Does Nutrition Affect Our Mental Health?

One thing that dawned on me in recent years is the impact that what I do affects how I think. The people I surround myself with and the activities I make habits of have a direct correlation on the thoughts I think. This may be common sense, but how many people have you run into that scoff at you when you mention how much better you feel after meditation, or how much clearer you think after a good workout? The reality is that once we start to make the connection between our environment and our mental health we start to have to take responsibility for how we feel.

For many, myself included, one of the most difficult areas of my life to optimize and take charge of was my nutrition. Sure, working out and being around people I enjoy had drastically altered my state of conciousness. For someone that used to have a lot of emotional attachment to food (and admittedly still do at times), taking an honest look at how food affects my mental state was a hard barrier to cross. The hard truth is that what we eat has a direct and immediate impact on our mental health. Foods that have processed carbohydrates, too much sugar, or even “healthy” foods like certain vegetables impact our mental state. Fortunately we can learn to listen to our bodies and appreciate not just the physical ramifications of food but the mental.

Foods that contain a lot of sugar or processed carbohydrate are one thing to cut out immediately. When you eat a bagel or high-sugar breakfast granola for breakfast a large amount of glucose is dumped into our bloodstream. In order to send this sudden spike glucose to the right places such as into muscles or storage, insulin (the storage hormone) is released. If we do not have an immediate need for a lot of quick burning fuel the glucose must be cleared from the bloodstream and stored as quickly as possible to avoid hypoglycemia. The body is stressed out by this. In response stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released. This then manifests in not only more storage of fat and inflammation in the body, but an altered mental state. It’s in the name. Cortisol is a stress hormone.

Do this enough over time and the body will slip into insulin resistance from having to respond to so many glucose spikes, in which case type-2 diabetes is more of a concern than being agitated by the cortisol! This isn’t the only way that stress manifests itself from food. You see, not only do we have our central and autonomic nervous systems controlling hormone release and things like blood sugar, we have the enteric nervous system in our gut. The enteric nervous system is directly tied into our brain through the now well known gut-brain axis. What happens in our gut affects how we think and feel. The vagus nerve connects the two, and more than 90 percent of what we think and feel is interpreted through the connection of the brain and gut. Based on the health of our gut biome, quantities of neurotransmitters like GABA and serotonin are sent to the brain along the vagus nerve. These neurotransmitters have a large role in how we think and feel. There are many studies linking the consumption of probiotics with reductions in depression, anxiety, and reactivity.

Sugar and refined carbohydrate alter our gut biome in ways that reduce the amount of beneficial bacteria and increase the populations of candida or SIBO. The aforementioned studies and many more like them show that we are much more disposed towards having depression or anxiety when the balance of bacteria is tipped towards unfriendly strains.

Not only does the population of the bacteria change, inflammation increases as a result of an increase in “bad bacteria”. Many of us cannot tolerate things like gluten and anti-nutrients like phytates and lectins found in grains. These compounds cause massive inflammation in the gut and cause a condition known as “leaky gut”. This is when the lining of the gut becomes permeable from too much inflammation and food particles leak into the bloodstream and cause autoimmune reactions and further inflammation. When the gut is inflamed more stress hormones and less positive neurotransmitters are sent along the vagus nerve to the brain. Anxiety, depress, and general stress follows suit.

So what do we do to encourage a healthy mental state? We eat foods that encourage homeostasis in our bodies. Focus on the following foods:

  • Eat plenty of healthy fats like olive oil, lard, coconut oil, butter, ghee, and pastured animal fats. These maintain steady blood sugar, reducing insulin and cortisol spikes.
  • Get enough quality protein in to regulate hunger and provide the body with enough complete amino acids to rebuild and repair.
  • Replace processed carbohydrates and sugar with fibrous vegetables, fermented foods, and supplement with probiotics if desired.

Thats it everyone. Do yourself a favor, start paying attention to how these foods affect you. Make sure to sign up for our weekly newsletter below to get a free copy of our ebook, 3 Elements To Lifelong Health!

Elliot Steele is a Primal Health Coach based in Chelan WA.  He strives to empower those looking to regain their health after a lifetime of misinformed  practices.  This is the essence of Steele Back Your Health, to truly learn how to be healthy with sustainable habits.  Check out the coaching and blog page for more info!

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