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How to Use Food to Support Your Mental Illness

Published: 
Thursday, August 23, 2018
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The link between food and mood is clear and has been proven by science. Think about it – you feel differently if you eat a nourishing kale salad, than if you have junk food. However, when it comes to mental illness, the science is still inconclusive about how food may help, as there are so many different factors at play. Since eating a healthy diet helps us to be physically healthy, I am sure that food potentially can help. Here are some pointers based on the current research available:

1. Eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, with emphasis on leafy greens

Fruits and vegetables are the main source of our micronutrients – vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that our body needs to keep us healthy. Leafy greens such as callaloo, bhagi and pakchoi are high in folic acid, and deficiencies in folic acid have been linked with higher rates of depression. Fruits and vegetables provide us with fiber and feed the healthy bacteria in the gut, which studies show has been linked to mental health.

2. Try probiotic rich foods such as greek yogurt, kefir, kombucha and fermented vegetables

Our digestive track is home to billions of bacteria known as our gut microbiome. These good bacteria help our body to fight infection and help us to break down and absorb the nutrients from our food. Science has recently seen a connection between our gut microbiome and our brain health, sometimes calling it our “second brain”. These fermented foods provide a wide variety of bacteria to keep your gut healthy.

3. Eat a diet rich in healthy fats such as fatty fish, nuts, seeds, avocado and olive oil

Our brains are made up largely of fat and we need a diet rich in omega-3s or essential fatty acids to meet our needs. Omega 3-rich foods such as salmon, flaxseeds and walnuts are anti-inflammatory for the body and also impact our brains neurotransmitters. Studies have shown that omega 3s reduce symptoms of many mental illnesses including depression, ADHD and schizophrenia.

4. Eat complex carbohydrates such as whole grains and provisions

Carbohydrates provide our body and our brain with energy. When we eat refined carbohydrates such as white flour and white rice, this can cause our blood sugar to spike, and then fall. These blood sugar swings can make you feel sad, anxious and irritable. Complex carbohydrates such as old-fashioned oats, brown rice and sweet potatoes release sugar into your blood stream more slowly.

5. Eat sufficient lean protein such as peas, beans, fish, eggs, chicken

Protein is as important to the brain as it is for your muscles. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and these are essential for many of neurotransmitters in the brain. Serotonin, one of these neurotransmitters, is important regulating your mood, which is why it is sometimes called nature’s Prozac. Our body cannot store protein so it is important to get your protein throughout the day. Choose plant-based sources such as lentils or pigeon peas or animal sources such as free-range eggs or chicken.

6. Avoid processed foods

Processed foods tend to have little nutritional value and can often be high in sugar, sodium, chemical preservatives and artificial colours or flavours. People who eat a lot of processed foods are more likely to be overweight, have chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease and have depression.

Just as our body feels better when we eat healthy and exercise, it makes sense that good nutrition will also support better mental health. Be sure to check any medications you are taking to note if there are contraindications to specific foods. This advice is provided to supplement the support of your medical professional and is not intended as a cure for anyone who has been diagnosed or suffering from any mental illness.

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