Mental illness is a nasty beast. It's a giant, burdensome, invisible beast our culture doesn't like to discuss. It's our very own “Fight Club,” if you will. The number one rule is, “We don't talk about mental illness.”
But we are talking about it. We're indirectly talking about mental illness every day. Look through your social media feeds and texts. Look all around you. Motivational quotes, inspirational stories, mainstream popular self-help articles and best-selling books on happiness, coping and success are all around you.
The National Institute of Medicine reports that an estimated 40 million Americans suffer from some type of anxiety disorder. That is but one form of mental illness.
Enter nutrition. You are what you eat. What we consume becomes integrated in our bodies to actually become the compounds that make up our bodies. Your body needs to be fueled with proper nutrients in order to conduct basic functions, emotions or thoughts.
Eating foods that nourish your overall health and provide key nutrients for mental health fuels the body and mind. A great example of this is serotonin, which is primarily composed of carbohydrates. We literally make ourselves happy through carbohydrates.
Here are more ways nutrition can help you tackle the beast that is mental illness.
The first signs of dehydration are impaired cognitive function (not thinking clearly) and irritability. Increasing fluid consumption overall can help keep everything on an even kilter. Sitting down and having a glass of water can be a total game changer.
Strive for 8 to 10 cups of water a day. All fluids count for fluid consumption, but not all are created equal.
If a beverage is going to yield calories, it better offer some nutritional benefits. Keep in mind that alcohol and caffeine can contribute to signs and symptoms of many mental health issues.
The health of your gut is indicative of your overall health, both physically and emotionally. Healthy bacteria in your intestinal tract can improve your mood, sleep, weight and complexion. A happy gut means a happier human.
The word "probiotics" means healthy bacteria. PTSD, anxiety, insomnia and depression can take their toll on the health of your intestinal microflora (the healthy bacteria in your gut). Stress projects in a million awful ways, and slaying healthy bacteria is one of them.
Look for supplements containing both Bifido-bacteria and Lactobacilli-bacteria. The bacteria contents of yogurt alone are not enough, and if you're vegan or lactose intolerant, there is no other way to get bacteria from food.
Fascinatingly enough, there are roughly as many neurons in your abdomen as there are in your brain. This is known as the “gut brain.” The majority of the serotonin (happy hormone) in the body is actually made in the gut. Yet, we focus on the small bit that's made and used in the brain. No bueno.
Imagine how you feel 20 minutes after you've down a fast food combo meal. There's a giant, heavy blob sitting in your gut and you feel lousy. As time progresses, you feel tired, irritable, gassy and gross. That food bolus (gut blob) is sitting on your serotonin (happy).
Your neurons try really hard to pump out serotonin, but as the food isn't moving anywhere fast, it gums up this process. In the same way we all get when our work goes unnoticed, the neurons stop producing serotonin. After all, all the serotonin is just piling up while your belly swells with gas.
Finally, through the power of gravity and peristalsis (the churning movement of your intestines to move food along), the food and gas pass. However, all that serotonin that was piling up now floods outward.
You now have all the sensations associated with happiness without any emotional trigger. Increased excitement and heart rate? Sounds like the signs and symptoms of anxiety.
Eating plenty of fiber at each and every meal helps your food move along at a steady pace. Fiber binds to water, making the food bolus bigger and physically able to press against the intestinal walls. This tells the intestines to get things moving along.
Fiber helps keep you regular, which helps keep you on an even keel. But keep in mind that too much fiber too fast will result in your food moving out too fast. Think cattle drive versus stampede. Slowly increase your fiber consumption over time.
Fiber is found readily in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Unless it's absolutely necessary, steer clear of fiber supplements. They tend to come with high prices, side effects and dependency.
4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help greatly with mental health. These fatty acids are found in fish, nuts, seeds and some whole grains.
Think of the "three" as the number of hinges in the fatty acids. Saturated fats don't have these hinges or bends in them. They are rigid.
Omega-3s, however hinge in three different spots. Thus, they are more flexible. They're pro-healing. These healthy fats help the body and mind stop being as reactive.
5. Adequate Caloric Intake
That's a fancy way of saying to make sure you eat enough on a regular basis so that you don't become hangry. Hangry (anger derived out of hunger) is a real thing.
Don't allow yourself to get into that kind of head space. Make sure to get enough food to fuel your physical and mental health.
6. B Vitamins
There are several B vitamins that exist, and they do many different things. One of the many things they can do is help improve mood and cognitive function.
Many medications negatively affect B vitamins in the body, making supplementation a good idea. It's important to review your medication with your prescriber or pharmacist to see if this affects you. B vitamins are also readily found in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
7. Vitamin D
Google "vitamin D and depression," and you'll get over 14 million results. There is a reason for this: Vitamin D plays a huge role in mental health, and the majority of individuals in the US are deficient.
Vitamin D supplementation can improve your overall mood. Most insurance will cover a portion – if not all – of Vitamin D testing, but you have to ask for it in addition to standard blood work. If you're paying out of pocket, this important test will only set you back about $60.
It's important to have your levels taken and to speak with your counselor, primary health care provider or nutritionist about supplementation.Vitamin D can make a huge positive impact.
Copper helps messages travel up and down the nerves. This nutrient is found in seeds, nuts and beans, and can help improve thought patterns and sleep. Pistachios are a great source of this nutrient.
Iron is needed to grab oxygen. If you're low on iron, you're not getting enough oxygen into and throughout the body. Your quality of life goes down. The signs and symptoms of iron deficiency are miserable, and can only make dealing with mental health issues much worse. They include fatigue, irritability, impaired cognitive function, increased pain and always feeling cold.
Iron supplementation can cause constipation, which further contributes to a decline in mood. It is recommended to only supplement iron under the orders of your primary health care provider.
Eating iron-rich foods comes with the added benefit of them containing other nutrients that can make a person feel better. Iron is found in food in two different ways: heme (meat) sources and non-heme (not-meat) sources.
To get the most iron out of non-heme sources, pair them with foods rich in Vitamin C, like peppers, tomatoes, strawberries and citrus. Fresh salsa helps you get more iron out of your beans.
This metal micronutrient is antimicrobial, which means it kills viruses and bacteria. Zinc can also help kill a chronically bad mood. When you're stressed, you all but hemorrhage zinc. Battling mental illness intensifies any and all stress in life.
Supplements tend to leave your mouth tasting like you've been chewing on a fork, and can also cause an upset stomach. If you choose to take a supplement, do so with your last meal of the day.
Make sure it doesn't counteract with any medications you might be on. Naturally occurring sources of zinc include red meat, dark green leafy vegetables and seeds.
Foods That Harm
Exclusion of toxic food additives can be a positive game changer. The chemical crud that's shoved into processed food can significantly impair proper cognitive function or exaggerate the signs and symptoms of mental illness. Hell, it's hard for anyone to think and function well in his or her daily life with chemical compounds bouncing off his or her neurons.
You can make a gigantic dent in the toxic load in your food by avoiding all foods that contain high fructose corn syrup: partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats), monosodium glutamate (MSG) and artificial food dyes like caramel coloring, red 40 and blue 3.
Be especially wary of monosodium glutamate. This nasty chemical does a number on the neurological system, and contributes to a host of legit issues, ranging from migraines to mental imbalances. Avoid it at all costs.
If you find it in a food, use that as an opportunity to practice effective communication by emailing the food company. Mental health is all about answering “why” we do things. Let the food company explain “why” it chose to slap MSG in its food.
We must nourish our bodies, minds and souls to truly thrive. However, note that this article is meant to help you, but it is not meant to replace your need for a mental health care professional or any medications you are currently taking.
Eating less processed food and more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts and beans is a good idea across the board.
This article was originally published on NutritionSheila.com.
Sheila Amir is the owner and writer of NutritionSheila.com, where she inspires people to live happier, healthier, well-nourished lives. Sign up here to get great health, nutrition, wellness and food information delivered to you, along with some wit and random Stallone references.