Food for Mood

“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.   img_0363

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:MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

*Bone broths (meat broths made with bones)

*Raw almonds

*Wild salmon or fatty fish

*Raw butter (as in: before you fry with it)

*Coconut (meat, oil and milk)

*Sweet potatoes



*Cacao (chocolate)

*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.

Happy me.   1200px-nci_bacon1200px-nci_bacon


“Move for Mood”

When people come to see me to help address experiences of depression or anxiety, I always ask them what role physical activity (especially outdoors) plays in their days. If the answer is “none,” or “not much,” it is often my first “prescription” to add some kind of regular physical movement to their  lives.walking-to-improve-running460

The fact is (and an increasing number of studies have shown) that for possibly the majority of folks, regular, moderate physical activity alone is as effective for mild to moderate depression and anxiety as either antidepressant drugs or “talk therapy”. And for those who do take medication, see a therapist, or both, it can make the difference between the medication and the therapy working well, or not.

Many people experience depression at some point in their lives. depressed-woman-400x400Whether you have or haven’t, it might interest you to know that a whopping 25 studies have found that people who engage regularly in outdoor activities such as walking or gardening are significantly less likely to develop depression in the future, or to relapse from a previous episode.

So why does moving our bodies benefit our emotional states? There are several factors, each of which may be more or less important to a given individual.

Physically, activity that stimulates the cardiovascular system can boost levels of the neurotransmit­ters that influence mood. Psy­chologically, activity can provide a sense of accomplishment and control and a sense of feeling more “at home” in our bodies (whatever their size, shape or condition). Activity also shifts our attention away from our mind’s anxieties and concerns.

And while certain kinds of activity seem to be more effective on mood states than others (yoga and walking, for instance, appear to be especially effective), it is important to start with something you can enjoy, at a level of exertion you can tolerate, and then do it regu­larly—ideally most days of the week. Consider the setting, too: walking or bicycling outdoors is likely to be both more beneficial and more fun more than running on a treadmill or using an exercise bike indoors.img_0857

Then there is the element of “mindfulness,” which increases the mind-body benefits of any activity. The practice of yoga, by definition (“yoga” means “union”) is an activity which emphasizes cultivating the mind’s ability to settle itself with breath and attention, while at the same time developing flexibility, balance and strength in the body. Similarly, the practice of “mindful walking” is a way to bring balance to our whole being.

According to Steven Woolpert, LPC, who leads “Mindful Walks” in the Columbia Gorge, “mindful walking in nature brings the beauty and healing power of the natural world into mind, body, and spirit.” Instead of concentrating on achievement-oriented goals like distance, speed, or heart rate, in “mindful walking” the activity itself is the goal, and the focus is on paying close attention to the experience, moment to moment. (For a good, short introduction to “mindful walking, visit

Interested in learning more about how and why to “move for mood”? If so, consider attending the first of the two-class “Feeling Good” fall series of free community classes on wellness topics. The October class will meet on Monday, October 10 from 5:30-6:30 at Canyon Wren Wellness Center in Maupin. This class will explore the connections between activity and mood, and will be preceded by an optional, introductory “mindfulness walk” at 4:30, led by Steven Woolpert and starting at the Center.

In addition, everyone who attends the class will receive a free, 3-class “introductory package” gift certificate (valued at $15) for yoga classes in Maupin. If you do plan to attend the class, registration is appreciated, but not required; call Canyon Wren Wellness Center at 503-838-6144 to sign up, or learn more.

 (In November, both this blog and  the next “Feeling Good” class will focus on “Food for Mood”— stay tuned!)

How to Drive Yourself Crazy

A couple of years ago in this column, I shared the text of a talk on “aging” that my mother, Jan Henderson, used to give to various audiences, from nursing home residents to medical students at OHSU. Aging— its challenges, joys, and opportunities— was her favorite topic. Mom left behind a lifetime of chronic depression and alcoholism beginning in her late sixties by dedicating herself to exchanging behaviors that maintain and refresh suffering for those that cultivate joy and good health. In doing so, she became, in her seventies, a living and persistent example for me of how we can begin to live a life of joy and vitality at any age, and in any condition.

So what fun it was the other day, as I was going through her files on aging and self-help topics, to find a clipping provocatively entitled “How to Drive Yourself Crazy,” excerpted and adapted in 1987 from a longer article by Dorothy T. Harrison, Ph.D. Hair_pulling_stressI love the tongue-in-cheek way that Harrison’s behavioral “advice” reminds us that, consciously or unconsciously, we are always “behaving” in our thinking and actions…and that our choices and habits determine how we feel as a direct result.

In italics, below, is the text of that article; read it and weep, and laugh…then choose!

Articles and books on a variety of self-help topics are widely available. There are suggestions on how to cope, reduce stress, and in general make your life better and more satisfying.

However, it appears that there are many of you out there who don’t aspire to satisfaction, but instead seem to be working on making yourselves miserable. Some of you seem to be experts at this, but others haven’t quite got the hang of it yet. For those of you in the latter category, here is the definitive self-help primer on how to really make yourself crazy!

1)Save your major worries until about midnight, then start heavy thinking. Suggested topics include your old age, losing your job, the mistake you made at work last week that they haven’t discovered yet, that suspicious wart you’ve had for five years. You can work up a good panic by 1:00 a.m..

2)  Keep an inventory of your faults. Ignore strengths. Focus only on your bad points. Try to select friends who will remind you of them. If you don’t have friends like this, you probably have some relatives who can be counted on to point out your weaknesses.

3) Set unreasonable goals. No matter how much money you’re earning, remember that there are others doing better. Try to name three of them, preferably younger than you are. Think how others could do a better job than you do.

4) when your kids mess up, don’t accept it as routine. View it as the first sign of impending moral decay, delinquency and a wasted life. Imagine them as shiftless bums at age 30, scrounging off you.

5) Put off everything until the last minute. In this way you can create a sense of frenzy and chronic stress no matter how much time you had in the first place.

6) To aid in the creation of stress, try to sleep as little as possible. Eat junk food and never exercise if you can help it.

7) Don’t let others know how you feel or what you want. You shouldn’t have to tell them: they should be able to read your mind. If you assume this, you stand a good chance of feeling really deprived.

8) Don’t trust anyone. Struggle with problems alone. If you feel the urge to confide in someone who seems to care, remind yourself that people are basically no good and out for themselves.

9) Never take a vacation or rest. It’s a luxury you can’t afford, especially if you’re working up to a really good state of exhaustion.

10) Above all, never seek help. No matter how serious the problem, convince yourself that asking for help is a sign of weakness, and that you can tough it out alone.

If you follow this program, you have a good chance of feeling really rotten in no time at all. Good luck.

…and have fun with that!

Or just have fun.

Good Vibrations: the healing powers of music

Several years ago, during an extended period of exceptional life-stress, I went through a episode of depression that included (among other experiences), constant, intense anxiety and generally low mood. And while I credit my eventual recovery to a combination of factors (acupuncture and talk therapy were especially helpful!), I made a surprising discovery about the powerful effect of music on mood.

In the middle of my episode, I was asked to sing at a graduation reception. Although I felt in no way up to the task, I agreed, because of the importance to me of the people involved.

So I chose the songs and glumly started to practice…which is when I made the discovery that whenever I was engaged in singing (sad or happy songs, it made no difference), I did not feel either anxious or depressed. When I stopped singing, my mood symptoms returned, but it was startling and relieving to find that they could be eliminated immediately, even if temporarily, by singing!

It literally felt as though the activity of singing changed something in my brain.

So I got interested in learning more about that, and it turns out that that’s exactly what music does: it directly and immediately affects our brains.

How does this work? In part, it’s because the beat, timbre (sound quality or “texture), rhythm and pitch of music is registered by, and activates, the very parts of the brain that regulate emotions and mood. When activated, these parts of the brain in turn release both the hormones (such as serotonin) involved in our overall sense of well-being and ability to cope with stress (you could call that our emotional “climate”), and also flood the body with the neurotransmitters (dopamine and norepinephrine) that make us feel especially good in the moment (what you might call our emotional “weather”).

In fact, there’s a ton of research demonstrating the positive effect that music has on our physical, emotional and spiritual health and well-being, the most fascinating (to me) of which has to do with the way particular tones, pitches and rhythms resonate in the body, and the specific therapeutic effects that the healing practice of what is called “toning” produces. I’m looking forward to learning more about these, and to sharing them with you.

Meanwhile, here are just a few of the ways that listening or playing music can tune-up (couldn’t resist) our mental health .

1. Pain and distress. Music can significantly reduce the perceived intensity of pain. Some research suggests that using specific rhythmic stimuli (music, and other sound combinations) can can ease symptoms of migraines, PMS, agitation and anger.

2. Sleep. In one study, listening to classical music was shown to effectively treat insomnia in college students. And there are several smartphone apps (“BiNaural Beats” is one we are experimenting with) that are designed to produce sounds which stimulate the brain to shift into a restful state.

3. Cognitive performance. Background music appears to enhance performance on cognitive tasks for many people, although the most recent research suggests that this only occurs if the music first makes the subject feel better emotionally!

4. Meditation. Listening to slow musical beats can alter brainwave speed, creating the peaceful state of brainwave activity similar to that which occurs during meditation. Recently, I’ve started adding “ambient music” of this kind to my own meditation practice, and found it to be very helpful: my busy thoughts calm right down!

5. Depression. Studies confirm what I personally experienced: that playing or listening to music can relieve symptoms of depression. And while I found that singing either sad or happy music had the same positive effect, research suggests (and this makes sense to me) that when listening to music instead, the kind of music matters: classical and meditative sounds seem to have an uplifting effect, while harsh, “angry” and dissonant music (like heavy metal and techno) can actually make depression symptoms worse.

6. Anxiety. One study found that music’s effect on anxiety levels is similar to the relaxing effect of getting a massage! What’s not to like about that?

So, if you listen to music, pay attention to the effect that the kind of music you listen to has on your mind and mood, and consider experimenting with the other kinds.

If you already sing and/or play a musical instrument, you probably already know what I’m talking about concerning the effect of playing and singing on mood. And if you haven’t yet started bringing your own body into making music, consider ways to join the fun, even just to see what the results are. Karaoke, a choir and music jams  are great, low pressure ways to have fun with music with others. Too shy to sing with others? There’s always the car, or the shower (but leave the guitar on the other side of the shower curtain or you’ll end up really sad!)

Wishing you joy.

On Becoming a Man: words from a father

Ten years ago, when our nephew, “L,” was about to turn 13, his parents asked all the men in the family to send him their words of wisdom on the topic of “becoming a man,” as L entered that pre-adulthood time of life that is adolescence.

This same nephew will graduate from college this month, and as we prepare to celebrate that milestone with the kind, strong, confident young man that he has become, the words that his Uncle Rich offered ten years ago have been much on my mind.

So in honor of Father’s Day, and with his permission, I am going to let father and uncle Rich Sutliff do the talking, by simply sharing his 2005 letter, below.

Dear L.,

Happy 13th birthday! And congratulations on climbing the South Sister. That’s quite an achievement —one you should be really proud of. I’m sure you’ll remember that climb the rest of your life.

About this becoming a man thing, I don’t have any special, secret knowledge about what it is to be a man. I’ve lived a pretty long time, and I guess I’m still learning about it myself. I know that fathers have written whole books for their sons, trying to explain what it’s all about. I can say for sure, though, that it’s GREAT BEING A MAN. It’s what all of us guys have been given, and it’s both a joy and a responsibility for each of us to figure out and to make the best use of.

For me, that means that you always need to respect your developing body as it goes through all the changes it needs to as you become a man. A man’s body is a wonderful creation. Keep yours healthy and strong; it will be with you a long time and you want to be able to rely on it. It’s your friend. Take good care of it. Remember that it’s neither a tool nor a weapon. It’s not a machine of any kind: it’s far more special than that.

It also means developing your mind along with your body. Keep learning new things all the time. Learning is like filling a well with water, so you’ll have plenty to draw on as you go through life. Eventually, your body will slow down; it’s supposed to. But your mind will always keep growing.

Learn especially to have reverence and respect for all living things—everything in Nature and all human beings. It may be that one of our jobs as men is to care for and protect what is fragile—plants, animals, people who need our help to survive.

One of the most important things I can tell you, L., and this is often one of the hardest things for a man to do, is that you need to learn to listen to your heart, to your feelings, and to what others might share with you about their own. A lot of people think that being a man is just about muscles, strength, and physical courage—all that macho stuff. I’ve found that it takes much more courage to listen quietly and carefully to what someone else is telling you about how they feel than it is to fight in all kinds of battles and to meet all kinds of physical challenges. Unfortunately, we men are often not very good at listening with our hearts, either to ourselves, or to others.

Finally, I know you probably won’t be able to understand all of this now. That’s okay; don’t worry about it. As you keep growing into manhood, I think some of what I’ve said will begin to make a little more sense. Meanwhile, WELCOME INTO THE COMMUNITY OF MEN. Good luck, God bless you, and be kind to yourself as you’re figuring out on your own the kind of man YOU want to be.

I’ll be around if you need me.


Your Uncle Rich

On Thinking and Well-Being

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that it is the nature of our minds to do a lot of thinking. But how many of us stop to think about our thinking habits themselves, and the effects of these habits (including our habitual interpretations, judgments and assumptions) on our health and happiness? Yet our automatic thinking habits, like other habits (how we eat, drink, breathe and move) have a huge effect on creating and maintaining how well —or unwell— we feel.

131 Thinking, at Ping Sien Si, Pasir Panjang, Perak, Malaysia
Ping Sien Si Temple, Perak, Malaysia

First, a little about the brain. Our brains include both “control” and “automatic” processes. “Control” processes are used to learn new skills. They require our focused, conscious attention and effort—think of the effort and concentration it took for you to learn to read or to drive. But through repetition, a new skill (or any regular behavior) becomes an “automatic” process: that is, it becomes a habit.

And it’s a good thing our brains can put so many behaviors “on automatic,” because this frees our energy, concentration and focus for things that actually require it. But as all of us have experienced, there are both beneficial and destructive habits that take hold when the conscious mind turns its attention elsewhere.

The same is true of our thoughts. Since “thinking” itself is a behavior, our thoughts are as subject as any other behavior to going “on automatic,” and they do. We acquire many “thought habits” in the course of our lives: characteristic ways thinking about ourselves and the world, some of which were passed on to us by our early caregivers, and some of which we developed on our own as ways to explain events and emotions, or otherwise to cope. As with other habits, many of these thought habits are beneficial. But many others are like shoes that once fit our small feet, but were never replaced when our feet outgrew them. Now, because they are “too small,”  they cause pain, injury, and stunt our growth.

While the list of common, injurious thoughts is long, psychologists who specialize in the effects of thinking habits on our mood states and happiness have identified what’s been called the “Big Four” types (visit for the longer list). These include:

1. All-or-Nothing Thinking. Example: “I have to do things perfectly, because anything less than perfect is a failure.”

2. Negative Philosophizing. Example: “Life is just one disappointment after another.”

3. Negative Self-Labeling. Examples: “I’m a failure.”  “If people knew the real me, they wouldn’t like me.”

4. Catastrophizing. Example: “Whatever’s around the corner is probably going to be bad!”

And though it may seem to make sense (and is sometimes recommended) to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, the danger is that we will just exchange one kind of distortion and judgement for another, which is what always happens when we decide “how things always are.”  Eventually, that “positive spin” will turn out to not be “always true” either…which may just seem to prove that we were “right” in our old thinking.

A more useful and effective practice is to begin to identify your own automatic thoughts (or as they’re also called, “self-talk”) as you move through your day. Specifically, when you feel anxious or angry, ask yourself, “what are my thoughts as I experience this feeling?” Some people find it useful to actually start a written list, simply noting the automatic thoughts that come to mind in a given situation.

And because many of us mis-label “thoughts” as “feelings,” it can be helpful to become familiar with the difference. “Sad,” “angry,” “anxious,” “tired,” “excited” “disappointed,” “longing,” are all feelings; pretty much everything else (explanations, judgements, or other attitudes connected with the feeling) are actually thoughts. “I feel like a failure,” for instance, is actually a self-blaming “thought” (“I must have done something wrong”) used to explain the feeling of “disappointment.”

Once you begin to become aware of your thoughts by taking them off “automatic” and putting them back on “manual” for awhile, you can start to consider other, less negative ways of talking to yourself. Instead of “I feel like a failure” or “I screwed up again,” for instance, how about trying the neutral thought, “Well, that didn’t go the way I’d hoped!” and leave it at that. This acknowledges the feeling, but skips the part where you or someone else gets blamed. 

But as I’ve written in this column before, don’t take my word for it: try it, and see if you like the results. As they say in AA (I know, I’ve quoted this before, but I love it): “You have nothing to lose but your misery!”

Mindfulness Practice in Everyday Life: Part 2

Chances are, you already experience mindfulness as part of your life in some way. For anyone who fly-fishes, bicycles, rock-climbs, or practices any activity require intense concentration and focus, mindfulness is a major aspect of the experience itself. Running a tricky rapid successfully, or making a skillful cast are only possible when our minds and bodies are fully alert, attentive and engaged in the moment, and not “elsewhere.”

But when the circumstances do not demand it, many of spend much of our lives living everywhere but here, now.

So here, now, is a little sampler of ways to incorporate mindfulness into the fabric and activities of daily life. Experiment with one or more of them on a regular basis, and see what the results are. If you like the results, you may want to learn and do more, such as adding a regular, more formal period of mindfulness practice to your daily life, which can support your ability to make a habit of mindfulness.

  • Practice #1: Working with “Pause.”

First, in a quiet moment (now, for instance), identify a habit of reaction you have that you would like to experiment with. Examples include the habit of  expressing impatience, criticism, blame, or arguing with someone else when angry.

Next, identify sensations, thoughts and feelings that occur when you are “triggered” in a situation, before you act. Do you feel heat? Agitation? Tightness in your neck, throat, gut? Do you notice fear? Whatever you identify (and these are sensations and feelings, not your explanation or thoughts) set a conscious  intention to notice this “inside state” the next time (and each time) it happens. Then, when it does happen (and you know it will!), instead of creating more tension by trying to suppress your feelings, do these 4 things before you speak or act:

1) Pause for the time it takes to

2) Breathe (one or two full, deep inhales and exhales) while you

3) Name (not blame, just name) the feeling inside to yourself: “I feel anger” for instance, or “I feel fear”).

Then, and only then,

4) Choose what you want to say or do.

Notice that this practice does not focus on what is the “right thing” to say or do. Instead, it assumes that when we pause even just a few seconds, which is long enough to notice what we are feeling and to let the surge of the initial reaction pass (in brain science terms, this lets the slower-firing, rational parts of of brains catch up with the instantly-activated, reactive parts of our brains). With our rational minds available to us again to guide us, whatever we do or say it is bound to be better!

  • Practice #2: Mindfulness in Prayer.

For those who practice prayer, mindfulness is an extremely important, but often forgotten, dimension of the prayer experience. Asking for help or for guidance (“prayer of petition”) is an important part of prayer, but prayer can too often involve too much talking and not much listening…or only listening for what we specifically want to hear! Since the basic position of mindfulness is “paying attention on purpose and without judgement,” mindfulness in prayer can be defined as “listening to God with full attention…and without interrupting!” See what it is like, then, to spend 5 or 10 or 15 minutes a day just sitting in non-verbal “listening prayer,” simply staying present (focusing on the breath is a good way to do this, since we can only breathe in the present moment!) and bringing the mind back when you notice it has wandered.

  • Practice #3: “Uni-tasking.”

When we are multi-tasking (paying attention to many things at once), we are actually not paying attention to anything, which leads to feeling scatterbrained, anxious, and disconnected from ourselves, other people, and the present moment.

So if it is your habit to listen to the news while doing the dishes, or looking at your phone while walking, or watching T.V. while eating a meal, see what it is like to just wash the dishes, or just eat the meal, or walk, deliberating drawing your attention to the sensory details of that experience, and that experience only (the taste of the food, the feel of the warm water, the landscape of the walk and the feel of it). This can be somewhat uncomfortable at first, since multi-tasking and distraction has become such a normal-feeling state for many of us, but you may find, with a little practice, that you feel more relaxed, connected and calm as a result. Try it and see!

For more guidance on formal and everyday mindfulness practice: 

The books and cds by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn are a great resource; his cds can be found at . is an excellent website for resources (information, articles and guided meditations) which focus on bringing self-compassion into mindfulness practice