The body and mind are intrinsically connected. Are there dietary solutions to widespread mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and stress? Yes. I believe your diet can greatly help these conditions.
While Western medicine treats the body as a group of separate parts that function independently of one another, the truth is that our bodies are holistic organisms that need attention paid to the entire biological system as opposed to its various parts. This includes the mind and emotions, which can benefit from a holistic, nutritional approach to self-care.
The Body-Mind Connection
Your body is not a series of separate systems that operate independently. Instead, all of your body’s systems are intertwined, controlled by the brain and nervous system. In fact, multiple scientific studies have showed just how strong a connection there is between the body and mind.
How Emotions Affect Biology
For example, a firm causal link has been established between stress and heart disease. Once thought to be purely emotional, it turns out stress has significant physiological effects on the body. When people are put in a situation they perceive as threatening, they experience what is known as the stress response. While the stress response begins in the brain, it quickly spreads to the rest of the body through the release of chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol. Continually high levels of stress hormones affects multiple systems in your body including glucose metabolism, blood pressure regulation, immune function, and inflammation.
How Biology Affects Emotions
If your emotions can affect your biology, then it stands to reason that the opposite can occur, as well, and biology can affect emotions. While depression and anxiety were once believed to exist purely within the realm of mental and emotional health, scientists have come to realize that many mental health conditions also have a strong biological component.
According to University of Massachusetts Medical School Professor Anthony J. Rothschild, depression stems from many biological aspects including neurotransmitter levels, receptor malfunction, and regulation failures in neurotransmitter systems. These understandings have led to the development of many medications to help neurotransmitter systems where they are impaired, thus creating the appropriate biology for improved mental health.
Food as Medication
If medicines can affect depression, can the way you eat have a similar affect? Many foods do affect the brain’s neurotransmitter systems, increasing levels of chemicals that commonly inversely affect depression and anxiety.
Eating for Mental Health
How can you eat to combat depression and anxiety? Here are my suggestions.
- Eat a healthy, plant-based diet. If your body chemistry is off, chances are your brain chemistry is, as well. Not only that, but when you physically feel terrible, it can negatively affect your emotional state. Eating a plant-based diet like the one I outline in The Beauty Detox Solution will help you create the ideal environment in your body for vibrant good health. Additionally, the diet offers foods for energy that can help combat other problems that may lead to anxiety or depression, including exhaustion, body aches, and excess weight.
- Cut out the chemicals and eat organic. Human beings were not meant to eat all of the chemicals we consume in the form of additives, preservatives, artificial flavorings, and artificial colorings. All of these ingredients increase toxicity in our bodies, which can affect both mental and physical health.
- Choose hormone-free foods. If you’re consuming dairy, eggs, or animal proteins, then chances are you’re also consuming the hormones and antibiotics ranchers use to increase growth, improve milk production, and keep the animals from getting sick. Hormonal imbalances can significantly affect mental health, so avoiding foods that are likely to contain them can help you avoid this problem.
- Avoid caffeine and sugar. These stimulants may give you a little kick of energy to start, but they ultimately deplete serotonin, which is a necessary “feel good” brain chemical.
- Eat a varied diet of brightly colored fruits and vegetables. Vitamin deficiencies can lead to stress, tension, depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. By selecting a variety of colorful plant foods, you can ensure you are getting the vitamins and minerals you need for optimal mental and physical health.
- Cut out gluten grains. Gluten is found in wheat, rye, barley, and some oats. It is also present in many other foods such as soy sauce. For many people who are sensitive to gluten (and I believe most people are), consuming it causes a reaction that damages the nutrient absorbing villi in the small intestines. This hampers the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, which can lead to significant nutritional deficiencies.
- Eat healthy fats. With such an emphasis on “fat-free” and “low-fat” in Western food culture, many people fail to realize that fat plays an important role in our bodies. It assists in the absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fatty acids also play a significant role in brain health. In fact, a 2007 study showed just how important fatty acids were when researchers showed a link between Omega-3 fatty acids and protection against Parkinson’s disease. The trick is in obtaining the right types of fats for good mental health. These include fats in raw nuts and seeds, avocados, and coconut oil. Eat plenty of these foods to protect your overall brain health, particularly those containing Omega-3 fats like chia and flaxseeds.
- Support your thyroid. Low thyroid function is linked to depression, while high thyroid function is linked to anxiety. Providing thyroid support is essential for maintaining good health. Coconut oil, almonds, Brazil nuts, and sea vegetables all contain nutrients that support thyroid health.
- Get vitamin D. According to the Vitamin D Council, low serum levels of vitamin D can lead to anxiety or depression. Many people can get the vitamin D they need from the sun; however, in some northern locations or in the winter, vitamin D levels may wane. Consider supplementing vitamin D for optimal mental health, and try to spend at least 10-20 minutes in the sunlight without sunscreen each day. While overdoing sun exposure can lead to issues like skin cancer, in small doses there is a lot of healing power in the natural light of the sun, which gives life to all beings on earth.
- Avoid alcohol. Alcohol serves as a depressant, and can heighten depression and anxiety. If you suffer from these conditions, limit or cut out alcoholic beverages altogether.
If you suffer from depression or anxiety, there are natural steps you can take. Following a plant-based diet and ensuring adequate intake of Omega-3 fats, vitamins, and minerals may just put you on the path to better mental health.