The last two years have taken a toll on many peoples’ health and have highlighted the importance of taking preventive measures when it comes to the mind and body. As a Health/Patient Advocate, I have seen firsthand the effects that COVID-19 has had on our physical and mental health. Now more than ever it is important for us to take care and ensure that we are getting the proper nutrients to promote a holistic state of well-being!
The fields of nutritional psychology and psychiatry are relatively new, where food is one component of treating your mental health. In fact, during an interview I conducted recently with Dr. John Dyben, DHSc, MCAP, CMHP, Chief Clinical Officer at Origins Behavioral Healthcare who is certified in nutritional psychology, he strongly recommended that a nutritionist or dietitian always be part of the mental health treatment team. In general and on a daily basis, mindful eating and thinking carefully about what you eat and how it contributes positively to your physical and mental well-being are important for all of us throughout our lives.
Whole Body Wellness: Everything is Connected
Our bodies are made up of 12 systems that each play a unique role in our overall health. These systems work as an integrated network to provide the body with the support it needs to operate successfully. When we talk about holistic health, we are talking about a full-body approach to wellness, which is achieved when the body is in a state of homeostasis! This means all systems are in a state of balance and functioning properly. One system that has an immense role to play in our health, which is often overlooked, is our digestive system.
Your Gut is Your Second Brain
It’s true what they say. You are what you eat! Mounting research suggests that your stomach is your second brain. How often do we hear people say, “trust your gut” or “I had a gut feeling?” Our stomach plays a vital role in how we think, feel, and respond to the world around us. This connection is referred to as the Gut-Brain Axis. It is a complex, bidirectional communication network that incorporates neural, endocrine, immune, and metabolic mediators.
You can think of the Gut-Brain Axis, or the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), as the central nervous system of your stomach. It is a web of neurons located in the walls of the gastrointestinal system, and a two-way street of constant communication.
The ENS is not only responsible for sending signals to your stomach to let you know that you are hungry, but your stomach sends signals to your brain to provide vital information about your health. The foods you consume play a large role in the signals that are sent to your brain! Therefore, a person’s stomach can be the barometer of anxiety, stress, and depression, or well-being and a sense of peace and calm. This is dependent on how you treat your gut!
In her excellent book This is Your Brain on Food, Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist and chef Uma Naidoo, MD describes all of this in easy-to-understand language including references to specific mental health disorders. She explains, for example, that your gut has 90% of the serotonin receptors in the body, which are frequently deficient in individuals who struggle with anxiety and depression. Not surprising that these same individuals often experience issues associated with their gastrointestinal systems at times of stress or depression. Food choices can make a huge difference because of their impact on gut chemistry and its impact on the interaction with the brain. This book goes into this in some detail.
The Gut Microbiome
We are made of thousands of living creatures including microorganisms! Some live in the Gut Microbiome and exist to keep your body in a state of balance. As it turns out, there is a link between the gut and the brain associated with these microorganisms. Studies have found that decreases in “good bacteria” in your gut can lead to higher levels of anxiety and depression.
While antibiotics are intended to kill harmful bacteria that may be the root of infection, they can also kill off good bacteria. If you have recently been on antibiotics, the use of appropriate pre and probiotics can restore the good bacteria needed to help manage levels of anxiety and other gut distress. There are also plenty of probiotic-dense foods to support a healthy gut! Again, it’s all about keeping your gut in its natural state of balance. Integrative or Functional Medicine doctors have the clinical expertise necessary to help with this if your GastroIntestinal (GI) or primary care physician (PCP) or mental health provider does not. And remember to consider adding that nutritionist or dietitian to your team!
Eating Well to Support Your Mood
Often when we think about food, especially diet, we consider how it will affect our physical appearance. A more holistic approach would be to consider how the foods we eat affect our overall health including mood. We want to look and feel good!
While developing good eating habits is important for all ages, this becomes increasingly important for your health as you age. The perfect time to start thinking about your diet practices? Right now!
Food as medicine
Studies show that a well-balanced diet can reduce anxiety and promote positive mental health. Columnist for the New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope, suggests that we start by feeding our brain with foods that are nutrient-dense to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
A simplified approach to treating food as medicine is to prioritize foods that are natural and unprocessed whenever possible. Things like processed foods, artificial sugars, and foods that are high in simple carbohydrates have been shown to contribute to an increase in anxiety and depression. They stimulate the production of stress hormones and are known to cause inflammation in the body. On the other hand, nutrient-dense foods contain key vitamins and minerals that our bodies rely on to operate successfully.
Mindful eating can do wonders for your mood!
If you’re new to this approach, it is recommended to keep a food diary for a few days to track what you’re eating and how you’re feeling! Here is a great resource for some simple food diary templates to get you started. After some time, you may notice correlations between the foods you eat and your mood. In general, the concept is that you are eating to take care of your body and your mind, not just shove something in to eat in a hurry. Keep in mind that your metabolism operates best when you’re relaxed! John Dyben recommends making a ritual of eating so that it becomes a period of peace in your day. A relaxed state of being can also contribute to more effective metabolic function and better digestion.
If you’re not quite sure where to start, we strongly recommend Dr. Naidoo’s book. Or consult your doctor or a nutritionist on what makes sense for your health. We are always a step away from changing our minds and our moods by prioritizing food as medicine!
Stay well and take care of your brain!
Disclaimer: The contents of HealthACR Insights are intended to provide information we hope you find interesting, timely and useful. We carefully research the topics using reliable, highly regarded sources. Citations are provided. We in no way intend to offer clinical advice that you should use to make treatment decisions. Please consult appropriate professionals. HealthACR, LLC is available to help you identify potential options and find providers to meet your needs.