The 5 Pillars of Good Mental Health #1 - Eating for a Healthy Mind
Updated: Jan 21
I've been pretty quiet over here on my blog for a while, but I feel like I have a good excuse - I had a baby! Ivy Simone was born on March 2 of this year and has been keeping me busy and up at night since. We are happy, in love, and totally exhausted - standard new parent situation I think.
But I've been feeling the urge to connect with other humans and talk about the stuff I love again - namely using food, plant medicine, and other functional medicine techniques to support health. So a couple weeks ago I reached out to my email list (if you want to sign up, you can do that here) and just asked - what do you want to know?
I had so many awesome responses, but the one that I knew I wanted to address first was supporting mental health naturally.
We all know the stats. Depression and anxiety are the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. In my own family, mental health problems have plagued us for generations. Erwin and I have loved ones who have suffered a myriad of mental health problems, and have even lost a loved one to suicide.
I believe that being proactive (and quickly responsive) to your own mental health is one of the most important ways you can look after yourself and your family.
So let's start with food.
Food is always going to be the foundation of health. And while I don't believe that there is a one-size-fits-all diet, there is some pretty good research on the eating patterns which support mental health. And no, it's not all about $20 Acai bowls. This is about good, whole foods - so basic it verges on boring. In the next article I'm also going to talk about nutrient deficiencies which can contribute to mental health problems. I'm not a big supplement person in general, but I do believe that they have their place when used thoughtfully.
A big note before we get into it - if you think you are seriously depressed or anxious, please talk to a healthcare provider. While these tips are intended to help you no matter what, it is so important to not walk this journey alone. Whether you work with your GP, a naturopath or herbalist, or a counselor (bonus points for going to all 3!), find a compassionate practitioner who can help support and monitor your situation.
Working with a practitioner can also help you get to the root of what is triggering your specific issues. Do you have childhood trauma? A B12 deficiency? Stress at work or the loss of a loved one? Thyroid or other hormonal issues? Everyone is different and what works for someone else may not be the answer for you.
However, the following principles and ideas can get you started, no matter what your situation.
Whole Foods First
Anyone who tells you that your diet does not impact your mental health, is wrong. While of course external circumstances can and do contribute to mental illness, your brain and nervous system is still an organ within your body that requires certain nutrients to function optimally.
Even the neurotransmitter imbalance hypothesis of depression (ie: low serotonin) can be traced, to some extent, to food. You see, neurotransmitters (like serotonin, GABA, dopamine, etc) use amino acids as their precursors. Amino acids come from protein. You must eat protein in order to provide sufficient amino acids to your body. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The point is that food matters. And while I recognize that making yourself a healthy meal can feel absolutely impossible when you are feeling low or struggling with depression and/or anxiety, you can't change what you don't know. So we'll start here.
Eating a whole foods, nutrient-dense diet, such as the Mediterranean diet or an Anti-inflammatory diet have been shown to be very protective against depression when compared with an all-too-common, nutrient-poor Western Diet.
So what does this look like in practice?
It looks like eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables daily. It looks like making sure your blood sugars are stable by including protein (such as nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, fish, meat, and eggs) and healthy fats (avocados, olives and olive oil, nuts & seeds, fish, meat, and eggs) at every meal and snack.
It looks like watching your caffeine intake (especially if you are prone to anxiety), as caffeine can amp that up and lead to problems sleeping, which we know causes stress on the body and mind. It looks like drinking enough water.
It looks like watching your consumption of refined sugar, which I know can be sooo unbelievably hard as those sugary foods can feel so helpful short-term. But long-term we know that imbalanced blood sugar levels is correlated with depression.
Hugely un-sexy, amiright???
It is important to know that this doesn't mean giving up your love of ice cream forever. It is about making small, sustainable changes. It is what you do most of the time that will have the biggest impact. I'm going to talk more about taking practical steps next.
If the foods above feel like a radical shift for you, don't despair. This isn't an all-or-nothing kind of game. In fact one of my favourite sayings is that doing something is better than doing nothing.
Here are some "somethings" you can do - just pick one and do it until it feels like second nature. Then come back and pick another thing and add it in. Keep doing this again and again. This may take years, and that's ok. This is a long game we are playing.
1. Make one meal each day super healthy. Maybe that's a smoothie with fruit and veggies, protein and fat (avocado is great in a smoothie!). Maybe it's a big salad at lunch with some leftover grilled chicken or chickpeas. Whatever feels the most manageable to you. Load it up with plant foods and make sure it contains protein and fat. Know that every day you are drenching your body and brain in supportive nutrients, just by eating that one meal.
2. Drink one less cup of coffee each day. Bonus points if you swap it out for a calming herbal tea!
Not only is too much coffee anxiety-causing (and this is coming from a very dedicated coffee drinker, so don't worry I'm not taking it away!), but it also tends to make you a bit dehydrated. So try cutting back on one cup, and instead add in a cup of chamomile, licorice, or lemonbalm tea, which are all good for stress and anxiety. And don't worry, I'm going to go into plant medicine for mental health in a dedicated article soon!
3. Keep nuts in your purse. Unless you work in a school - then please don't do that. Try roasted chickpeas or stick to pumpkin and sunflower seeds instead.
Having a bag of almonds in my purse was one of the first things I ever did that helped me manage my blood sugar better. It meant that I always had a (high protein, good fat) snack on hand whenever I needed it. It helped me from getting hangry and from buying a shitty muffin (aka cake in disguise) which would just perpetuate the blood-sugar roller coaster. Unstable blood sugars can cause symptoms of anxiety - sweaty palms, racing heart, and a snappy mood. There is also a link between imbalanced blood sugar levels and mental health issues - so it's something to take seriously.
4. Advanced - Aim for 1/2 your plate at each meal/snack to be plants
This is the advanced step for those of you who have nailed the above. It is a great visual way to think about eating as much nutrient-dense foods as possible.
Though I am not a vegetarian or vegan, I do believe that in the West we have largely substituted what should be fruits and veggies for refined carbs (aka bread and bread products). And while I don't have an issue with grains in general (unless you count my toast obsession), we often rely on these foods as they are fast and filling, at the detriment of the foods which contain the most brain-friendly vitamins and minerals - plants.
Even if this just gets you to think "oh I could add some greens to this" when you next have a burger, it is a worthwhile benchmark to have in the back of your mind.
One day sample meal plan
A mind-healthy meal doesn't need to look fancy. It just needs to look like real food that will fill you up, taste great, and also help your brain function in the background.
Feel free to add some snacks to this plan. Things like the aforementioned nuts, veggies and hummus, or a smoothie make a good snack. Especially if your body is used to a highly refined carbohydrate/sugary diet, you may find that shifting towards more whole foods you feel like you are missing....something. The best way to manage that is to keep pumping yourself full of vibrant, filling (due to fibre) fruits and veggies, protein and healthy fats. Bon Appetite!
Breakfast: Oats with 1tbsp ground flax, 1tbsp shredded coconut, and whatever other toppings and milk/mylk you like!
OR Eggs on toast (ideal is sourdough or a sprouted grain-ey toast like Silver Hills if you in Canada; or gluten free if you are!) with half an avocado and a handful of rocket or spinach
Smoothie - I love Frozen mango, cucumber, 1 slice lemon (peel and all!), spinach or kale, 1/4 avocado, and either a scoop of a vanilla protein powder or 2 tbsp hemp hearts. Top with water or nut milk and blend
Lunch: Quinoa salad with grated carrot, beet, and feta. Dress with olive oil and balsamic. Add some (leftover) sliced chicken if desired, but the quinoa and feta work well in the protein/fat content! *NOTE* - I hate making lunch. I almost exclusively eat leftovers OR I bulk make a big salad with grains or beans or roasted veggies and cheese etc on a Sunday afternoon and then package it up into containers to grab when I'm running out the door.
Dinner: Your favourite fish with roasted potatoes or sweet potatoes and either a salad or be really lazy and just throw more veggies in the roasting pan. Roast broccoli and cauli are amazing, or add in peppers and carrots. Eat leftovers as a roast veggie salad with feta!
So there you have it - healthy food for a healthy mind. I know its not groundbreaking stuff, but as much as fancy and extreme diets work as click bait, the real good stuff is rarely that exciting. It's all about consistently supporting your mind (and body!) with real, whole foods. As simple and boring as it gets!
Let me know what you think in the comments below, or get on my newsletter list and email me your thoughts! I'd love to hear your feedback.
Stay tuned for the other 4 pillars of good mental health coming up! And if you don't want to risk missing it (or any of the other articles), then sign up to my email list. You'll also get a sweet little freebie I made, just cuz I love ya :)