How food affects our mental health
Changing my diet greatly influenced my mental health.
We often forget that feeding our gut helps build a strong foundation for our mindset and emotional well-being. It can be tough to get through challenges and feel motivated and inspired when there is an imbalance of serotonin and dopamine in your system. These neurotransmitters are directly related to nutritional deficiencies. Also, without proper vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, a decline in our mental health and responses to external stressors is negatively affected. As a registered holistic nutritionist and women’s health coach, I closely work with women to educate and guide them on the importance of optimal nutrition and how gut health greatly influences mental health. Another underlying imbalance and a game-changer for nutrition are fluctuations in blood sugar levels and the effects of stimulants such as coffee, tea, and foods high in sugar. This article will discuss the common symptoms of unstable blood sugar levels and how to stabilize them to benefit mental well-being. As a mother to a nine-year-old child and a registered nutritionist, my number one priority is to be in optimal health to be present for my child and clients. This involves paying close attention to my daily nutritional intake, mental health, and any imbalance symptoms that may arise.
Food and My Mental Health
With a background in personal training, I understand that my body’s internal environment largely influences my external environment; it is a key factor that got me through major transformational periods in my life – period when stress was the driving force, and my mental health was truly put to the test! Ensuring optimal nutrition not only improved my mood but gave me the energy and motivation to make the necessary changes needed to rebuild my life, career, and parenthood.
Overcoming mental burnout after the end of a twelve-year marriage meant using nutrition as an “antidepressant” in rebuilding the life of my dreams and becoming the woman I wanted to be years ago! It allowed me to live life consistently, joyful and staying motivated. Making positive and beneficial food choices in small daily steps, learning the balance between “tools” vs. “rules” and how to eat intuitively kept me grounded and mentally focused. As a mother and full-time entrepreneur, my mental health is my top priority. Without the right vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, protein, and carbohydrates needed for my body and brain to thrive, it would have been difficult to sustain my mental well-being and emotional health. A natural, whole diet has become a staple in my household! Teaching my female clients the importance and benefits of nutritional support, including mental health benefits, has been a game-changer in their transformation. They’ve all learned to start putting their oxygen masks on first! The power of optimal nutrition for the mind and body has been truly revolutionary for my clients and me.
How are poor food choices affecting my mental health?
- Often irritable and angry
- Feeling fearful
- Difficulty making decisions
- Lack of motivation
- Feeling hopeless, sad, or lonely
- Trouble falling asleep or sleeping through the night
- Decreased appetite or poor eating choices
- Brain fog and inability to concentrate
My Internal Environment
Let’s take a minute and chat about what happens in our gut health and how the foods we eat are affecting our mental health. About a hundred-trillion bacteria are working very hard to keep a healthy balance in our gut microbiome to process nutrients, digest foods, and produce vitamin B and K, greatly influencing our mental health. A Spanish proverb, “the belly rules the mind”, really sums up the importance of a healthy gut-brain pathway, which is a product of our daily food choices and the accumulation of our gut microbiome. This special pathway is called our gut-brain axis. The gut contains the enteric nervous system, one of the main divisions of the autonomic nervous system. It contains the neurons that connect our gut to the brain and vice versa. And our gut produces 80-90 % of the transmitter serotonin and 50% of dopamine that both influence our mood, emotions, and motivation levels. So working on my gut flora by paying close attention to what I was eating daily became extremely important for my mental health. Natural wholesome foods, and vitamin and mineral supplements aided in keeping a gentle balance in my gut-brain communication.
I began to notice that my decision making, moments of anxiety, and lack of motivation started to decrease after this protocol. I was able to get inspired, cultivate energy, and increase the levels of vibrancy in my life. My gut-brain axis was functioning at its optimal level. My sleep patterns became more consistent; I was waking up more energized and ready to take on my day!
- Foods high in probiotics help improve the gut, boost immune health and mental and emotional well-being, e.g. kefir, yogurt, miso, tempeh, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha.
- Foods high in essential fatty acid help with brain development and maintenance. It helps support cognitive function, especially as we get older. Think cold-water fish, such as salmon mackerel, tuna, and sardines.
- Foods high in vitamin B and C ae important for the production and of neurotransmitters/hormones for emotional health. Your best bets are whole grain, dark leafy vegetables, seeds and nuts, fresh fruits, eggs and dairy products, legumes (beans and lentils).
- Foods high in protein help the production of neurotransmitters/ hormones. Again think of cold-water fish, lean meat, and dairy products.
- Foods high in calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron enrich thoughts, perception, and memory while balancing emotional behavior and mood.
During periods of increased or chronic stress our mental health suffers. Why?
When I experienced chronic stress, my cortisol (stress hormone) levels rise, my heart palpitates, and my mood drops. This drives my cravings up the wall! Chronic stress placed my body in the ‘fight or flight’ mode and increased its need for immediate energy, thereby increasing my body’s blood sugar levels. At this point, the majority of the nutrient supply for my feel-good hormones (serotonin, dopamine) was being used to feed my cortisol levels. With continued stress, this leads to a decrease in my serotonin and dopamine levels, and a roller coaster of emotions would take place! Creating a well-balanced nutritional plan with the above list of essential ingredients has helped me replenish those precious nutrients lost during stress to stabilize my mental well-being. When it came to food cravings during these episodes, I knew my body was looking for quick ways to restore energy. There was a reason why chocolate bars were on top of my grocery list! Consistently being in the “fight or flight state had me craving foods higher on the glycemic index, leading to episodes of mental fatigue late in the afternoon. The glycemic index is a scale that ranks carbohydrates and their effects on blood sugar levels. Eating foods with a low glycemic index such as whole grains, green vegetables, fruits containing fiber, legumes, and high protein breakfasts became a preferred choice for me to balance elevations in my mood, moments of anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty. This prepared my body and mind for days that could be mentally taxing. Not skipping meals and having quick and easy protein snacks readily available also helped me prevent brain fog and stress eating at the end of a long day.
After grasping a thorough understanding of the need for nutrients that benefit mental alertness, meal planning became very strategic for me, including food combinations for better digestion. As I began to focus on enhancing my nutritional intake to help supplement my mood and replenishing the vital nutrients lost during stress, I could recover from “burnout” and any nutritional deficiencies. Nutrients such as vitamin B6, B12, folic acid, zinc, magnesium, chromium, and essential fatty acids can be easily depleted in women, especially during chronic stress. I made sure I was consuming various seasonal fruits and vegetables, and proteins, including adding supplements as needed. I incorporated physical activity into my daily routine to support my cognitive health. My health and mental wellness depended upon my body’s ability to recover, remove toxins, and support my bodily systems with the proper nutrients. My body’s ability to produce and balance optimal hormone levels for my daily activities became the definition of optimal health for me. Being under chronic stress due to a work-life imbalance, sudden weight gain, sugar cravings during menstrual cycles, and emotional exhaustion had left me mentally depleted. Not to mention an inconsistent sleep cycle! I’ll be the first to raise my hand and say, I’ve been there, done that, and SO over it! The transformation of my mental, emotional, and physical health depended on me, realizing that I am an individual. There is no other “body” like mine. My nutrient requirements are going to look different than the woman standing next to me. So give your body the individual love and care it deserves!