Of all the things that we could be doing that influence our mental health, it is amazing and saddening to me that people conveniently or naively omit the importance of diet. While nutrition is not the cure or the final answer for mental illness, neither is medication. However both can be game-changing supports that shift our energy, mood and focus for the better. And in my experience, diet and supplement changes can be equally if not more effective – not to mention safer – than medication. If you are struggling with any mental health issues, it may really be worthwhile to re-examine food and supplementation as one of the pivotal supports of your life.
Fortunately, the health food and nutrition trend has become widespread and normalized to a huge degree in our culture. Had you told me as a 20 year old vegan that the grocery store down the street from me now stocks kombucha, spirulina and organic quinoa, I would have balked. My brother and I used to drive to Toronto for decent organic foods as teenagers. But it is starting to seep into the collective social wisdom that the foods we eat really do effect our energy, focus, resilience, and mood.
And why wouldn’t it? Back when I used to work at Addiction Rehabilitation centers, I used to teach a surprisingly popular class about nutrition. It never failed to get the patients involved and engaged and thinking about things in a new way. I would point out to them that just like drugs affect your brain chemistry, foods do too. Coffee, sugar and certain herbs have noticeable and obvious effects on our system – so why do we assume that other foods don’t make any difference at all? Maybe it is more subtle, but it is certainly there. If you are willing to consider medication for your challenges of mood and thought, then please also consider that there may be nutritional aspects that could make huge differences to you. Recovering addicts, with their systems depleted of many vitalities, often notice the biggest difference when they switch to a healthy, balanced diet, and targeted high dosage supplementation.
I have seen subtle shifts in diet and nutrition make enormous changes in a person’s life. In fact, the biggest evidence for this has been myself. The addition of certain foods, the omission of others – this have made huge differences in my life. I was vegan / vegetarian for about 17 years (yikes) and I thought I was doing all the things right, but my mental and physical health was suffering. The summer I got back from India was a very difficult time for me, and after some gentle pressure from a very kind naturopathic doctor (it only took me about 2 years to take his advice!) I finally decided that if changing my entire diet was going to help, then dangnammit, so be it.
The change from vegan to eating meat was really, really hard for me to get my head around. I did not want to do it. It wasn’t until I had a significant dream about the whole thing that I finally gave it a shot. I figured I would try it for a couple months, and if I noticed nothing, then I would at least say that I gave it a shot. It was that or medication, I felt, since I had exhausted other options, and like most of us, I really did not want to do the anti-depressant thing – again! So I started eating meat, fish and eggs, and also reduced my simple carbs, moving towards a more ‘paleo’ type of diet as recommended to me. It was HARD. I didn’t even know how to cook this stuff. And getting off of sugar was a bizarre shift of perspective. My naturopath suspected that though I was eating protein as a vegan, that for some reason I was not producing the right enzymes to even break it down properly. Our bodies are all different, and they all have different nutritional needs! I am convinced now that everyone has some optimal diet (different at any given moment) and our job is to tune into our bodies, listen to the reactions we have to foods and substances, and do the best we can give our bodies the best fuel we can, so that we can be most present and anchored in our lives.
After about a month of my change of diet, almost every aspect of my health had shifted for the better. After 3 months, there was no turning back. Though I can tell you every ‘good reason’ why we should be vegetarian, I can’t see how I would be serving the planet or humanity by not letting myself be as healthy and vibrant as I can be. My mood balanced, my energy soared, and the difference in the clarity of my thought was incredible. It really, really makes me wonder sometimes, what my life would have been like had I figured this out sooner. And I want to be very clear that I am not recommending that we should all eat meat. A dear friend of mine is currently on a healing journey taking him in the totally opposite direction, and it is wonderful for him. In fact, if vegetarianism can work well for you (which it clearly does for many people, athletes included) then for many reasons that seems like a better way to go. I’m not saying you should do this or that except to listen to what your body needs, today. If you are not feeling well, then I just want you to get curious about what might make a difference.
I have experienced such an obvious connection between my energy, mood and diet, that it makes me really, really wonder which changes can help some of my clients, friends, and family. I am really clear that very often, diet has very little or nothing to do with what is going on with a person’s mental health. But improving energy and general health has such a huge supportive effect on our mental health, it feels unethical and ignorant to not at the very least pay attention to it. I mentioned my switch to eating meat, but the other thing that seems to be enormous is that I have completely eliminated simple sugars from my diet. Getting off of refined sugar is one suggestion that I suspect would make a huge difference for everyone.
Our brains and bodies react to refined sugar more like it is a drug than a food. I have cited in previous lectures many interesting studies with rats showing that they will get more addicted, and more dangerously focused on sugar than they will on cocaine. Sugar triggers opiate receptors in our brains, and has an analgesic (pain relieving) property to it for that reason. In the ground-breaking book “Potatoes Not Prozac” by Kathleen Desmaisons (see her website here) shows her astounding research helping alcoholics achieve astounding levels of recovery by helping them also get off of sugar and refined carbohydrates. If there were a single dietary shift that I could wish for the whole world – it would definitely be the removal of refined sugar. It is basically a drug, and seems like a planet-wide soporific. I know that personally it drains my energy and after my short spike is gone, leaves my mind foggy and dull. I am perhaps more sensitive, but I’m not alone. I wonder if other people are just so used to this that they don’t realize it?
I don’t want to over-emphasize the importance of these things. But I don’t want to underestimate them either. Many people over compensate these days and become hyper focused on nutrition, which is also not wise. I am trying to help move myself, and my clients, to optimized lives full and always richer in goodness. I continue to see that it is our thoughts and beliefs about the world that are the ultimate factors of not just mental health, but our entire lives. But just like you don’t want to build your house on quicksand, this series of blogs about sleep, diet and exercise are just suggesting that we build our homes – as best we can – on the most solid ground we can.
There are so many levels upon which to build our health and well-being, and I’m careful not to put too much emphasis on this when it doesn’t apply to everyone. But it is a fundamental building block for all of us, and just like sleep and exercise, needs to be addressed if there are obvious gaps. I suspect that we could all tweak our diets to be further optimized, and that is likely part of our constant work as intelligent adults, because our needs will change and it makes sense to be flexible in this. I have seen supplements, like magnesium (for the overly anxious) and blue-green algae (for help with energy for those who are depressed) or intense doses of omega-3’s and vitamin D during the winter, make subtle but significant changes in a person’s energy. People with Bipolar disorder seem to be exceptionally responsive to vitamin and mineral supplementation. All of this, hopefully, just allows us to be able to do the more important cognitive, emotional work that if your brain and body are starving, you just can’t do.
I’m clear that I’m not a physician or nutritionist or naturopath – but I suspect that almost all of us should see them from time to time. I am speaking mostly from my own experience, but there is significant evidence that diet and supplementation can effect one’s mood and energy, so the simple point here is: why not do what we can?
I’m a sensitive person – when I eat something that doesn’t agree with me, it throws me off in a way that is noticeable. But I doubt that I am inherently different from other people. Meaning, I wonder if I just notice this, when many others do not. People who eat ‘junk food’ might say that there is no correlation to their mood and energy – but it could be possible that they are just not being aware enough of tracking the connections. If there was a shift in what you eat that could make a decent change in your energy, mood, and clarity of thought, is that not something that you would want to figure out? It is up to you, and you only. Our bodies are remarkably resilient. It is downright incredible that we can feed ourselves Doritos, ice cream, candy and fast-food and somehow keep going. But your body is the most elegant and beautiful machine in the whole world, and if we nourish it – not just with healthy food but sleep, exercise and love, it is my experience that it is responsive. It wants to be healthy and joyous. Millions of years of evolution are optimized in your biology, right this moment, and I think that it is simple wisdom to pay attention to that.
I once watched a work colleague pretty much starve himself on a raw diet that had heavy religious and spiritual connotations for him, and he ended up very sick. Even after being in the hospital, he refused to change his diet because he was convinced that what he was doing was ‘right’. I see this in various ways, all the time, with eating disorders which are one extreme side of the spectrum. We can get overly focused on this stuff too. I am not proposing hyper or rigid obsessions with food. Like with other things, it is important to hold this intelligently, lightly. Be flexible! Be willing to set aside your righteousness, or your fears of weight, or your belief that you need certain tastes, or whatever obstacle prevents you from being present to your own, actual, biological needs. Perhaps the only truly universal truth in nutrition is for all of us to move towards less processed, naturally occurring, whole foods. Just what those foods are, and how you eat them, is what we all need to individually figure out.
As I often suggest to my clients – we need to question all of our thoughts, and this includes our ideas about food. I am amazed at how wrong I have been in some areas. I used to eat honey for breakfast. Not honey ‘with’ breakfast. I mean, I went through a phase when I ate only honey for breakfast. Yikes. And I’m not even going to mention some of the even weirder things I did. (Hippies are hilarious with food.) But I eventually learned that eating a fat and protein rich breakfast actually charged my metabolism and nourished my body so that I didn’t crash out midday. And I learned that a high fat diet didn’t change my weight at all. Our fixation on calories is just another idea that can be challenged, and it doesn’t hold up well.
Every body is different. What works for me may not work for you. But as I heard someone say a long time ago:
“If you listen to your body whisper, you’ll never have to hear it scream.”
I am interested only in helping us to suffer less. I think that this is the essence of love and caring – for myself and others. Let’s just learn to nourish ourselves, so that we can then forget about it and be able to focus on the more important things.