Healthy Living! Eating for Mental and Physical Health

Your overall mental health and the health of your relationships are very much affected by how well you take care of your body. As we have all heard many times over, there are several basic things we should all do in the interests of staying physically healthy such as eating a proper diet, exercising regularly, limiting alcohol consumption, not smoking, and getting enough sleep. It just makes sense that when your body is healthly and functioning at its best, you tend to feel better emotionally and psychologically.  But your physical condition, as influenced by your diet, directly effects your biochemistry which has a clear impact on your mental health.

WHAT YOU EAT (or do not eat) not only effects everything from your weight, your resistance to various diseases, and how much energy you also influences the clarity of your thoughts, your moods, and your emotional disposition. Hence, if you are struggling with depression, anxiety, mood swings, irritability, difficulties concentrating, a "foogy mind" and chronic fatigue, what you eat may literally be at the root of what’s eating you. 

Understanding the Connection Between What You Eat and Your Mental Health

Sugar: The Bitter Truth

Sugar is a highly addictive substance and because it is found in so many of the foods we eat, many of us consume sugar in large quantities and as a result, are addicted to crave more and more of it. Unfortunately, sugar triggers a variety of symptoms that are associated with poor mental health including anxiety, depression, irritability, poor concentration, and fatigue.

Sugar alters brain functioning in much the same that cocaine and heroin do. First it creates a high, that feel-good rush that addicts crave. This happens because of the release or increase of the neurotransmitter, dopamine in a particular part of the brain that is associated with addictive behaviors. The increase in dopamine creates a feeling of happiness (pleasure). But this high is short-lived and is soon followed by a crash that leaves you feeling worse than when you started, and hence, craving more.

Just like some people are more vulnerable to developing additions to alcohol, some people are more sensitive to sugar and therefore more prone to developing a sugar addiction.  To read more about sugar sensitivity and addiction visit the Radiant Recovery website.

For an excellent resource for understanding how sugar effects us and how to beat sugar addiction read Sugar Shock.

One of the best things you can do to stabilize your moods is to wean yourself of an addiction to sugar.  The book Potatoes Not Prozac provides a clear plan for how to improve your mental health without relying on pills.

Gluten: A Glut in Your Gut

Gluten sensitivity is quite common, often misdiagnosed, and can cause many of the symptoms of mental illness. Rapid mood changes, irritability, depression, anxiety and even ADHD, schizophrenia and psychosis have been linked to both celiac disease (CD) and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).

Gluten sensitivity is an inability to properly digest gluten, a type of protein found in wheat, barley, rye and spelt. For those sensitive to it, gluten in the diet can trigger an immune response and inflammatory reaction anywhere in the body. Many people with Celiac Disease, the most recognized form of gluten sensitivity, have or develop symptoms of mental illness

Read more about the connection between Gluten Intolerance and Your Mental Health.

Wheat: The Whole Story 

Wheat is the major source of gluten in our diet.  But wheat weaves it misery through many mechanisms, not just the gluten!  The history of wheat parallels the history of chronic disease and obesity across the world. Supermarkets today contain walls of wheat and corn disguised in literally hundreds of thousands of different food. 

Wheat contains super starch and super gluten – making it super fattening and super inflammatory, and it also contains a super drug that makes you crazy, hungry and addicted.

When processed by your digestive system the proteins in wheat are converted into shorter proteins called “exorphins.”  They are like the endorphins you get from a runner’s high and bind to the opioid receptors in the brain, making you high, and addicted just like a heroin addict.  These wheat exorphins are absorbed into the bloodstream and get right across the blood brain barrier.  They are called “gluteomorphins” after “gluten” and “morphine” and this is what makes them super drugs.

These super drugs found in wheat can cause multiple problems including schizophrenia and autism. But they also cause addictive eating behavior including cravings and bingeing.  Amazingly, it is possible to block these food cravings and addictive eating behaviors and to reduce calorie intake by administering naloxone, the same drug that is used in emergency rooms to block heroin or morphine.  Binge eaters ate nearly 30% less food when given this drug.

To read more about wheat and health check out Wheat Belly.

Eat Your Veggies!

One of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health is to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet. Meat-based diets are strongly linked to heart disease, cancer, strokes and type 2 diabetes.  Moreover, new studies demonstrate that vegetarians tend to report lower levels of stress, depression, anxiety, and lethargy.

Vegetarian diets, which contain no meat (beef, pork, poultry, or fish and shellfish), are naturally low in saturated fat, high in fiber, and full of vitamins, minerals, and cancer-fighting compounds. A multitude of scientific studies have shown that vegetarian diets have remarkable health benefits and can help prevent certain diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Vegetarian diets are a way of improving general health and preventing diet-related illnesses.

Vegan diets, which contain no animal products (meat, dairy, eggs, or other animal products), are even healthier than vegetarian diets. Vegan diets contain no cholesterol and even less fat, saturated fat, and calories than vegetarian diets because they exclude dairy and eggs. Scientific research shows that health benefits increase as the amount of food from animal sources in the diet decreases, making vegan diets the healthiest overall.

If you scroll down the page you can read a summary of some of the latest research examining the link between vegetarians diets and mental health.

Inflammation in Your Gut

Depression may be a neuropsychiatric manifestation of chronic inflammation in your gut

Under certain circumstances (like when your body needs to heal a bug bite), a little inflammation can be a good thing, since it can increase immune activity and blood flow to a wound. But in the long term, inflammation is a big problem. It disrupts the normal functioning of the immune system, and wreaks havoc on the brain. Inflammation is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and even some forms of cancer . . . it's also linked to a greater risk of depression and schizophrenia.  This makes more sense when you come to understand the intricate connection between your brain and your digestive tract.

Perhaps the simplest example to use is getting butterflies in your stomach when you're nervous, thus your thoughts, i.e. brain, are manifesting symptoms in your gut. But your gut and your brain also are connected by inflammation in your gut that triggers depression in your brain.

Sugar is the prime culprit. Eating refined sugar triggers a cascade of chemical reactions in your body that promote chronic inflammation. Excess sugar and fructose also distorts the ratio of good to bad bacteria in your gut, which affects your mental health. Sugar does this by serving as a fertilizer/fuel for pathogenic bacteria, yeast and fungi that negatively inhibit the beneficial bacteria in your gut.

If you consume a lot of processed foods and sweetened drinks (which are typically fructose-heavy), your gut bacteria are likely going to be severely compromised and so is your mental health! So the dietary answer for treating depression is to severely limit sugars, especially fructose and grains. 

Sugar also can lead to excessive insulin release that can lead to hypoglycemia, which, in turn, causes your brain to secrete glutamate in levels that can cause agitation, depression, anger, anxiety, panic attacks and an increase in suicide risk. Reducing your sugar intake to less than 25 grams per day is one of the best strategies for dealing with depression, fighting chronic inflammation and supporting healthy gut bacteria. 

Additional Resources

An excellent article describing the addictive effects of meats. sweets, and dairy and the corresponding influence on physical and mental health.

A discussion of the merits of a vegetarian or vegan diet.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine provides a useful overview of adopting vegetarian and vegan diets