This post was first published via the Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand Newsletter.
"How does that make you feel?" This clichéd question, often used in the movies to portray what to expect when visiting a psychologist or other therapist, could be used to ask about how foods, or the absence of certain foods, makes someone feel.
Common examples I ask about in my office – how does that sugar, coffee, gluten, dairy, alcohol make you feel? Does coffee provide you with the only sense of motivation to continue long hours at work? Do you skip breakfast and crash from sugar-fix to sugar-fix? Is your mood flat, tired, anxious, or irritable in-between meals with cravings for ‘carbs’ or sweets? Is alcohol a feature most evenings to help you unwind, and do you wake through the night with racing thoughts and a racing heart, or wake at 4am ruminating (worrying about the past or future) and feeling down? Do you get panic attacks? Upset stomachs? Is your memory suffering? If you answered yes to any of these common experiences in our current societal time, do you expect that this is just your norm? Or do you wonder if there’s more to it then that?
I like to question such ‘symptoms’ through the perspective of nutrition and lifestyle factors (how we sleep, move, socialise, think, work, play). Psychological difficulties like depression and anxiety, which are formally diagnosed by particular clusters of symptoms similar to those listed above, become a whole new ball game – with new therapy options including nutritional interventions and a lifestyle overhaul. Let’s look specifically at nutrition for a moment.
A Developing Evidence-Base
The brain is completely reliant on nutrients for its structure and function. Emerging research in nutritional psychiatry provides the beginnings of an evidence-base for a nutritional approach to mental health. The degree of depression and anxiety in a population has been found to be associated with intake of fruits and vegetables, with the higher a populations’ intake the lower the presence of anxiety or depression. This suggests that simply eating a diet higher in these whole foods is protective when it comes to mental health.
World-leading research on micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) for psychological difficulties is being conducted by The Canterbury Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group, led by the trail-blazing Professor Julia Rucklidge. For almost a decade she has been conducting research with people experiencing common difficulties, like attentional problems, mood/stress/anxiety, and insomnia, using micronutrient treatment, and finding promising outcomes, although more research is needed.
There is also growing interest across multi-disciplines around the role of the gut in chronic health and mental health conditions. You only have to google words like microbiota, vagus nerve, ‘leaky gut’ (intestinal permeability), and nutrigenomics to see the promise of this gut-mind-environment connection in future treatments. The Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University has just been established to expand on this field of research.
I am excited by what my profession has to offer in the realm of nutritional and lifestyle interventions, because such changes can be hard to make and maintain (I know this first hand!). There is also a lot of information about nutrition on the internet and it can be easy to get confused by conflicting messages, pseudo-science, fad’s, and self-proclaimed health guru’s.
Working as a clinical psychologist studying nutritional medicine, I am frequently confronted with people who are struggling nutritionally, perhaps in part because the earliest signs of a nutritional problem are often psychological (e.g., anxiety or low mood, sleep disturbance, loss of energy). So clients logically come to a psychologist. In my practice I draw from the expanding evidence about food and mood to put the idea of nutritional approaches forward to clients to help them address this alongside usual therapy, if they choose to.
Food, from my psychological perspective, as well as being enjoyable and a chance for social connection, is also an opportunity for brain-optimising. I always think about how I can get the best bang-for-my-buck with any meal in terms of nutrition. If you reflect on your own food intake and answer the questions "how does that food make you feel?" or "how does the absence of that food make you feel?" with "anxious", "tired", "irritable", or "down", then aren't you curious about nutritional contributions to your wellbeing? Using food as your own intervention, you can eat for your brain and mood by working out what foods work best for you. Here are some possible suggestions (which are not suggested to replace medical advice).
Do More of:
- Drink filtered water - dehydration alone has been found to decrease cognitive functioning and feelings of wellbeing.
- Look after your gut health and digestion with pro-biotic foods. Many foods (e.g., gluten), medications (e.g., antibiotics), and alcohol can disrupt your gut function, as can stress.
- Slow down to eat. Eat mindfully with others, chew well, and enjoy it. Rest after eating to support good digestion and absorption of nutrients.
- Get a broad dose of vitamins and minerals through nuts and seeds, seasonal fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices, meat/fish from animals who were treated well, eat organic where possible.
- Consume good quality fats (e.g., olive oil, avocado) and protein (e.g., chicken, eggs) to balance your blood-sugar and maintain your energy and mood.
- Learn mindfulness and entirely change your approach to your internal experiences and the quality of your external experiences - Headspace is a great tool for starting this journey.
Do Less of:
- Processed items and refined sugar – these are a lose-lose because they have minimal if any nutrients and will stress your body (thus using up further nutrients!).
- Coffee – while coffee itself has its upsides for cognitive functioning and mood, many people are caffeine sensitive. There are times caffeine affects mental health (e.g., stress, insomnia, anxiety) or recovery from chronic fatigue or adrenal dysregulation. Caffeine can also burn up important vitamins. Try the occasional coffee detox (it’s suggested you cut down before stopping as low mood, headache, and fatigue can result temporarily as you adjust).
- Many people are not aware that alcohol may impact on their mood and cognitive functioning. Alcohol is a depressant, often contains sulphites that people can react to, can effect nutrient absorption, and may even be the cause of anxiety, sleep disturbance, or depression for some. Those not physically dependent might consider experimenting with an alcohol-holiday to see “what’s left” in terms of any mood or anxiety difficulties.
- Elimination diets help to establish any seriously offending foods (e.g., gluten, sugar, food colours and additives, and dairy) that could contribute or cause things like ‘brain-fog’ (finding it hard to think and concentrate), fatigue, or anxiety/panic.
- If vegetarian or vegan, or under chronic stress – be wary of low Vitamin B12 or deficiency (with fatigue, memory issues, and anxiety or panic attacks).
- Consider appropriately dosed supplements for nutritional deficiencies, and other factors like thyroid functioning if improvements are not seen through dietary changes and/or therapy.
- Lastly, working with an appropriate specialist is recommended in the case of moderate to severe difficulties or chronic health issues. Those taking medications should consult the prescriber before using vitamins or minerals due to possible interactions, and also should not stop any medication without consultation.