Weekend Dish column: You are what you eat, both physically and mentally
The Weekend Dish
Every new year, we face ourselves and ask certain questions. Am I happy? Am I successful? Am I where I want to be in my life?
Many of us find the answers to these questions lacking. So, we resolve to be better, eat healthier, work out more or to take better care of ourselves overall. The dawn of a new year brings us hope that we can change the things we don’t like about ourselves.
Usually, our resolutions center around food, which can be crucial to our overall health. Science also backs this up, and common sense agrees. Healthy diets can lead to healthy minds and strong bodies. They can also help heal broken hearts and brains.
These resolutions become apparent when one goes to the gym, and every machine is taken, or when our friends openly vow to abstain from alcohol or junk food. Sadly, many of these resolutions fall flat by the end of the month. Ironically, it has been said that it takes 30 days to start or break a habit.
We need to hang in there. Maybe this time can be different?
But let’s face it — we live in tumultuous times. It can be challenging to become stable islands unto ourselves when the dark, choppy waters are rising around us. Nearly half of Americans will carry an additional burden at some point in their lives, which makes it difficult to survive, let alone thrive.
This burden is mental illness, and I have a personal history with it. Although many people suffer from mental health issues, there is still a stigma that surrounds it.
I usually keep my struggles private, because I don’t want people to think I’m crazy or maladjusted. But not talking about it is also part of the problem.
So, let’s talk
By publicly “coming out” with my struggles, I hope to add to the growing conversation about mental wellness. My story is another drop in a bucket that is already threatening to overflow. You and I are not alone. I hope this ongoing dialogue changes the way our society treats those with mental illness.
I am not crazy, and neither are you. Instead, our brain chemistry is off-kilter from a combination of genetics and life experiences. This potent combination of nature and nurture change the way we process things.
I struggle with depression and anxiety because my brain has been conditioned to respond to stress with a combined fight and/or flight response. My instincts overpower my rationality, while my lizard brain kicks in with survival instincts to overcome high-stress situations.
Oftentimes, I can keep my anxiety and depression in check with exercise, therapy, and a robust social network. Sometimes, these things are not enough, and I feel like I’m drowning in a lonely ocean. In these times, I seek additional help with prescribed anti-depressants, sleep aids, and anxiety reducers to help keep my head above the waves.
The life-saving anti-depressants I take are somewhat of a mystery. We know they can be useful, but how they work is not completely clear. Even in the year 2020, we have not unraveled the mysteries of the human mind. While I hold out hope we can cure these debilitating conditions during my lifetime, we aren’t there yet.
Fortunately, modern science is moving closer toward a better understanding of the human body. It may seem obvious, but we are finally beginning to understand how truly interconnected our internal human systems are. Indeed, several studies have found that our mental health and gut health are intrinsically linked.
A recent study by the Harvard Medical School has found that imbalanced guts are associated with increased risks of mental illnesses.
The gut, or digestive tract, is the largest organ in the human body and plays a critical role in health. The secret sauce that keeps our guts healthy is the billions of organisms known as microbiota. According to Harvard, around 95% of cells in the gut are bacteria, viruses and fungi.
While many people view such microorganisms as germs, the gut microbiota is essential for a functional digestive and immune system. If they are unbalanced, our health can suffer. Factors such as stress, poor diets, antibiotics, and other chemicals can decrease healthy gut microbiota.
The Harvard study found that depressed patients have less diverse and healthy gut microbiota. This can disrupt brain function, immune system regulation, hormones, and neurotransmitter levels.
Of course, neurotransmitter dysfunction is directly related to mental illness, so gut health is necessary for optimal mental health.
Good mental diet
The study mentions probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids as the foundations for healthy gut microbiota. Omega-3 can be found in cold-water fish such as salmon, herring, sardines and mackerel, and can also come from non-animal products like seaweed, flaxseed, walnuts, and supplements.
Omega-3 promotes healthy gut microbiota while reducing inflammation, which, in turn, positively benefits our mental health.
Probiotics help reduce gut inflammation while infusing our digestive tracts with healthy microorganisms that promote gut health. Patients who were given daily probiotics for 30 days had “significantly” reduced symptoms of mental distress. Probiotics can be found in yogurts, fermented foods and drinks, and as health supplements.
Other foods can also improve mental health. These include fatty fish, whole grains, lean protein, leafy greens and yogurt with active cultures.
Fatty fish contain those essential omega-3 fatty acids discussed earlier. Since our bodies can’t really produce these fatty acids, we must get them through the foods we eat.
Whole grains such as whole-wheat, bulgur, oats, wild rice, barley, beans, and soy can fuel the brain with complex carbs. Lean proteins from fish, turkey, chicken, eggs and beans contain the amino acid tryptophan that helps produce the essential neurotransmitter serotonin. Leafy greens such as spinach, mustard greens, and broccoli contain folates and B vitamins. These nutrients can improve depression, fatigue, and insomnia.
Lastly, but not least, yogurt with active cultures improve gut health with good microbiota.
While this is a lot to keep track of, some experts suggest following the Mediterranean diet.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the Mediterranean diet is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the World Health Organization as a healthy and sustainable diet that promotes overall health and wellbeing. This diet typically encourages eating a lot of vegetables, fruits, fish, poultry, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and olive oil.
If you are thinking of trying a new diet, then be sure to speak with your doctor for personalized recommendations. Even if you don’t want to start a new diet, there are certain foods that you should avoid that are detrimental to optimal health.
These foods are the mainstays of a Western diet. They include processed and fried foods, refined grains (such as white bread), sugary products, and beer. These foods are unhealthy for us in many ways, so they should be avoided if you want to have a healthier mind, gut, or heart. They can also lead to other serious health issues.
Studies show that a combination of diet, exercise, medication, sleep, and social support are all critical in addressing mental health. Individually, we can’t expel the darkness of the world around us, and it can sometimes feel impossible to tread water when we feel like we are drowning. It’s easy to give up and peacefully drift away as we sink beneath the waves.
I say this as someone who has been there: Don’t give up, because you are not alone. Odds are that you or someone you love faces this struggle. Many of us face it silently, but it’s essential to reach out to those around you, so you don’t have to suffer alone.
There is no silver bullet for mental illness presently, but we know what can help. Don’t drown in despair. You’re strong because you’ve made it this far, so throw yourself a life preserver because you’re worth saving. You are what you eat, and the foods outlined above are one of the easiest ways to address your mental health.
They may not cure your illness, but they will promote overall health, which will make you feel better. A healthy body can lead to a sustained mind. You can become an island that rises from the dark waters forever, bathed in sunshine, and hope for a better future. Sometimes even hope is enough to keep us fighting the good fight.
Jordan Callier is an avid foodie and business owner in Glenwood Springs.
If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to 741741. Both work 24/7. Additional resources are available at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.
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Christina Cappelli described playwright Steven Dietz’s “The Nina Variations” as providing a couple with a reset button, the ability to repeat conversations and say something differently and see where things will end up this time.