Eating for Recovery & Mental Health/Wellbeing


Today I listened in on a webinar (online seminar) organised by the Food Think Tank, an organisation to raise awareness, instigate change in the current market systems & policy change at governmental level. It was v.interesting & informative. As an attendee I was invited to ask questions and by lucky chance one of my questions was asked and answered during the live talk. One of the things mentioned during the talk was that in order to have the widest possible reach in raising awareness anybody working for this cause should seek to collaborate with other relevant causes, such as the field of nutrition & health/wellbeing. My question was related to this & in the answer I received I was told that nutritionists & health coaches could help raise awareness at the individual level, from the choices we make when buying food at the shop/market, to the shops/markets themselves, farms, environmental agencies & health workers.

The emphasis and connection between food, nutrition & health is clear, less clear perhaps are the connections to the environment & helping to promote a sustainable farming system & consequent sustainable & healthy food system/market. Also, obvious to some & less so to others, is the connection to mental health/wellbeing & all other health conditions, particularly those of a chronic nature, which respond best to lifestyle changes, where nutrition undoubtedly plays a key role!

So, today I’ve chosen this topic for my blog post, since i have battled with mental health issues personally for 15+yrs now. Depression & other mental health conditions, especially senility/dementia (at least here in the UK) are now considered to be the number 1 health problem(s) that we face as a society (since these illnesses affect the family/friends/caregivers of the patient/sufferer as much as & in some cases even more so than the sufferers themselves!). It is potentially pandemic, especially in Western societies, though no part of the globe goes untouched & it is worth noting that what we eat/nutrition can play a v.significant role in helping the situation & contributing to a solution, or at least with the management of these mental illnesses, whether these be purely emotionally/psychologically based, or have a biological/genetic/physiological component.

Foods have mood altering effects & this is undisputable… From caffeine, which can lift our mood. & energy, to tryptophan, an amino acid which is the precursor to serotonin, to tyrosine, another amino acid which is the precursor to dopamine, both of which are neurotransmitters that generate feelings of joy, happiness, alertness and calmness, I can’t say there’s any argument that could refute this! Minerals such as calcium and magnesium a.k.a “nature’s tranquillisers” due to their high alkalinity, are a soothing balm to our central nervous system & along with vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin), also help to maintain our teeth & bones strong. The B-vitamins are also hugely important to keep our nervous system & hence our brain function working well, which is why a significant deficiency in vitamin B12 can present with the symptoms of someone with fully-fledged MS (multiple sclerosis)!! Thiamine & Niacin are two B-vitamins that are especially important for brain function, mood & energy. Niacin & B12 are mostly found in animal products (especially found in meat) & about the only rich source of these for vegans/vegetarians is yeast extracts (i.e. Marmite or Vegemite), so it might be a good idea to top yourself up with a B-vitamin supplement or a multivitamin (& mineral) complex.

Calcium & magnesium are found in all the green fruits & vegetables, especially the dark leafy greens -spinach, kale, rocket/arugula… This is why you’ll have seen/heard so much about “green juices/smoothies” in the last year or so. Other rich sources are almonds (again, it explains the recent surge in sales of almond milk), walnuts, pecans, sesame seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, figs, dates… Less known though is that milk/dairy, though technically rich in both these minerals, is a less than optimal source for them, especially in terms of calcium, since it comes in a less absorbable form & our bodies simply don’t absorb hardly any of it. Paradoxically, Western countries, where milk/dairy is eaten more often & in higher quantities than in Oriental/Asian countries, experience much higher rates of osteoporosis. In fact the Asian nations hardly have any incidences of osteoporosis at all & it is only now that they are beginning to, but only off the back of the introduction of more Westernised foods into their diets! So ditch the milk, cheese & yoghurts & have some figs or nuts, seeds &/or salad instead!

Vitamin D, has long been thought of as a vitamin, important for our bones. However, it has recently been shown to behave more similarly to a hormone, not only important for our bones, but also for the conversion of energy from the food we eat & for the optimal function of our immune systems. It is no coincidence that there is a higher prevalence of autoimmune diseases & immune-deficiency conditions in the northern-most regions of the world, like Scandinavia, where shorter days & longer nights predominate for over half the year. Recent technology has allowed us to invent artificial full-spectrum lightbulbs & light boxes which many people now use in these countries -a favourite being the light box alarm clocks mimicking the gradual brightness of light as we have with the morning sunrise (definitely nicer than the horrible rings most alarm clocks have!). By getting 15-20mins of natural sunlight or 10-15mins of full-spectrum light from these lightbulbs/boxes, your body gets enough of the vitamin D it needs daily. Alternatively you can take vitamin D in the form of a supplement. Many milks, especially the non-dairy alternatives (soya, rice, oat…) now come with added vitamins D & B12. If taking vitamin D in tablet form, or as a spray, I recommend you get it in D3 rather than D2 form, as it is said to be a better form that is closer to the natural vitamin D (although I can’t say that I know what the difference is exactly myself!).

Iron, as we know, is a mineral that we need so that our bodies can produce haemoglobin, which is found in the nucleus of each and every one of our red blood cells & it is what carries oxygen throughout our bodies, to & from all our trillions of cells, so of course it is of vital importance & it is why people who suffer with anaemia (iron deficiency), feel tired and may also struggle to focus & concentrate properly.

Our bodies need 3 things to survive: food, water and oxygen. A healthy person can survive for up to 40+ days without food (though of course this must never be recommended! Even those doing the 40 days of Ramadan eat something every evening!), for 4+ days without water, but only for a matter of minutes without oxygen… So you can clearly see which of the 3 is of greatest importance for health & not least survival! Oxygen, O2, is essential. Luckily, all we have to do for that is breathe some fresh air (and if possible, not smoke). When somebody is in a v.weakened & frail condition, they are often put “on oxygen” at hospital. Even better than that, is one of these not-so-faddish fads that we can find in spas sometimes, called ozone therapy. Ozone has 3 oxygen atoms (O3) instead of the 2 found in oxygen (O2), providing a higher concentration of “oxygen” to the body. This is why the likes of Michael Jackson “allegedly” (or was it proven?) slept in an oxygen tank instead of a regular bed & Woody Harrelson opened the “Oxygen Bar” in L.A. Celebrities and non-celebs alike, could go there, have a drink & get and “oxygen-hit” during their lunch breaks or whenever for a “small fee” for the privilege! I don’t know if that bar still exists, but for a while at least, it became trendy. Now, there’s facials you can get called “Oxyjet facials” where you get a jet of oxygen sprayed on your face whilst the beautician works on it, to help refresh & revitalise your skin! I believe it’s a fad/trend that is here to stay & those “in the know” can appreciate the value of! And, if you can’t afford the spa prices for a facial, or an oxygen-hit at a fancy bar, just go take a walk in the park nearest to you where our green tree friends provide it for us all free of charge… Do some deep breathing, yoga or meditation if you’re into that, or maybe try a few stretches or tai chi or chi quong, two types of martial arts that even the oldest/weakest & least flexible of us can have a go at… Or just have a stroll around if not!

Now, onto more specific foods… All the purple coloured foods are rich in anthocyanins and other antioxidants like resveratrol (v.rich in red/purple grapes & of course red wine & raisins!), which research has shown to be incredibly good in maintaining the optimal function of our brains, especially in areas of memory, recall, mental stamina, focus/concentration, mental processing & problem-solving i.e. It helps keep our mental faculties in a more-than-good working order! A group of 60+yr-olds we’re put on a similar diet to a control group of the same age, but adding a couple of handfuls, or a punnet of blueberries to their daily diet. After a few weeks they all took a test to measure their mental function. The before and after results were clear: blueberries improved their mental ability/function in all arenas! No wonder we have seen blueberries feature so heavily on our supermarket shelves over the last couple of years & achieving their so-called “superfood” status… All berries (red or blue, or white or black…) are fantastic foods for all sorts of things, not least our brains & hence all our moods that go with it! So, eat your blueberry cheesecakes (just don’t go overboard on the cheesecake), or blueberry pancakes, summer pudding, strawberry pavlovas, raspberry sorbets or mousses & blackberry or blackcurrant puddings… Make yourself a mango & raspberry smoothie in the morning (delicious!) or a blueberry & banana one… Add a little ginger if it’s wintertime and cold outside, apple & blueberry with ginger works a treat… Make a raspberry coulis (that’s a concentrated purée/sauce) and pour it on EVERYTHING (ok, maybe not on your pizza!)… & last but not least, remember that any/all berries work beautifully with chocolate -yay! Cherries, though technically a stone fruit, is more akin to the berries of this world in terms of nutrition, so go ahead and make a Black Forest gateau & indulge once in a while! Cherries, also help your body produce the hormone melatonin, which your body needs, not only to prevent sunburn, but also to induce sleep, so great for my fellow insomniacs out there! Drink a glass of cherry juice an hour or so before your bedtime and after a few days, you may find you sleep better, plus with all the antioxidants & vitamin content from the cherries you’ll soon reap some extra benefits that a warm glass of milk & honey (though equally effective… though this is due to its tryptophan, calcium & magnesium content), simply does not equate or provide nearly as many good things as the cherry juice option… And hopefully, there’ll be no need to ever resort to sleeping pills!

So, in summary, to experience good moods more often, follow a diet that is rich in Vitamin D (just go outside and get some sun every day), B-vitamins, calcium, magnesium, iron, the amino acids tryptophan & tyrosine (all meats, especially poultry and most cereal grains, especially oats, quinoa, millet & amaranth are rich in these) & eat plenty of purple coloured fruit & veg e.g. Berries, cherries, grapes, red wine (in moderation, but non if you’re an alcoholic!), beetroot (also v.rich in iron) & red cabbage… And don’t forget to breathe plenty of oxygen & avoid smoke/smog! Happiness is not just a feeling controlled by our emotions/psychological state… It is a physiological/mental/biological thing we can all experience if we follow these guidelines consistently… If you change your internal chemistry/biochemistry, the external experience & outlook will follow & change accordingly… Eat junk & your life will feel rubbish, eat well & internal “happy” cells will open the doors to happiness… My antidepressants today are not the so-called synthetic/pharmaceutical “happy pills” I once used to take, but the foods/nutrients that I was not eating enough of in those days and I am now… I cannot tell you how transformational it has been for me & how excited I am to share my knowledge & experience with you… May 2015 be full of happy foods and happy times for you too!

One last thing, is to just remind you that the biochemical make-up you have now will not only be influenced/changed by the “chemistry” you do/don’t put into your body, but also by your environment, the setting, or as we would say in the process of film-making, the “mise-en-scene”. This is why, when we have a candlelit dinner with someone we love & eat all sorts of rich, indulgent & decadent foods, we feel enriched ourselves, physically, emotionally & sensorially (all of our senses -sight, touch, taste, smell & hearing- are stimulated and so long as the experience for all these are heightened & positive, our sense of happiness & wellbeing will be as well in equal measure). This is why we have such fancy restaurants where people talk so much about the atmosphere (or is it the “ambience”?), or themed restaurants where a particular cuisine like Mexican or Chinese or Japanese is emphasised & the setting/decor will match it so the “experience”, albeit for the length of one meal, momentarily immerses/suspends/transports you in/to another world/country/culture… All these things are important, and just as the physical influences the mental/psychological, so the mental/psychological influences the physical… These realms are forever intertwined and it is equally important to feed/nourish one as it is the other. You are what you eat, so eat wisely… But just remember that you eat a lot more things than food, you eat words as you read books or newspapers or comics, you eat sounds as you listen to music or somebody talk, you eat images as you watch films, TV shows, the news or LIFE ITSELF! So… eat joy in joy… And enjoy it all you can whilst you do it… That, for me, is the key to attaining true happiness… For the happiest people are not those who have the most, but those who make the most of what they have! 🙂 🙂 🙂

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