There are an increasing amount of stressors that we manage on a day-to-day basis. This can be especially true for adolescents and young adults, due to the many life decisions and transitions surrounding education, employment and building independence. Luckily, there are concrete things that we can do to reduce our vulnerability to stress and manage stressors more effectively when they arise.
A good metaphor for reducing vulnerability is building a house. If you were building a house, you would not want to build on muddy or soft ground. You would want to start with a solid and strong foundation. The same is true about learning the best ways to manage difficult emotions. Building a strong foundation means giving yourself the best chances to respond to daily stressors with a sense of confidence, health and mastery.
This blog post will be the beginning of a series of posts regarding ways to build a strong foundation for mental wellness. The first topic we’ll review together is nutrition. The following are a series of questions to ask yourself about whether you are eating to increase mental wellness.
When is the last time I ate?
Have you ever heard the term, “hangry”? It is an amalgam of the words angry and hungry, and many of us have been guilty of this at different times in our lives. Physiologically, when we become hungry our glucose or blood sugars drop. This drop then causes difficulty with concentration, speech and social politeness (to name a few).[i] This decrease in glucose is preventable by eating regular meals throughout the day. Plan ahead and pack an easy snack like nuts, fruit or a whole grain granola bar to keep the hanger away.
Am I eating too much or too little?
When stressed, there can be a tendency to over-eat or under-eat due to fluctuations in appetite. Under-eating can lead to the low blood sugar and "hanger" mentioned above, resulting in increased mood swings. In addition to stress, overeating may also result from boredom or simply not being mindful of your body’s signals that you are full. Spend time practicing mindful eating to listen closely to your body’s messages about whether you are truly full, rather than just distracted or in a rush.
Am I drinking enough water?
Research has shown that even mild dehydration can negatively impact mood and concentration in otherwise healthy people.[ii] Our bodies also can confuse hunger for thirst. This can result in increased snacking when your body isn’t genuinely hungry, due to your body seeking liquids in any modality possible. Especially in high altitude, it’s very important to drink enough water throughout the day to help protect your mood and decrease unnecessary overeating. The common recommendation to drink "8 glasses of water a day” is not necessarily true. The Mayo Clinic and Institute of Medicine recommend that men drink 13 cups (3 liters) and women drink 9 cups (2.2 liters) of total beverages daily in a temperate climate, while making other considerations for diet and lifestyle.[iii] Learn more here.
Am I eating foods that are making me feel worse?
When stressed, we tend to crave foods that are comforting, but may make us feel more emotional in the long run. For instance, frequently eating foods that are high in trans fats has been correlated with sad mood and difficulty managing emotions.[iv] Also, consuming food and drinks that are high in sugars can cause inflammation in the brain, leading to depressed and anxious mood, difficulty with concentration, irritability and insomnia.[v]
Am I eating foods that positively impact my mental health?
There are also many nutrients and vitamins in our food that positively impact mood and mental wellness. In fact, research indicates that the most common nutritional deficiencies in people with mental illness are of omega–3 fatty acids, B vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, which help build chemicals in the brain that impact wellbeing.[vi] Thus, a diet rich in vitamins, protein, complex carbohydrates and omega 3 fatty acids can decrease vulnerability to stress and mental illness.
Eating foods with a moderate amount of carbohydrates can actually boost serotonin in your brain, the “feel good” chemical that improves mood and activates a sense of calm. Carbs have gotten a bad reputation in the past decade, but it has been found that people who skip on carbohydrates may be more likely to feel tense, irritable, sad or angry than their carb-eating counterparts. Target healthy carbs with vegetables, fruit or whole grains.
Vitamins and Minerals
A diet rich in thiamine, iron and B vitamins are important for mental health and wellness. Low iron can mimic symptoms of depression, including fatigue, difficulty with focus and irritability. Iron rich foods include red meat, poultry, fish, lentils, quinoa and pumpkin seeds. Thiamin, also known at vitamin B1, has been found to impact mood, self-confidence and energy levels.[vii] Foods such as whole grains, meat, fish, eggs and cauliflower are rich in thiamine and can improve wellbeing and increase energy and sociability.[viii]
Other B vitamins like B6 and B12 also impact mood and wellbeing. One 2009 study found that over 25% of depressed older women had B12 deficiencies.[ix] Foods rich in B6 include poultry, seafood, bananas, and leafy green vegetables. To increase B12 with your diet, eat meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, eggs, and milk or consider a daily supplement if you don’t eat animal products.[x]
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 Fatty Acids have been show in research studies to have a preventative effect on mood and anxiety disorders.[xi] Omega 3 can be found in flaxseeds, walnuts, canola oil, peanut butter and fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel or rainbow trout. You can also supplement your diet with a daily fish oil pill to increase Omega 3 oils.
Foods high in protein include meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products and plant proteins, such as beans and whole grains. Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of many chemicals in our brains that impact mental health and brain functioning.[xii] A diet rich in protein, moderate carbohydrates and low fats have been found to optimize mental wellness and energy levels.[xiii]
Am I eating to create a good foundation for mental wellness?
There are many things to consider regarding diet and mental health. Next time you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, ask yourself these questions about your nutrition and food intake. Getting wise on the food/mood connection can bring you one step closer to building a strong foundation for mental wellness and reducing vulnerability to stress. Stay tuned for future blog posts on developing a foundation for emotional resilience.
*This blog post is not a substitute for medical advice and solely provides education regarding nutrition and mental health. Always consult your medical doctor or a licensed dietitian for individual recommendations before medical decision-making.
[ii] Armstrong, L. E., Ganio, M. S., Casa, D. J., Lee, E. C., McDermott, B. P., Klau, J. F., ... & Lieberman, H. R. (2012). Mild dehydration affects mood in healthy young women. The Journal of Nutrition, 142(2), 382-388.
[v] Hyman, Mark. The UltraMind Solution: Fix Your Broken Brain By Healing Your Body First ; the Simple Way to Defeat Depression, Overcome Anxiety, and Sharpen Your Mind. First Scribner hardcover edition. Scribner, 2009.
[vi] Rao, T. S. S., Asha, M. R., Ramesh, B. N., & Rao, K. S. J. (2008). Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 50(2), 77–82. http://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.42391
[ix] Hanna, S., Lachover, L., & Rajarethinam, R. P. (2009). Vitamin B12 Deficiency and Depression in the Elderly: Review and Case Report. Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 11(5), 269–270. http://doi.org/10.4088/PCC.08l00707
[xi] Su, K.-P., Matsuoka, Y., & Pae, C.-U. (2015). Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Prevention of Mood and Anxiety Disorders. Clinical Psychopharmacology and Neuroscience, 13(2), 129–137. http://doi.org/10.9758/cpn.2015.13.2.129
[xii] Rao, T. S. S., Asha, M. R., Ramesh, B. N., & Rao, K. S. J. (2008). Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 50(2), 77–82. http://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.42391