Over the past five years, it has become apparent that what we eat directly affects brain function and how we feel. You don’t have to look far to see that any mental health strategies include eating well. It is particularly pertinent in a world where demands upon us – and our brain power – are high and the prevalence of stress related diseases are on the increase. Yet, there is little time for rest, relaxation, and recovery: we have to do more on a low battery.
This is particularly relevant to those in recovery because people who suffer with addiction can display a sensitivity to certain foods – specifically craving foods which affect the reward center of the brain and, subsequently, our mood.
Supply and Demand
At its most basic level, the equation of increased demands and decreased energy levels speaks of the need to increase our self-care rituals, and fuel our bodies well. It also calls for the need to review our life stressors, and demands, to see what can be renegotiated and omitted from our lives.
So why do we put off self-care so much and keep running on empty?
I think that is mostly due to the perception of eating well: the perceived notion that it can be restrictive and no fun – that it requires too much effort. There is also a harm reduction mentality that “at least it isn’t hard drugs – what is the harm with food?”
What if I were to suggest that if you changed your view point – and saw the benefits of eating in that way – it might motivate you to take greater care of yourself? I bet you might be interested. I am not for a minute suggesting that you put down all candy, junk food, or takeout – rather that knowledge is power, and that power might influence some choices that will make you feel better.
Eating foods that fuel the brain – the body’s most powerful organ – will give you more energy, help you sleep better, boost mental health, and suffer with less stress-related illness. Who wouldn’t want that? I found my first year of recovery exhausting. I certainly wish I knew then what I know now, and need not have suffered.
When I changed my perception by learning what I ate and how it made me feel, I saw that it affected the recurrence of depressive episodes – they were less! Two years into my journey, I discovered the parallels between drug addiction and food addiction and have shared what eating well in recovery looks like. I also discovered a number of facts:
I didn’t lack willpower; my brain was craving certain triggering foods that overrode the rational part of my brain.
Sugar and highly palatable foods act like an opioid drug – such as morphine or heroin – in the brain.
My brain was seeking to replace the “feel good” chemicals I had depleted in my active addiction.
Those who suffer with addiction have brains wired to seek pleasure.
I was influenced by food messaging, or advertising, which compelled me to eat, even when I wasn’t hungry.
The Science of Feeding Your Mental Health
In my continued pursuit of mental health and physical wellness, I’ve read numerous books, articles and studies. Two that are particularly interesting to me are The Healthy Mind Cookbook (Rebecca Katz and Mat Edelson) and Potatoes not Prozac (Kathleen DesMaisons PHD). They write about the connection between food and mood. Specifically:
Stress, Anxiety and Depression
Stress affects the body’s production of the feel good hormone, serotonin. It is suggested that you seek out foods with a high ratio of tryptophan (an amino acid which the body uses to convert to serotonin) found in pumpkin seeds, turkey, and sesame seeds. Teamed with vegetables, you increase its absorption. Another way to improve your mood and mental illnesses – such as depression and ADHD – is by eating omega 3 fatty-acids. These can be found in cold water oily fish (salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies), and in nuts and olive oil.
DesMaisons asserts that you should stop blaming yourself. She says that you are not self-indulgent, or undisciplined, rather “Many people who suffer from sugar sensitivity don’t even know it – and they continue to consume large quantities of sweets, breads, pasta, or alcohol. These foods can trigger exhaustion or low self-esteem, yet their biochemical impact makes those who are sugar sensitive crave them even more. This vicious cycle can continue for years, leaving sufferers overweight, fatigued, depressed…”
Memory, Cognition and Learning
Edelson and Katz cite discoveries around memory – that perhaps a fading memory isn’t inevitable and that new brain cells can be produced in parts of the brain connected to learning. They say that that new science suggests that it is possible to supercharge the process of regeneration through food. Eating omega 3’s (cold water fish, nuts and seeds) and vitamin E (broccoli, citrus, nuts and seeds) can assist that growth. Further, researchers at Oxford found that memory and cognition may be affected with the use of B vitamins. Exercise is also shown to be a contributing factor to the brain’s ability to change and adapt (known as neuroplasticity).
The Gut or “Second Brain”
The brain and gut are linked by a nerve. When your body is stressed, your digestive system shuts down. Inevitably, this will have an effect on your mood! Your body should be relaxed before eating to prevent this.
This information may seem like a lot to take in at once. I’d suggest that you can take away a couple key points:
The food you eat greatly affects your mood and brain function. Eating a range of oily fish, nuts, seeds, and colorful vegetables will reduce the prevalence of some mental illness, provide more energy and increase mental clarity.
Stress has a powerful effect on the body. Try to work on rest and relaxation techniques, particularly before you eat.
My philosophy is to start small; try making one meal a day packed with these powerful foods. Experiment with recipes which make the ingredients into a meal that you want to eat and tastes delicious. It can be as simple or as challenging as you like – the choice is yours!
About the Author: Olivia Pennelle
Writer, blogger, nutrition and recovery advocate, Olivia Pennelle (Liv), is in long-term recovery from addiction.
Liv passionately believes in a fluid and holistic approach to sobriety. Her popular site, Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, is a resource for the journey toward health and wellness in recovery. For Liv, the kitchen represents the heart of the home: to eat, share, and love.