Nutrition and Mental Health: The Physiology of Well-Being

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You are what you eat! This holds true in the most literal and specific senses. What you nourish yourself with not only affects whether you get heart disease or not, but also whether you feel good each day. Imagine that—you actually have a significant influence on your mental health day to day, despite your genetic load or your family history.

This important truth is finding its way into the emerging fields called integrative medicine and integrative psychiatry, and perhaps holds the key to the missing link in attaining desired mental health and well-being. In my practice, I’ve adapted this information to practice integrative psychology, where I treat people using psychological techniques mixed with lifestyle changes that include analyzing how we nourish ourselves for optimal mental health.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that some people in psychotherapy who do an impressive amount of work still feel that there is a block somewhere, a barrier to feeling really good. Well, here was the problem: You can’t just work from the shoulders up. Your brain is attached to the rest of your body. There are such intricate connections between your mind and body that doing work on your psychology without tending to your physiology is just not doing you justice.

Here’s the truth: Health isn’t always about working hard. In fact, when you give the body what it needs, your body knows how to be healthy. It may often feel like you’re working against a tide of “inherent” defects, like genetic tendencies or lifelong struggles with certain symptoms. But actually, when you take the barriers to well-being away, your body and mind will do the rest for you.

Here are a few of those barriers to keep in mind that will get you on your way to optimal mental health:

1. Trust Your Gut

This could (and will) be a post of its own because there’s so much information here. But the take-home lesson is that you synthesize your happy mood brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters) with nutritional components like B vitamins and protein in your digestive tract. So, that antidepressant that you’re hoping will lift your mood can’t do its job properly if your digestion is not healthy.

To-do: Start removing those hard-to-digest foods (think processed, fried, and packaged), and add in nutrient-dense foods, such as veggies and clean proteins.

2. Take Care of Your Brain

Your brain is your mood regulatory machinery. So, it needs to be treated well. Healthy fats like omega-3s help your nerve cells work properly. After all, our brains are made mostly of fat!

To-do: Focus on eating healthy, satiating fats, like avocado, flax oil, and fish oil.

3. Cool Inflammation

Inflammatory foods, such as sugar, processed foods full of chemicals such as preservatives, and pesticides all cause the body to be in a state of high immune alert—not ideal for allowing your brain chemistry and digestion to function smoothly.

To-do: Keep it clean! Get rid of some of that sugary, processed food, and go for clean, whole foods, like home-cooked meals packed with veggies, as well as dark chocolate and fruit for snacks.

So, to get started, begin with small steps—say, reducing refined sugar by 50 percent for a week, and tracking your mood. Notice what happens, and then keep going with the next small change, such as adding healthy fats with some avocado on your salads, or some nice dark chocolate as a high-quality snack. Most importantly, take it slow, track changes that you notice, and consult with a health care provider to strategize toward your goals. Finally, enjoy the exploration of how your body and mind can work synergistically for better health.

References

Lachance, L., & Ramsey, D. (2015). Food, mood, and brain health: implications for the modern clinician. Missouri medicine, 112(2), 111–115.

Huang, T. T., Lai, J. B., Du, Y. L., Xu, Y., Ruan, L. M., & Hu, S. H. (2019). Current Understanding of Gut Microbiota in Mood Disorders: An Update of Human Studies. Frontiers in genetics, 10, 98. https://doi.org/10.3389/fgene.2019.00098

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