When your brain and body are conspiring against you to claim your emotions, you have to beat them at their own game
I have the “triad” of mental health issues. Depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. And at this point in the COVID crisis, I’m literally hanging on by a thread. It feels like the medications that used to keep me emotionally balanced are being replaced with placebo pills, and the demons they used to keep at bay are breaking down my doors and smashing through my windows.
I can no longer sleep at night. The bouts of anxiety that used to rear their ugly heads when I was under extreme stress now begin the moment I open my eyes. The carefully constructed routines that used to make me feel safe and grounded are gone, and as a result, I feel unable to find my way out of the abyss I’ve fallen into.
And not only am I anxious, but I’m also angry at myself for not adjusting the way many people are. I see so many people looking forward to the holidays while I’m feeling detached from all things “happy.” They’re managing to laugh and joke with friends while I’m watching myself slide deeper and deeper into self-imposed isolation.
And I’m pretty sure my symptoms will not go away until our “new normal” is replaced by a normal that looks more like it did a year ago.
If this sounds like your life as well, the truth is we have to do something to help ourselves. Maybe we won’t be able to feel the peace we used to, but we have to stop this spiral of depression from completely devouring our ability to experience happiness. At this point in time, struggling in silence and simply “pushing through it” is not getting us anywhere.
That’s why I’ve decided I’m going to make some changes in my life. And as a person suffering from depression, the energy required to do this seems impossible, but then I ask myself, what’s the other alternative? What have I got to lose?
So if you are at your mental health “rock bottom,” maybe you need to try something different as well. Right now, I’m going to start with something simple: changing my diet.
The connection between nutrition and mental health
People with mental health issues tend to treat our bodies one of two ways. We either lose our appetite or binge eat, both of which sabotage our health. And more often than not, what we put in our mouths is not nutritionally beneficial.
We’re also more prone to abusing substances we used to indulge in moderately, such as the occasional cigarette to calm our nerves or the daily glass of wine to relax. And all of these activities steal what our bodies need to hold depression and anxiety at bay.
A large body of research has proven the fact that our food choices affect how we function mentally. In a recent pamphlet published by the United Kingdom’s Mental Health Foundation, they state the fact that “a growing body of evidence [indicates] that nutrition may play an important role in the prevention, development and management of diagnosed mental health problems including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and dementia.”
An article from Harvard Medical School reinforces the connection between our nutritional choices and our mental health by comparing our brains to cars and the nutritional choices we make as fuel. They state “what’s in that fuel makes all the difference” and “what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.”
Because most of our mental states are fragile, an extreme change in diet would likely be counterproductive, but we can make some simple changes that may boost our ability to cope.
Eat foods rich in folate or folic acid
Folic acid is a form of vitamin B which is essential to overall health, and a wealth of medical evidence connects a lack of this vitamin with depression. Everyday Health reports studies published in the Journal of Psychology and Neuroscience that show “an elevated incidence of folate deficiency in patients with depression.”
They go on to explain that folic acid lessens the presence of homocysteine, an amino acid that keeps important neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine from reproducing in the body. And imbalances or impaired functioning of these neurotransmitters is strongly linked to depressive symptoms.
Foods that are rich in folic acid
Healthline lists fifteen foods that are rich in folic acids. some of which include beans and lentils, eggs, broccoli, leafy greens, asparagus, bananas, nuts, and citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons.
Eat “smart carbs”
Most of us concerned about things such as weight loss are told carbohydrates are the enemy, but Harvard Health Publishing explains that “dietary carbs provide the body’s primary energy source, glucose, which fuels everything you do, from breathing to thinking to running.”
Misunderstandings about whether or not to eat carbohydrates stem from the fact many people believe all carbohydrates are the same. Carbohydrates are divided into two types: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates, such as those found in sugary drinks, candy, pastries, and other desserts, should only be eaten in limited amounts, but complex carbohydrates are a different story. Mayo Clinic states these “good carbs” increase the amount of serotonin in your brain, promoting heightened relaxation and calm.
Foods that contain complex carbohydrates
Everyday Health explains the difference between these two opposing types of carbohydrates and gives you a list of what things to eat to boost your mood. They list serotonin supportive complex carbohydrates as being those found in whole wheat breads, pastas, flour, brown and wild rices, legumes, potatoes, and corn.
Eat foods that consist of essential amino acids
Mind Health 360 states that “amino acids are the building blocks of brain cells, certain cells surrounding brain cells, neurotransmitters and hormones, all of which influence our mood, anxiety, sleep, etc.” They go on to say a deficiency in key amino acids can lead to depression, insomnia, mania, psychosis, anxiety, and exhaustion.
Foods that contain essential amino acids
An article in Medical News Today gives a list of foods that contain essential amino acids. They cite foods such as eggs, grains, nuts, seeds, chicken, turkey, fish, cottage cheese. and soy. They go on to say “all foods that contain protein, whether plant-based or animal-based, will contain at least some of the essential amino acids.”
The bottom line
We have to take care of our bodies to take care of our mental health, and this is extremely important right now because many of the things that gave us joy pre-pandemic are impossible to replicate.
Drew Ramsey, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, says that “one of the most powerful interventions that a therapist can have on a client is diet.” And those of us who suffer from mental illness know sometimes we have to be our own therapist. And looking at the evidence, it’s pretty clear that if we give our body what it needs, it will return the favor.