A few years ago, I woke up one morning and couldn't get out of bed. I wasn't hungover, nor did I stay up too late. But, I mean, physically, emotionally, and mentally, I couldn't rouse the strength, energy, or desire to get out of bed. I racked my brains, trying to find a plausible reason: I'm not sleeping enough. I'm not getting enough sunlight. I need to de-stress. Finally, my doctor told me that it was depression.
I'm no stranger to depression; it runs in the family. However, when my doctor gave me anti-depressants, they seemed to stick in my throat. I couldn't get around the idea of requiring them, but they ended up turning my life around.
The doctor also gave me some insane advice along with my prescription. He told me that my diet and exercise would also help improve my mood. I mean, what a quack, right? Surely something as simple as eating well and exercising isn't the answer to my mental health?
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I soon discovered that, in my case, allopathic medicine and dietary and lifestyle changes made a happy union. Although my depression needed to be treated with allopathic medicine, I actively improved my mental health by eating nutritious meals and exercising. I started seeing improvements by leaps and bounds. Within a year, I kissed my medication goodbye and haven't seen it since.
Most importantly, I learned that I wasn't powerless when it came to my mental health with the right tools and information. I never realized how much power lay within a simple choice.
Connecting good nutrition and mental health isn't a giant leap of faith. If the food can make us feel guilty, sluggish, or bloated, other foods can make us feel energetic. Overeating unhealthy food cause disease, other foods promote good health. Food also can bring people together to create a personal sense of well-being and support and is a way of soothing negative emotions. Certain foods can connect past experiences and memories, and our food choices can influence the neurotransmitters in our brains, which impact our mental health.
Food is so much more than what flavours you're craving or where you'll order from on Swiggy. Your food choices can directly interact with your perception of yourself and your world.
If you need a minute to soak the importance of that statement in, I'll wait.
There has been a lot of exciting work emerging on nutrition and depression. A paper titled Evidence of the Importance of Dietary Habits Regarding Depressive Symptoms and Depression, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, states as much. "Several studies showed an association between dietary intake with inflammatory potential and risk of depression in different populations," it stated. It also pointed out that several micronutrient deficiencies contribute to depressive systems, particularly with a high-processed diet. Those who ate a high processed diet "had a significantly lower intake of B12, magnesium, and folic acid in their diet, compared to the group that had the lowest intake of processed foods. As several studies indicate, these micronutrients are linked to moods, though more research is needed.
Highly processed diets are characterized by foods that have been altered or packaged in any way and are higher in sodium, sugar, or fat content. Highly processed diets are often deficient in many vitamins that you'd find in whole, unprocessed food choices, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. A practical example will be choosing a bag of chips for a snack versus a whole food (unprocessed food), such as an apple. The components that make up a high processed diet are also pro-inflammatory, meaning the body responds by creating inflammation, which can trigger a host of issues with your health, not least of which impacts your moods.
Then there is a substance called serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep appetite, manage our moods and inhibit pain - and according to Eva Selhub from Harvard medicine, the gut is responsible for 95% of serotonin production. The gut is more than just a garbage chute; it is rallying hard for the title of "second brain." Serotonin interacts with our gut microbiome, which is heavily influenced by our foods. Selhub points out that bacteria play an essential role in your health. "They protect the lining of your intestines and ensure they provide a strong barrier against toxins and "bad" bacteria; they limit inflammation; they improve how well you absorb nutrients from your food, and they activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain," she writes in an article titled Nutritional Psychiatry: Your Brain on Food.
I'll also let that piece of information settle in for a moment. Do I sense you're slowly putting down that bag of chips?
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Mind, a leading mental health authority in the United Kingdom, says that the best way to improve your mental health is to first focus on your nutrition habits. This means eating at regular intervals to balance your blood sugar levels, impacting your moods throughout the day. Secondly, stay well hydrated, as dehydration can make you feel anxious.
The Mental Health Foundation also offers another simple way to help alleviate depressive symptoms: make your mealtime a community experience by eating with others.
The food itself is crucial to your mental health as well. An action-packed diet full of vitamins and minerals is essential to managing your moods and improving your health. Whole foods, such as legumes, vegetables, fruits, lean cuts of meat, whole grains, yoghurt, and other probiotics, help feed your gut bacteria with healthy foods. A critical contributor to brain health is Omega 3, an anti-inflammatory fatty acid. You can find Omega 3s in fatty fish, such as mackerel, salmon, tuna, and vegetarian sources such as chia and flax seeds.
Limit caffeine, alcohol, and high sugar foods as they disrupt sleep and have a trickle-down effect on how our bodies emotionally and mentally respond to stress. And finally, if you do suspect that you have depression, please don't hesitate to ask for help from a medical professional.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based women's weight-loss coach