Virginia Woolf was on to something: food - and our relationship to it - is our sustenance, our lifeblood. It has the potential to be a source of nourishment and wellbeing or, as is the case for many people, a source of angst and unhappiness.
Last month, I wrote about sugar and its impact on our mood, cravings, attention, and energy. I know, based on your notes to me, that many of you resonated with my thoughts, and that many of you struggle with sugar cravings, sugar crashes, and sugar conflicts of your own.
This month, I want to extend that conversation to talk in general terms about food and how it affects our biochemistry (mood, cravings, attention, energy, etc. . .). It has become clearer and clearer to me as a therapist and a certified health counselor that everything we eat has a powerful effect on our lives. No, not just our weight (which is what most of us focus on), but on how we feel physically AND emotionally.
As a psychotherapist, I was never taught to think about food and nutrition.
I was taught that people's unhappiness or anxiety or eating disorders or other various struggles were a result of their early upbringing or difficult experiences or traumatic losses. I was taught that if there was something going on with a person's brain chemistry (as evidenced by specific signs and symptoms), it should be treated with medication.
Although this perspective is useful, it leaves out a huge missing piece:
The idea that food matters; that my clients' nutrition might be contributing to their depression, their anxiety, their binging, their purging, their lethargy, their attentional problems, their behavioral concerns, and their mood instabilities. And even more importantly that these feelings, in part caused by mis-firing or mis-wiring in their brain, might be improved by nutritional changes.
At this point in my career, I know better, but many people -psychotherapists, doctors, and consumers included - still do not think this way.
Yes, when a destructive or negative mood hits, it often does have some psychological and historical origins, and in some cases, medication may be needed. However, this is not always the case and it is almost never the only thing going on. What, how and when we eat - as well as the quality and quantity of the food we put in our mouths - has a profound effect on our mind and our mood.
According to Anne Marie Colbin, in her book, Food and Healing, "mood. . . can be one of the first indicators that something is out of kilter . . . A change in diet, which can be embarked upon at any time, at any hour of the day, can make us feel more centered, improve our disposition and concentration, and even increase our joyfulness and good cheer."
And in her book, The Mood Cure, Julia Ross contends that the brain is responsible for most of our feelings. If our brain is high in certain neurotransmitters (like serotonin and endorphins, for example), we will feel happy and optimistic, focused and calm. However, when our brains run low on these neurotransmitters, due to genetic factors, stress, or diet - "it stops producing normal emotions on a consistent basis" and we feel bad. She states loud and clear that "regardless of your genes, but especially if your mood-programming genes are inefficient, good nutrition is essential." According to Ms. Ross, we can repair our brain with foods and nutritional supplements.
However, some of us may use food (or other substances) to self-medicate. This is what I often see in my practice. Unfortunately, the foods we usually turn to are the foods that make us feel worse. Truth is, the Standard American Diet (also known as "SAD") consists primarily of highly processed, refined foods . . . foods which are altered so much from their original state, that it's not clear whether they are actually even a food anymore (I mean, what are Cheetos anyway???!).
Not only do these foods lack nutrients, enzymes, and essential fats, which are key to stable and healthy brain chemistry, but they contain a whole bunch of additives, dyes, pesticides and other neurotoxins. Many of the additives found in most processed foods (like sugar and refined flour, MSG and its relatives, aspartame and other fake sugars, and dyes) have been implicated in a host of neurological, behavioral and mood problems. In addition, thanks to these additives, many of these foods are addictive and enticing - they temporarily provide some relief, excitement and an energy boost, and keep us coming back for more.
Over time, however, eating SAD foods contributes to a SAD life. When our diets are primarily made up of these "fake" foods, is it a wonder we feel depressed, anxious, have trouble focusing, or feel stuck in a binge-diet or binge-purge cycle?
Remember, food and mood go hand in hand. Yes, the way we eat not only affects how we feel and the quality of our lives, but the opposite is also true: the way we live, the way we work, the way we love profoundly impacts how we choose to feed and nourish ourselves.
If you'd like to make changes in your diet to improve your mood, here are a few ideas to get you started:
1) Keep a food journal.
This is not to be used as ammunition to criticize yourself but rather to notice how certain foods affect you. Take special note of your mood, your energy, your cravings or whatever symptoms you struggle with, both right after you eat as well as several hours later. You may find that you are sensitive to common foods found in your everyday diet that may be contributing to your crankiness.
2) If your diet is not rich in vegetables (and maybe even if it is), consider a good, whole-food based multi vitamin and mineral supplement.
3) Reduce the worst bad-mood foods: sugar, white flour, caffeine, fake sweeteners, and chemicals. (Don't recognize a word on a label? Don't eat it!). Yes, sorry, but this does include diet soda!
4) Get enough of the best good-mood foods: high quality protein, water, unprocessed or minimally processed grains, fruits and veggies.
5) Get enough of the right kinds of fats (I know I need to write a whole separate article on this!). Consider an Omega 3 fish oil supplement (I like Nordic Naturals), which has been found to have a very positive impact on mood (of course check with your doctor if you have any medical concerns).
6) Get out and enjoy the SUNSHINE! The longer and brighter days of Spring can help us get out of a bad mood rut.