“There is no doubt that nutrition affects mental health,” begins psychologist and health scientist Dr. Leslie Korn, in her book Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health: A Complete Guide to the Food-Mood Connection. “Poor nutrition leads to and exacerbates mental illness. Optimal nutrition prevents and treats mental illness…nutrition is the most important missing link to mental health in society today.”
I don’t know about you, but a statement that definite that got my attention!
While I was already aware that what and how we eat has a powerful effect on how we feel, Dr. Korn’s statement gave me pause: “Can it make that dramatic a difference?” I wondered, “Can it even be the single factor that makes the difference between mental illness and mental health?”
For more of us than you might think, it can.
Think about it: we’ve probably all experienced or witnessed a dramatic effect on our moods and mental states related to the presence or absence of some nutrient at some time: maybe the burst of hyperactivity after eating something sugary followed by the depression and lethargy of the “crash;” the temporary tearfulness and bloating from too much salt; the feeling of well-being that the endorphin-releasing components in chocolate produces; the sleepiness after all that turkey (could it be all that tryptophan?)
Less noticeable, maybe, is the way that what we do and don’t take into our bodies powerfully affects the functioning of our endocrine (hormone producing and regulating) system…and mood levels and mood stability are regulated by the proper functioning of those hormones. To complicate the picture, certain of the main chemicals in pesticides, herbicides and many of the plastics we use on a daily basis are known to disrupt the human endocrine (hormone producing and regulating) system in humans (endocrine disruption is in fact how pesticides and herbicides kill plant and insect “pests”), with potential resulting depression.
I can’t tell you the number of times over the years that I have heard clients who are farmers or farmworkers, for instance, say that they remember the exact moment they were “hit” with depression, “suddenly, out of nowhere” …and that it was at some moment of acute pesticide exposure . One farmworker remembers it happening as a sprayer passed by, spraying her along with the hops she was tying. In another instance, an orchardist recalled his depression suddenly descending as he was spraying his orchard from a tractor.
Neither these nor other people who have told similar stories made a connection between the moment that the depression “hit” and the spray; it was just one of the details of the “when it happened” story. But none of them had experienced any depression before that moment, and they could think of nothing psychological or circumstantial that would answer the question, “why now?”
Any easy nutritional answer? No way. But what these stories dramatically illustrate for me is the way in which what we take into our bodies (as well as what we don’t), from our food or from the environment, and in what balance, and under what circumstances, all contribute powerfully to our mood states and overall mental health.
That said, supporting our moods with foods is not nearly as simple as stopping eating sugar and processed foods and eating more organically-grown, leafy greens (though that’s an excellent place to start!). “Some people function better as carnivores while others function better as vegetarians,” writes Korn. “Knowing who you are and what you your body needs is the art and science of mental health nutrition.”
For this reason, eating one’s way to optimal mental health will also be different for each of us, addressing different aspects of nutrition. Inflammation, hormone function, allergies and sensitivities, nutrient deficiencies, “circadian rhythm stability” (which is supported by eating at regular times of day), blood sugar fluctuations or stability, and the degree of stress or relaxation accompanying the act of eating are all important factors in the food-mood connection.
For the farmer with endocrine-system damage, nutrients which support the functioning of the hormone system (and/or which replace the substances the system is no longer able to produce or to regulate) may be key in relieving his depression. For the depressed child in a family in which everyone is too busy to sit down to meals together, the “food-mood” cure for feelings of loneliness and isolation may be for parents to establish a regular, daily meal together in which there is plenty of time to eat and talk together as a family, and maybe even to prepare meals together: to simply connect on a regular basis over food.
It’s a complex topic– and one that is not all about “diets and deprivation,” which is what we sometimes think “good nutrition” is all about. And it can be fun to learn about and experiment with what may support optimal nutrition for each of us. I recently discovered, for instance, that I personally need to eat more, not less, red meat! And a friend found that simply eliminating gluten from her diet also eliminated her depression and irritability.
But although the food-mood connection is complex and individual, Dr. Korn does offer a list of what she considers the “13 Essential Foods for Mental Health.” so I’ll close with her “do eat”list of as your take-away this month:
*Bone broths (meat broths made with bones)
*Wild salmon or fatty fish
*Raw butter (as in: before you fry with it)
*Coconut (meat, oil and milk)
*Oats and gluten-free grains
*Arugula and other bitter greens
*Fresh sauerkraut and other fermented foods
*Coffee and tea (green and black)
Surprised? Get this: she is also a fan of bacon, which she says actually contains the same valuable kinds of fat as olive oil, which in turn helps to regulate blood sugar, and therefore mood.
“I never met anyone who was unhappy when I suggested they eat more butter and bacon,” writes Korn.