disorder: Celiac, IBS, GERD, Intolerances, Bloating, Constipation, Diarrhea, Acid Reflux and other pH imbalances. Not to mention more allergies, sensitivities and ADHD.
Antibiotics, oral contraceptives, acid blockers, NSAIDs, cholesterol-lowering meds and antidepressants all negatively affect the gut.
"30-40% of the population has a functional bowel or GI disorder"
Keys to great digestion:
- Hydration: 1/2 body weight in ounce of water. Adding lemons, limes, oranges are a great way to improve pH balance. Adding sliced ginger to hot water is also another great option for better digestion.
- Superfoods: Two nutrients for better digestion are Omega-3's (flax, chia, cod liver oil) and Chlorophyll (Spinach, Kale, Spirulina, Chlorella and Wheatgrass). These are two of the biggest deficiencies in our society.
- Gut-Biotics: When did we become so obsessed with germs? Isn't it interesting that we use more antibacterial soap and hand sanitizer to kill germs, and on the flip side many of us spend $100's of dollars on bacteria supplements and drinks like probiotics and fermented teas that add germs? As much as we have disturbed our microbiome, we now have discovered how important bacteria can be to our health. Pre-Pro and Symbiotic nutrition doesn't start in a pill and for optimal gut health we believe you can get them from foods. Check out our Gut-Biotics Chart. (bananas, apples, sauerkraut, lemons, cacao)
Recap, to have a good nervous system you need a good digestive system. Listen to your body and be curious on what foods you can add or remove to help this amazing second brain do its job! If you struggle with focus, happiness, anxiety, or having a calm mind-- prioritize your digestion:)
#3 Carbs, Proteins & Fats
Humans consume 3 macronutrients - carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. One of our favorite sayings at On Target Living, is “if you cut out a macronutrient you will have a macro-problem”. Now, let's take a look at what each macronutrient does and how it can directly impact our brain function.
"if you cut out a macronutrient you will have macro-problems"
Let's start with Fats. Over the years we have loved, and we have hated fats. We love fats for the taste and how it makes cookies soft and gooey, and we hate fats for the belief that fats make us fat. Over the past 15 years research has concluded that fats are essential and one of the main roles fat plays is how it heals the body. Fats can lower inflammation, improve hormonal function, and create balance. The brain is comprised of 60% fats and therefore are critical for optimal brain and mental function. The key is to consume the right quality, and quantity, of fats.
As a child, I struggled with ADHD. A big part of my solution to minimize the ADHD and to improve my mental performance was learning to consume the right types of fats. Like most kids, and even adults, I was lacking key nutrients and consuming processed ones. I discovered, that one of the most important nutrients to help me calm my mind and focus my attention, was omega-3 fats. When I consumed these fats, I was noticeably calmer and could then focus my attention.
Top 3 Fats:
- Omega-3- (Walnuts, Flax Seeds, Chia Seeds and Cod Liver Oil)
- Omega-9 or Monounsaturated Fats- (Almonds, Avocados and Extra Virgin Olive Oil)
- Coconut and Virgin Coconut Oil- These healthy saturated fats are medium chain triglycerides and support the brain (MCT) * bonus they are also extremely good for digestion.
Second, everyone’s favorite macronutrient - Proteins. I find it so interesting that we never ask anyone, “what kind of carbohydrates do you put in your smoothie”? Everyone just wants to know what kind of protein is used. For many consumers, protein is the “holy grail” of nutrition, and when you eat protein, they believe the body gets stronger and healthier. This is true, the brain does depend on protein. Proteins help to make enzymes, hormones, and other chemicals, and also build and repair tissues. We need protein for optimal brain function, but too much protein and the wrong kind can have a negative effect on the brain.
Remember the importance of good digestion for better brain health? This is where we want to focus our attention with proteins. Some proteins are extremely hard for the body to break down and create inflammation in the gut--Gluten, Whey are some of the common examples of proteins found in food. The key to consuming the right amount of protein for brain health is making sure you upgrade and also don't over consume. Consuming processed protein powders, processed meat and cheeses, and too much animal products put a lot of pressure on your digestive track.
Here are several ways to use protein for better brain health:
- Upgrade your animal proteins-organic, free-range, hormone free and local when possible.
- Consume plant based proteins at the source--ex. use flax/chia/hemp seeds vs. whey protein powder in smoothies.
- Don't over consume protein ~25% of calories--proteins are amino-acids and too much can create inflammation Use pH Target
We saved the most controversial for last, Carbohydrates. Let's start with the elephant in the room, carbs are sugars and sugars are carbs. The main villain when it comes to food is carbohydrates (or sugar). For many health professionals, and scientists, carbs are the source of diabetes, cancer, obesity, and ADHD. I couldn't agree more, the mass increase in cheap, heavily processed carbohydrates are playing havoc on our health. The big problem is when most science and mass media portray that all carbohydrates are created equal. 99% of medical research studies nutrition without a control on quality and source.
"99% of medical research studies nutrition without a control on quality and source."
So, what do carbohydrates do and how might they help or hurt our brain health?
First, the main role of carbohydrates is energy, and based on the type of carbohydrate this can create high quality sustainable energy, or it can spike and drop your energy. Using the Food Target can help to determine quality and the source.
Second, many carbohydrates contain antioxidants, these free radical killing chemicals help to inhibit oxidation "rust" within the body (brain). When we do not consume carbohydrates, or drastically limit carbohydrates, we don't get enough antioxidants.
Third, carbohydrates contain fiber and fiber is one of the bedrocks to good digestion. From prebiotics to helping with moving the digestion along, carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that contain fiber.
Last, and the most direct connection to the brain is the neurotransmitter--serotonin or "happy chemical". Serotonin is the happy mood chemical that is produced in the gut. Starchy carbohydrates are key to producing this chemical. Is it a coincidence that with the drastic increase in anxiety and depression, the #1 diet for society is a low carb diet? Like I mentioned before, it is complicated, but worth looking at. Potatoes are the prozac of food.
The goal to better mental health, through nutrition, is not to think of food as being a protein, carbohydrate, or fat, but to believe that food is a place to obtain nutrients. Consuming a variety of foods, at the source, is how we acquire the appropriate balance of nutrients to help support the gut and brain in a way that helps us feel calm, clear, and happy.
The mind-body connection has never been more discussed and analyzed. Is the brain dependent on the body and is the body dependent on the brain? I would say YES. Here is my goal, let's start with asking "how do we get better results?" I think most would agree that we are less happy, more anxious, and struggle to focus (RESULTS). Yet, the food/beverages we eat are the way we fuel the body. This fuel goes through the digestive tract (gut) and this gut is known as the second brain and communicates with the central nervous system.
It is right in front of us, but as the saying goes, “it's not what you know, it's what you do”. We do not have to eat perfect, but we do have to eat better if we want to be happier and healthier!