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  • Writer's pictureLiz Beiderman

Food for Thought: The Role of Nutrition in Mental Health (Part 1/4 of the Mind-Body Series)

Updated: Jul 12, 2020

A new year can represent new opportunities for us to take charge of our lives and prioritize our own health and personal growth. If you’ve decided that 2020 is the year to make those goals a reality, let’s take a closer look at the mental health benefits of fine-tuning our lifestyle, beginning with nutrition.

An array of colourful fruit as a representation of wholesome eating and mindful nutrition choices.

Back to the Basics

As part of our work together, I commonly invite clients to walk me through their typical daily routine, which can encapsulate factors such as eating habits, sleep patterns, physical activity levels, and how they cope with stress. For some, it might seem counterintuitive to address mental health issues by placing more focus on our physical health, but when we consider how closely linked the mind and body are, this begins to make more sense.

Think about the last time you experienced a significant amount of emotional stress. Was that experience limited to feeling mentally overwhelmed, or did other little quirks such as insomnia, indigestion, or feeling sore and stiff also make an appearance? How about the last time you weathered depression? Was that limited to sad mood, or did you also notice changes in your energy levels, appetite, sleeping patterns, or sex drive? We can see that there are many ways that our emotional state can affect how we feel physically, but it’s actually a two-way relationship. The state of our physical health actually affects our emotional wellbeing as well.

This is the first installation of a 4-part Mind-Body series that explores how we can start addressing our overall wellbeing by paying more attention to the foundational aspects of personal health. The areas we will cover are nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress. Beginning with a look at the important role that nutrition plays in our mental health, this series will look deeper into how the very lifestyle factors that tend to fall by the wayside once mental health issues take hold are instrumental in addressing those very issues.

Why Does Nutrition Matter?

I’ve noticed in my practice that while clients will readily seek out strategies based on their thought patterns to help them cope with issues such as stress or low mood, they often seem puzzled when I inquire about lifestyle factors such as nutrition. What has that got to do with anything? As it turns out, quite a bit. Have you ever started feeling irritable after going too long without eating? Or felt a sudden wave of negative emotion after eating something highly processed? We can joke about feeling “hangry” or “insta-regretting” that extra slice of pizza, without realizing that these feelings are not coincidental and actually illustrate the relationship between nutrition and how we feel.

Two hands offering an assortment of healthy vegetables that promote both physical and mental wellness.

How Does Nutrition Impact Our Mood?

The gut microbiome refers to the bacteria present in our gastrointestinal tract. In recent years, these bacteria have been connected to everything from our digestive health, to our immune functioning, and even to hormone and neurochemical levels in the body, which can affect how we feel both physically and mentally.

However, the microbiome’s role in regulating mood is something that we don’t always take into consideration when we ignore our hunger signals because we’re “too busy,” or when we stress eat or turn to processed foods as a source of comfort. These are small things that many people do regularly, and can have physical effects that last for hours or days. Many researchers refer to the gut as our “second brain,” partly because our gastrointestinal tract is lined with over 100 million nerve cells and receptors. The gut also communicates with our central nervous system, or “primary” brain, and one of the results of that close bond is that our digestive health also affects our mood and thoughts. Just as the brain can signal to the gut that we’re nervous, perhaps leading to a feeling of queasiness before we give a presentation, our gut also sends signals to the brain that impact our mood and behaviour.

To what extent? Consider this: A neurotransmitter called Serotonin is associated with depression to the point where a lot of antidepressant medication is specifically designed to increase the amount of it available in the brain. Now consider that an estimated 95% of our serotonin is produced in the gut and that eating foods that promote a healthy gut have also been found to be protective against depression.

Our food choices directly impact the health of our gut microbiome, so when we deprioritize our nutrition, we run the risk of opening ourselves up to issues that can be detrimental to our mental health as well.

How Can We Use Nutrition to Promote Mental Wellness?

A new year has begun, and perhaps like many others you’ve vowed to start ditching the “junk” and learning to love veggies. This post isn’t a detailed how-to for eating better, but in a broader sense, research has shown that adopting more anti-inflammatory eating habits that emphasize whole foods and foods rich in fibre and antioxidants can be beneficial for mental wellbeing.

A smoothie bowl topped with oats, nuts, seeds, and fruit, with a bowl of berries on the side, as an example of anti-inflammatory and gut-healthy food choices that can support good mental health.

More inflammatory options that tend to adversely affect our mental health include highly processed foods, foods high in refined sugar and trans fats, and excessive alcohol. However, making better choices for your health doesn’t have to centre around what you exclude; but rather, think about what kinds of wholesome foods you can welcome in that leave you feeling happier, more focused, and energized.

Another consideration is the emotional weight that different food choices can carry. Many of our nutritional choices can stem from a place of feeling stressed, lonely, bored, or depressed. Sometimes we feel as though we’ve failed in our endeavor to “be good” and feel the need to compensate. These patterns can unintentionally reinforce the cycle of making decisions from a place of dissatisfaction that ultimately feed the very negative emotions that prompted them. In many ways, optimizing nutrition is about re-evaluating our relationship with food and the role it plays in our lives.

As I view it, nutrition is simply how we fuel ourselves, and it’s a basic need. Food isn’t a reward or a punishment, it isn’t a means of fending off boredom, and it isn’t an outlet to relieve stress. It’s what we run on, and when we deplete ourselves of vital nutrients, we tap out. Every function that our body carries out is going to be impacted by what we choose to put into it, with exciting implications for how much power we can actually have over our own wellbeing.

Like many things, change takes time, and sustaining a new lifestyle comes down to achieving a balance that works for you. If this is the year you begin putting your needs first, remember that we all start somewhere and that every step counts!

If you’re looking for more ways to optimize your mental health through a holistic approach that promotes overall wellness, book a free consultation to see how therapy can help you get started!

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