A crucial lesson I have learned first hand is that my diet directly affects my mood. What’s really exciting to me is that there is a growing body of research to show how and why what we eat greatly impacts our mental health. I’ve always ‘kinda’ known this , but it became especially clear over the past several months as I forced myself to pay very close attention to the connection between diet and my state of mind by keeping notes and experimenting.
Over ten years ago when my kids were toddlers, my family and I transitioned to a vegan diet (initially in order to help with migraine headaches but as we learned more and more about environmental and animal abuse issues remaining vegan became about more than just health), but being vegan does not necessarily mean that we are always eating healthy. After all, Oreos and Skittles are accidentally vegan along with endless vegan junk food options on the market that are absolutely delicious. So there are definitely times when my diet is not optimal and often downright terrible! So when I stopped taking my medications I realized I was going to have to really scrutinize my diet, particularly how certain foods affect me, and then be willing to make changes.
As I dug deeper into the research about the connection between mental health and nutrition I realized there was lots of room for improvement because I was eating and drinking things that were obviously problematic, especially sugar and processed foods.
Here’s what I noticed:
When I start my day eating cereal or toast (even though it’s always whole wheat or whole grain) I crave breads and processed food throughout the day. I tend to eat more and think about food almost obsessively. It’s literally like a switch has flipped and that’s the only type of food I desire for the rest of the day. I’m more likely to overeat which leads to feeling sluggish and upset with myself by the time I go to bed.
Too much caffeine makes me extremely irritable and anxious. Even when I’m feeling depressed or tired, caffeine’s energizing effects seem to bypass me as I go from tired straight to agitation. It’s a very fine line.
When I start my day with a green smoothie alongside healthy fats (typically cashews, walnuts, chia or flax seeds) I crave fruits and veggies which leave me feeling more energized and clear headed. My body feels lighter while my mood throughout the day tends to be more stable.
Adding Maca powder to my smoothies a few days a week alleviated my perimenopause symptoms. Night sweats, hot flashes, soreness and cramps completely went away. Gone!
Sugar and food dye (found in all the jellybeans and sugary treats I splurged on for Easter) make my brain foggy and moods shift more rapidly. It tends to take almost two days of clean eating to feel the brain fog, dull headache, lethargy and crankiness go away.
I want to make a few things clear though…
I do not believe a “perfect” diet is the “be all end all” when it comes to dealing with mental illness and I do believe that medication is sometimes necessary. But I will say that for me – and many others – when I do manage to eat very clean and apply all I have learned, my mind is definitely clearer and the changes I noted above are very apparent. The effect is undeniable.
The challenge however comes in applying the knowledge and being consistent — both of which I need to work on. It is not easy. Nutritional habits are built over years and the foods that are the worst for us are the ones that are most addicting. Talking about it, sharing what I’ve learned and being committed to learning more each day is a tremendous motivator.
Anyone who has ever experienced the full force of depression can attest to how difficult it can be to get out of bed some days, let alone cook a healthy meal and go exercise for an extended period of time. I’ll be the first to admit there are days when I’ve remained curled up in a chair, a few steps away from my kitchen, trying to convince myself to go make a healthy meal or go for a run, knowing full well that if I did most likely I would feel at least a little bit better. This is the part that makes no sense to a lot of people, especially if you’ve never experienced the choke hold of depression. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of willpower, sometimes I simply can’t move. BUT… Every time I manage to win a small battle and push beyond the pain, it makes the next time easier to deal with. And then what I’ve come to notice is that the “next times” are fewer and farther between.
God designed us perfectly. I’m really starting to see just how amazingly capable our bodies are at healing when we provide them with the necessary components to do what they were made to do. In retrospect I can see all of the abuse I have put my body through over the years. Things add up and take a toll.
Alcohol addiction damages our brains. Years of battling eating disorders deprived my body of vital fats, nutrients and vitamins during my critical years of development. Decades of diet soda addiction and comforting myself with junk processed food and artificial ingredients during periods of binge eating damaged my gut and brain.
Perhaps in a future blog I will write in more detail about the science behind all of this because it is fascinating and convincing, but for now suffice it to say it’s perfectly clear how each of the above behaviors negatively affected my mental health because they had a direct impact on my body and brain.
By studying my history and looking at my symptoms I’ve been able to find things to incorporate into my diet to help repair the damage. And yes, you absolutely can repair your brain and the research being done in this area is so exciting. (Google the term neuroplasticity and watch a few youtube videos by Dr. Daniel Amen). I make an effort to feed my brain healthy fats, load my body with lots of greens and colorful veggies, use maca powder to help balance my hormones and menopause symptoms, take vitamin B supplements which are crucial in combating depression and the effects of alcohol addiction, probiotics to help create and maintain healthy gut bacteria that is vital in producing neurotransmitters, and of course the most difficult is staying away from junk food — yes, even if it’s vegan!
The bottom line is mental illness is complicated and maintaining our mental health takes work. It’s exciting though to realize that even though it requires time and effort, there are things I can do to take charge of my health. I don’t have to be a slave to a diagnosis or prescription pad. It’s empowering to put what I’ve learned into practice and witness the positive outcomes. It’s always less of a struggle when I ask God for help and when I think about my body as being “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). God created me out of love and made me unique in a body that is a miracle equipped with amazing capabilities. When I take time to consider this truth it motivates me to take better care of it. And when I do it always responds.
Psalm 139:14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
Here are a few books that have inspired and educated my family: