Many people seeking help for mental health issues look first to chemical intervention in the form of a medication. There is another chemical intervention which you can utilize yourself - your diet. Having a healthy diet is crucial when trying to fight for your mental health, especially where mood disorders are concerned. How can dietary changes affect depression, anxiety and mood swings?
Good mental health is about maintaining balance, in your thoughts, in your actions and especially in your emotions. When addressing nutrition for mental health it is important to understand how food nourishes and fuels your body as well as the part it plays in providing your body with necessary nutrients for maintaining that balance that it is important for peace of mind.
Carbohydrates are the body's preferred source of energy. Your body will burn carbohydrates first before turning to protein or fats. A lack of energy sources in the body will result in the body shutting down and altering activity levels. People who are chronically tired often feel sad and hopeless as a result. To keep your emotions on an even keel it is important to have a slow steady stream of carbohydrates broken down and made available in the bloodstream for energy.
People struggling with depression and/or mood swings often rely heavily on simple carbohydrates (sugars) rather than complex carbohydrates (starches). Simple carbohydrates (candies, table sugar, honey, sodas, fruits, milk products) break down quickly in the bloodstream and hit it with a bang that provides immediate energy. This is why they are preferred by people with depression. However, what goes up must come down, usually with the same speed and intensity. The surge of energy is followed by a crash when the sugar is quickly burned up. This crash exacerbates depression, fatigue, impaired concentration and memory and irritability. However, all simple carbohydrates are not equal. There is a difference between the simplest carbohydrates like table sugar, sodas and candies which are referred to as "empty calories" because they provide so much glucose, an easily broken down form of sugar, and no nutritional value. Compare these with fruits and milk products whose sugars (fructose and galactose respectively) are somewhat harder to break down, enter the bloodstream a bit more gradually and have a somewhat milder crash and provide significant nutrition such as vitamin C and calcium. If you are craving something sweet have an apple or orange rather than a candy bar.
Complex carbohydrates (whole grains, starchy vegetables and beans) are even harder for the body to metabolize and provide and slow, constant stream of fuel for the body's energy demands. This avoids the peaks and crashes of the simple carbohydrates. Whole grains also provide lots of B vitamins which calm and stabilize the mood and help your body metabolize carbohydrates for increased energy.
It is important to eat high quality proteins like chicken, fish, turkey, soy, dairy products and beans. (I am a very big fan of beans. They are usually high in protein, low in fat and high in fiber.) Proteins are made of amino acids. Your body uses amino acids to make neurotransmitters in the brain. These chemicals (like serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine and GABA) are the chemicals which antidepressants and anxiolytics (anti-anxiety medications) seek to increase to improve your mood and calm you. Chicken and turkey are also high in tryptophan, which the body also uses to make serotonin, one of the primary neurotransmitters for lifting and calming the mood. Running short on these neurotransmitters results in depression, irritability, difficulty thinking and remembering, insomnia, fatigue and anxiety. Having sufficient stores of these neurotransmitters available to the brain helps it regulate emotions and thinking. Providing your body with the necessary ingredients to manufacture these neurotransmitters is vital for improving your mental health and keeping things in balance.
The benefits of a low fat diet for fighting weight gain and heart disease have been highly touted. However, many don't realize that limiting your fat intake too severely of healthy fats can result in serious mood changes, irritability and aggression. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish have been found to help stabilize mood swings and decrease stress. "Good fats" burn clean in the bloodstream compared to "bad fats" which clog the arteries and narrow the blood vessels. Good fats include olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocadoes and fish. Exchange that fried chicken for a grilled salmon. Replace a mayonnaise dressing with an olive oil and vinegar splash.
It's always amazing to me to find people struggling with serious anxiety problems who are still drinking a significant amount of caffeine everyday. Since I don't drink caffeine on a regular basis I have no tolerance for it and it literally makes me shake when I do drink it. I can't imagine throwing that in on top of an anxiety problem. If anxiety is the problem, I would eliminate caffeine all together and see if it helps.
For people with mood disorders, caffeine provides a serious rush of energy, but like simple carbohydrates (sugars) you crash when it wears off. This peak and crash pattern is not good for people trying to stabilize mood swings and the crash will exacerbate depressive symptoms.
Your body needs water to regulate body temperature and to provide the means for nutrients to travel to all your organs. Water also transports oxygen to your cells, removes waste, and protects your joints and organs. Not drinking enough water can cause fatigue, irritability, clouded thinking and mood swings. Give up the coffee and sodas and drink water. Tea and Crystal Light are not the same as plain water and the caffeine and diuretic effects of some teas offset the water intake. Add a bit of lemon or lime to make it more palatable. Throw a handful of bottled waters in the fridge. When you leave to run errands, commute to work or take the kids to school, grab a bottle and sip it along the way. Set a bottle at your desk to sip all day. It's amazing how much water you can pour down without thinking about it. When I first started drinking water I had a hard time. I didn't like the taste and strongly craved my old sodas and coffee. But I stuck with it and found that once I got into the habit, my body now craves water instead of other drinks. A client of mine swears that two bottles of water in the morning give him more energy and mental alertness than his coffee used to - without the mid afternoon crash.
Balance is the goal for good mental health and your diet is no different. Be sure to eat from all food groups so that you are getting the proper amount of nutrients for your body and its systems to fire on all 6 cylinders. Iron for energy and oxygenated blood, B vitamins to calm and reduce stress, vitamin C to strength your immune system, and so on.
Many people rely solely on medication to ease emotional distress, but actively working to change your diet can significantly affect how you feel and empower you to participate in your own treatment and health. Providing the body with a steady stream of healthy fuel, the nutrients it needs to process and use that fuel along with the fluid it needs to hydrate its many systems will help keep your mind and body in balance during a stress-filled day.