First off, when I say diet, I do not mean losing weight or even getting healthy. Either one of those things may happen and often times are a result, but I am going to talk specifically about dietary changes that can affect your mental health and wellness. Remember, what you take in has a direct affect on what you feel. Certain hormones, chemicals, enzymes, etc. are released when you take in a food or a beverage. Your are directly in charge of this process simply by what you allow in!
The most notable hormone released when eating or drinking is insulin. Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas to regulate the blood sugar. Blood sugar produces a pleasant reaction in the body, but too much, as we are now learning, turns to diabetes II. Other hormones are released when we eat as well – those that make us feel pleasure. This is a survival response. If we didn’t feel pleasure when we ate, we wouldn’t keep eating. The reward system of the brain and body are stimulated by food. With an over-abundance of food is available to many of us, this evolutionary system is no longer serving us well, but that is another topic.
What’s important to note here is that certain foods send the pleasure response into high gear and others are a bit more even and balanced in the response they create. Can you guess what the high gear foods are? Yup, sugars! I am not talking about hyper-activity and attention deficit disorders. When you eat sugar or a refined starch such as white flour, the body digests this quickly, you get a quick jolt of energy and then, just about an hour to an hour and a half later, it’s gone. You slump, you become irritable, you feel like a nap, and/or your brain fogs up and you can’t focus. These simple sugars are easy come, easy go and when they go, they take your mood and your energy with them.
The best way to see if you are affected by these simple sugars and starches is to change your breakfast. Proteins and fats are most sustaining. No, this is not the Atkins diet. Starches and sugars are fine, but make sure they are worth it. Eat colorful fruits with vitamins, minerals and fibers. Make them into a smoothie with an avocado for a healthy fat and some protein. Or, have an egg. In other countries eating a savory breakfast (last night’s supper leftovers) is perfectly normal. Try it! Make the fruit, vegetables, fats, and proteins the focus and stay away from breads, cereals, sugars, bagels, cookies, donuts, and the like. What we are hoping to avoid in changing breakfast is the roller coaster of mood and energy and hunger that people start themselves on when they eat a carb-laden breakfast.
Speaking of breakfast, what about caffeine? Caffeine is definitely a concern for many people. It is worth getting rid of for at least a week or decreasing for a week or more, just to see what happens. When we put a stimulant into our bodies, we assume we are putting the energy in, but really it’s a stimulant getting at whatever stores of energy it can find! It steals what energy you have and gives you that jolt, but then leaves you with less and less to take from until you are exhausted and spent. Caffeine can also give those with anxiety more fuel for the anxiety. It might be affecting sleep cycles. It’s worth a shot to give it up for a week or so and see what happens. Remember to wean off caffeine somewhat slowly.
Next we want to look at feeding the brain. How do we feed the brain? The brain is fat!! It likes fat! However, not just any fat. The brain likes its Omegas and also mono-unsaturated fats. When a client comes in, I want to know if they are eating enough healthy fats and getting some Omegas. If not, start supplementing from a good, healthy source with fish oils. I worry about fish oils, they are not sustainable and they are not vegetarian. It’s a tricky business from here. Studies show that vegetarian sources are less effective at doing the chemical job they need to do to complete the fat profile the brain wants. However, vegetarians and vegans can try flax oils, walnuts and purslane, but get lots of it as often as possible!
Our body’s cells need fat as well, so this society that fears fat is not doing us any services. Fat free foods have been filled with starches and sugars to make up for flavor and creaminess and this takes you right back to the paragraph above. Think of a cell as a bubble that needs just enough fat to make it non-permeable to intruders, but just permeable enough to let in the good stuff. Then there’s water. Our cells also need water to help with this permeability. Without the fat and the hydration, the cells become unable to complete their tasks efficiently and well and pretty soon you begin to notice. You feel deflated, lacking energy and focus, because your cells just don’t have what they need to function and keep you going efficiently! Give them what they need often and throughout the day as part of every meal.
A bit about nutrition. If your cells are not getting what they need nutritionally, then you will not feel energetic, may feel depressed, may be unable to cope with stress and more. The best way to get nutrients is to eat them (or drink them). Think this way: make vegetables 75% of every meal or more – lots of colors and be sure to get a healthy fat and a protein with each meal. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you will need a B12 supplement (some vegetarians get this in dairy products) or try adding nutritional yeast to each meal. If you live in a northern climate, once November hits, you’ll need some Vitamin D. The sun is just too far away during the winter months for our systems to create the Vitamin D we need.