The subject of mental health, including stress, anxiety and depression, has entered our homes in record numbers over the past couple of years. The ups and downs of life exacerbated by a pandemic, a war, ever increasing inflation and a whole list of other issues piled high. So where does that leave us?
Perhaps you’re exactly where you started, plodding along on your path, getting on with your life as best you can and waking up with a smile on your face believing that this too will pass like everything else. Yet maybe you’re feeling discouraged, depressed that the layers of setbacks and losses in the world are all too much to comprehend, unable to be productive because you don’t see any light.
There are several determinants to how you handle stress. However, one area that gets too little attention in the subject is the effects of nutrition. In her book, Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health, Leslie Korn writes, “What is incontrovertible is that nutrition matters and it is the most important missing link to mental health in society today.”
Research has now proven that food makes a difference not only in how we feel physically but mentally as well. The perfect diet for mental health is still debatable, particularly because every individual has different needs, yet some things are evident.
Notice what foods you eat and what your patterns are when all is not right. Do you sit in front of the TV and eat? Do you freeze up and feel helpless, hardly putting anything into your body? Do you just fill up on empty calorie foods that give you nothing in return?
Sometimes you need a distraction, other times you need better food options on hand.
Once you notice where you are, that’s where you start. Lasting change happens slowly.
Essential fatty acids are important in your diet for strong mental health. A body that is chronically stressed has more of a challenge absorbing dietary fats. Enhancing your diet with foods high in Omega 3s, like wild salmon and halibut, fish oils, flax seed and walnuts, is highly beneficial for a healthy mind.
Vitamins in the B groupplay an important role in producing hormones that help regulate mood. B6 in particular helps your body produce serotonin and melatonin, so that you not only feel better, but you sleep better too. Some good choices include sunflower seeds, pistachios, brown rice, turkey, avocado and garlic.
Magnesiumimpacts the nervous system, the oxygenation of blood vessels and regulation of insulin levels. All of these are vitally important components of the stress factor. Magnesium works closely with B6 and the combination has been shown in studies to have a valued effect on depression. Pumpkin seeds, chia seeds and cashews are some good sources of magnesium.
Calciumshould be increased when there is high stress due to its role in many nerve processes and the correlation of decreased bone density with increased stress. Be proactive and eat foods high in calcium like yogurt, sesame seeds, and green leafy vegetables like arugula and kale.
Potassium is needed to keep it in the right ratio with sodium, which easily becomes imbalanced with too much stress. This is important for managing blood pressure levels and to offset any risk of cardiovascular issues. You can boost your potassium by eating some foods like adzuki beans, flax seed, quinoa, dry roasted pistachios, kale and collard greens.
Along with mineral depletion comes dehydration. It’s important that your body maintains a proper water/mineral balance, so be sure to drink filtered water throughout your day even when you don’t feel thirsty. As we age, our bodies aren’t always great at knowing when there is a need to quench.
Although coffee and caffeine have many apparent benefits, when it comes to stress and anxiety neither is recommended. According to a study done by Duke University Medical Center, the negative effects of coffee are increased stress, blood pressure and heart rate.
If you love coffee and can’t imagine giving it up, keep it to one morning cup a day. Add some protein and fat so it doesn’t challenge your cortisol any more than it already is. Try a cup with a teaspoon of MCT oil and a scoop of collagen and see what you think. You’ll give your brain and your bones a boost in the process.
Many people turn to alcohol when stressed, thinking it relaxes them, but it actually has the opposite effect. It causes chemical stress on the body. Alcohol taxes your adrenals which may already be shot from overdrawing cortisol, and it also interferes with your sleep. Your body needs repair, and nighttime sleep is when it happens.
Cut down on the carbohydrates and increase the lean protein. Stress promotes weight gain. An increase in fat and a decrease in muscle mass is not a good situation for older adults. You need your muscle mass for strength and to protect your bone structure, keeping you balanced and independent.
Sugary foods might feel good for a moment but then they just activate an already overly stressed system, causing more mood swings and further damaging imbalance. Kicking your sugar habit and shifting to other options is a good plan.
A big factor in mental health relates to food allergies and intolerances. Given the gut’s role as the body’s “second brain” any food that causes a reaction causes disruption. If you find that something doesn’t agree with you, avoid it. Keep it simple, keep it clean.
Notice what you ate when you see a negative change in your mood, write it down and avoid it for a while. The next time you have it, notice if you get the same effect.
Herbal teas can be a great way to wind down after a long day. Passionflower, kava, tulsi and lavender are some herbs that are wonderfully calming.
Food nourishes your mind and your emotions. You can become more resilient when you change your outlook for the better. The right food can help you do that. It simply takes time and commitment.
Just as Marie Kondo encourages people to keep things around them that bring them joy, the same goes for food. Keep in your kitchen the foods that make you feel good and get rid of the foods that don’t. Find what works for you and if needed seek the help of a professional.
Do you ever notice how your mood shifts after eating? Have you had success changing your eating habits? What are you doing to help manage your stress? Is it working?