My favorite fifth grade teacher was Mrs. Harrison, who taught science. Really I should say she transmitted science, because we never for a moment suspected that we were learning something. She somehow exuded conceptual curiosity in a way that 10-year-olds could appreciate, enveloping us in an unfeigned cloud of passion for the laws of the universe, assuming we would come to find gamma rays and photosynthesis as mind-blowingly awesome as she did.
We did. One day we came to the classroom, avoiding the lettuce on the floor that she’d left for the large box turtle Edwina, who roamed freely and liked to pee directly in the doorways, and after we’d settled into our seats, Mrs. Harrison asked some poor sucker in the front row, “Do you eat sunlight?”
He stared back at her, clearly ill-at-ease.
I remember that the two smartest kids in the class — one of whom now holds an MD/PhD from Johns Hopkins, the other a hipster with a JD in Brooklyn — both kept their mouths shut. Because, as far as we knew, we ate cereal that grew in the shape of cookies, the breaded fingers off of chickens, and little pockets of pizza fabricated in hybrid textile/pizza factories. My parents had never served anything resembling sunlight.
So Mrs. Harrison moved on to the next student, pursuing the same question. It took us a long time, I’m sorry to say, for us to catch what she was trying get at, which tells you the state of food and farm education in the suburbs twenty years ago: largely non-existent.
What she wanted us to understand was that every molecule in our bodies came from outside of us. Sunlight makes the plants grow, which we in turn eat or which other animals eat until we eat them. I don’t want to make the annoyingly righteous statement that I know you might be waiting for: we are what we eat. Because duh. But I really don’t think we parse that idea often enough. Every one of our cells’ molecules, which give it structure and help it function, come from outside of us — the stuff we chew, swallow, absorb, inhale, and touch.
I like to think about how mind-blowingly awesome this is, especially when I consider our options for improving and maintaining mental health.
Despite the enduring myopia of western biochemical medicine, many of us understand that illness and disease are never purely a function of biochemistry. Likewise, mental health isn’t simply a function of genetics or chemical imbalance. So it would be silly to pretend that if we just ate right, our mental health would be perfect. That would ignore the role of trauma, for instance, in contributing to mental health crises, among other social and economic factors.
However, just as illness and disease are multi-factorial in origin, healing and recovery are multi-pronged processes, which is why “holistic” is such a buzzword these days — that is, like every medicine tradition prior to the current dominant western one, we are finally coming to relearn that we have to use multiple tactics to address the multiple origins and factors in any give health issue.
Which is why I want to talk about food.
I’m not an expert on many of the effective mental health therapies out there, but I do know that it’s really hard to get your body and psyche to do the work your therapist asks of you when it doesn’t have the building blocks it needs to function. If simply being alive requires a whole host of nutrition, imagine what we need to heal.
The thing that good food can do is make us more resilient. It can help our bodies and minds feel up to the task of doing all those (sometimes difficult!) things that can aid in healing. And so this article is a preliminary foray into using food and eating practices to create a resilient container in which to house your fighting and transformative spirit.
ANATOMY & PHYSIOLOGY of MOOD & FOOD
In the emerging field of neurogastroenterology, researchers are acknowledging that the gut houses a “second brain,” the significant amount of nervous tissue and neural networks in the digestive tract known as the enteric nervous system. 95% percent of the body’s seratonin, a neurotransmitter necessary for feelings of well-being, is found in the gut, while 70% of the immune system exists in the digestive tract in the form of gut-associated lymphatic tissue (GALT). The digestive tract contains nearly 100 million nerve cells, more nerve cells than the peripheral nervous system does.
So clearly there is a link between digestion and nervous system function.
Although Dr. Natascha Campbell-McBride is famous for articulating one kind of dysfunction between the brain and gut in her GAPS diet protocol, many health care providers over millennia have observed the intimate relationship between food and mood. When foods cause recurring irritation due to upsetting microfloral balance in the gut, they damage the intestinal linings, causing cellular degradation, poor absorption, and most significantly, poor barrier function, or what some folks call “leaky gut.” In this situation, particles too large to handle enter the bloodstream, and the body sees them as foreign invaders, causing inflammation and autoimmune reactions, not to mention poor absorption of nutrients.
So it appears that sugary foods and unstable fats can alter your gut bacteria composition, which in turn can alter your mood and behavior.
In many traditions, digestion is viewed as the seat of healing. If struggling with depression is no fun, and pharmaceuticals are causing untenable side effects (not to mention effects on your body’s nutrient retention), it could make sense to investigate which foods are irritating to your GI function and which foods could help you better take in those building blocks your body craves.
ADD or AVOID?
I’ve found, when assisting folks in adjusting their diets, that it’s always more comforting to add elements into your daily nutrition than it is to take things out.
But some things are just not helpful to maintaining a healing digestive environment. You probably know which things I mean, and even why: sugar, transfats and hydrogenated oils, simple carbohydrates, preservatives. Some other food practices you may or may not have already considered relevant to well-functioning digestion is how hydrated you are, whether you have food sensitivities or reactions (gluten? dairy? nightshades?), how frequently you eat, and what conditions you regularly find yourself dining under (walking down the street on your way to a meeting while cramming your sprouted bagel with humus and veggies is not the same as sitting down to enjoy bagels with your favorite pal).
So, whew, now that we’ve gotten THAT out of the way (I’m so sorry! I’m not saying you should never eat a donut again, only that you might consider spacing out the frequency of this treat), on to the fun stuff: all the new foods you get to try.
Yes, it’s pretty overwhelming trying to keep up, or even coast on by, the food fads, superfood advertisements, latest research and people interpreting or disputing the latest research. Or maybe you’ve read enough Michael Pollan to feel like you have a handle on something (eat food, not too much, mainly plants). But if you need some support or reinforcement about what you probably already know, here are some of my simplest food rules, which I use every day as I’m trying to dodge the bewildering bombardments of products packed with monstrous combinations of AcaiGojiChiaQuinoaWhey.
- Eat Dense Food. No, I don’t mean the brick-like bread that my Austrian grandfather was so fond of. I mean nutritionally dense. Choose foods over supplements when possible, and choose foods that offer lots of deep colors, quality protein, fibers, good fats, and complex carbohydrates. Nourishing yourself is oodles more fun than depriving yourself. (Side Note: Always find a way to have treats, dense, empty, or otherwise.) And remember: It’s really, really hard to eat too many leafy vegetables.
- Get enough protein. Seriously, friends, shall we even begin to enumerate the roles that proteins play in daily maintenance, not to mention healing and recovery? Animal proteins are most similar to ours, and therefore the most easily assimilated, but plant proteins can be plenty nourishing. Stay away from protein shakes and drinks, especially those with whey; if you want a protein powder to add to your smooth, check out hydrolyzed collagen.
- Get enough (good) fat. Are we over the fat-phobic era of margarine and 0% milk yet? Please say yes. Fats like olive, coconut, avocado, pastured butter and other grass-fed animal fats keep your ratio of Omega3s to Omega9s in a happy balance closer to how our foraging and herding ancestors ate, which you are all sick of hearing about on account of the Paleo fad. But like every fad, sometimes there’s something to it. EFAs are so crucial to good nervous system function and moderating inflammation in the body, a lack of them can precipitate immune and emotional melt-downs of the highest order.
- Eat things that are still alive. Maybe this sounds gross, but that’s what fermented foods are: packed with beneficial microbiota, tiny living things. While fermented foods have certainly been making a comeback of late (kimchi tacos, yum!), the standard American diet has yet to incorporate this traditional dietary practice. In 2014, in a paper titled “Fermented foods, microbiota, and mental health: ancient practice meets nutritional psychiatry,” researchers Selhub, Logan, and Bested review the epidemiological and trial evidence for the impact of living foods on mental health. The authors posit that the effect of fermented foods on human health could “manifest, behaviorally, via magnified antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity, reduction of intestinal permeability . . . improved glycemic control, positive influence on nutritional status (and therefore neurotransmission and neuropeptide production), direct production of GABA, and other bioactive chemicals, as well as a direct role in gut-to-brain communication via a beneficial shift in the intestinal microbiota itself.” They conclude, “When researchers make discoveries such as that showing that a Lactobacillus pentosus strain derived from fermented cabbage (kimchi) can improve mental functioning and hippocampal BDNF production in animals. . . (it) suggests that we are only scratching the surface in our understanding of the relationship between potentially beneficial food-derived microbes and brain health.”
- Supplementation. To many folks, doesn’t seem like the most sustainable method of nourishing the body or the environment, nor is there much research on supplementation without controversy. However, we live in a post-industrial society where organic foods are expensive, sometimes difficult to access, and often not as nutrient-rich as they once were, as our planet is currently home to some of the most depleted soils in the history of cellular life.
So it’s often not a bad thing to supplement with high quality supplements from scrupulous and ethical companies. B-Complex supplements can be helpful since B vitamins, among other things, act as cofactors for methylation during the Krebs Cycle, which is the way in which our cells metabolize glucose to produce ATP, which in turns give our bodies energy to do all the things. B vitamins are also required for DNA synthesis and production of phospholipids such a myelin, the fat that coats your nerve cells.
Research has shown Vitamin D, the only vitamin that is a hormone, to have essential functions in nearly every system in the body; every kind of tissue in the body bears Vitamin D receptors. One link researchers have found between Vitamin D and mental health is the effect of Vitamin D on gene activation, in particular the genes which regulate immune function and neurotransmitters which affect the function of the central nervous system. Several studies have linked low serum levels of Vitamin D with depression, and some clinicians believe Vitamin D supplementation to be an essential element in aiding some patients’ recovery from depression.
Magnesium affects our sense of restfulness and calm — epidemiological studies suggest that most Americans experience magnesium deficiency through poor nutrition, drinking caffeine, and aging. We know that one effect of gut microflora imbalance is systemic inflammation and cell-mediated immune response — both also associated with depression, which is itself associated with magnesium deficiency. Animal trials indicate that enough magnesium may protect the brain from depression and anxiety after experiencing traumatic brain injury. Whether our magnesium levels are depleted by over-active stress response or whether depleted magnesium causes us poor resilience in times of stress, magnesium is an available and affordable supplement that most of us could use more of.
Currently much research supports the importance of omega-3 essential fatty acids found in fatty fishes and grass-fed animal products to the function of the central nervous system. The two primary omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA is a structural component of nerve cell membranes; when the body’s balance of omega-3 to omega-6 is upset, the change in the composition of neuronal membranes can effect activity of proteins embedded in the membrane. Many studies have shown association between depression and low dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids, and EPA treatment has proven beneficial in helping individuals experiencing depression, schizophrenia, and anxiety.
While supplements can be useful, I like to remember that foods beat supplements nine times out of ten, as Dr. Howard LeWine writes in the Harvard Health Blog on the question of whether supplementing with fish oil could replace your seafood intake: “It’s more than likely that you need the entire orchestra of fish fats, vitamins, minerals, and supporting molecules, rather than the lone notes of EPA and DHA.”
So much more!
There are of course things I didn’t talk about here, like nutritional regimens for specific mental health situations, how to choose supplements and dosages, recipes and how to incorporate new foods into your day, eating quality food on a budget, and how particular foods or supplements may or may not interact with medications or other supplements you may already be taking. These are important considerations! I always recommend making an appointment with a health care provider you trust. In the meanwhile, if you’re hungry for more, check out the links and articles below.
Naomi Ullian is an herbalist, writer, and performance artist currently living in the rolling hills of southern Vermont. Check out her health writing at http://www.proseforpeople.com and her work in herbal medicine and nutrition at http://www.collaborativemedicine.cf.
Sathyanarayana Rao, M. R. Asha, B. N. Ramesh, and K. S. Jagannatha Rao. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian J Psychiatry. 2008 Apr-Jun; 50(2): 77–82. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2738337/
The Psychological Consequences of Vitamin D Deficiency. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-breakthrough-depression-solution/201111/psychological-consequences-vitamin-d-deficiency
Magnesium and the Brain. Evolutionary Psychiatry. 1 October 2010. http://evolutionarypsychiatry.blogspot.com/2010/10/magnesium-and-brain.html
- Newbold, M.D., William H. Philpott, M.D.and Marshall Mandell, M.D.
Psychiatric Syndromes Produced by Allergies: Ecologic Mental Illness. http://orthomolecular.org/library/jom/1973/pdf/1973-v02n03-p084.pdf Harvard Health Publications, http://www.health.harvard.edu/nutrition/food-allergy-intolerance-and-sensitivity
Food and Your Mood. Building Healthy Inclusive Communities through the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD). http://www.nchpad.org/606/2558/Food~and~Your~Mood~~Nutrition~and~Mental~Health Mental Health Net America. http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/healthy-diet-eating-mental-health-mind
Mental Health Foundation. http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/help-information/mental-health-a-z/D/diet/ Food Matters. http://foodmatters.tv/wellness-guide/mental-health
Selhub, Eva M., Logan, Alan C., and Bested, Alison C. Fermented foods, microbiota, and mental health: ancient practice meets nutritional psychiatry. Journal of Physiological Anthropology. 2014, 33:2 doi:10.1186/1880-6805-33-2 http://www.jphysiolanthropol.com/content/33/1/2 Peet M1, Stokes C.
Omega-3 fatty acids in the treatment of psychiatric disorders. Drugs. 2005;65(8):1051-9. Genuis, Stephen J. and Lobo, Rebecca A.
Fish Oil: Friend of Foe? Harvard Health Blog. Harvard Health Publications. 12 July 2013. http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/fish-oil-friend-or-foe-201307126467 Deans, Emily, MD.
Fish Oil and Anxiety: A randomized controlled trial shows omega3s decrease anxiety and inflammation. Evolutionary Psychiatry. 10 November 2011. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolutionary-psychiatry/201111/fish-oil-and-anxiety