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It’s long been established that the food we eat directly correlates to our overall physical health, but there has been more research in recent years about the mind-body connection, specifically as it relates to nourishment. In the field of study coined “nutritional psychiatry,” scientists are investigating the relationship between food and mood, how what (and even when) we eat can directly influence our mental health and overall wellness.
For many, it can feel challenging to eat with healthful intention. To not only prioritize and maintain proper, helpful eating habits for optimal body functioning, but to also be aware of the connectivity between physical and mental health. However, with knowledge comes power and in the case of personal wellbeing, intention.
For those struggling with addiction, nutrition is that much more important. Often, when someone suffers under the weight of any substance abuse or addiction, their priorities are skewed and the desire to seek and use substances overpowers even the most basic human needs, like eating. The issue of malnutrition and poor health is twofold in these cases; not only does the pursuit of drugs cause a neglect in proper eating and nutrition, but the substances themselves significantly impact overall body health.
Alcohol, for example, the most used substance in the world, has been linked to various forms of cancer and numerous other conditions when consumed in excess. Methamphetamines alter the production and quality of saliva which makes it a challenge to properly chew and digest food; Cocaine is an appetite suppressant and many times when individuals who use the drug do get around to eating, they’re filling up with carbs and sweets and other empty calories. It is for these reasons that recovery programs must address proper food and nutrition, particularly with an emphasis on education so that patients may learn about the importance of healthy eating for their overall mind and body wellbeing.
According to Dr. Drew Ramsey, a leader in the emerging branch of nutritional psychiatry, the American diet (traditionally very heavy in saturated fats and high in nutrient-lacking calories) is a huge contributor to the increasing prevalence of depression. It is ironic that for a country historically concerned with diet and health as it relates to the body, many Americans aren’t even aware that what we eat can influence how we feel.
While the brain houses and controls mental health and overall functioning, there is also a direct relationship between the gut and the mind through the vagus nerve. The GI tract has been referred to as “the second brain” as it is estimated to produce between 90-95% of the body’s serotonin, a chemical that aids in mood regulation and is thought to be a contributor to various mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. Thus, the food we are fueling with matters a great deal. The human brain requires various nutrients like fatty acids and a range of different vitamins to operate most optimally, many of which can be found in various plant-based foods. And yet very few people consume adequate amounts, if any at all. According to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 10% or 1 in 10 adults eat the recommended 1.5-2 cups of fruit and 2-3 cups of vegetables per day.
In general, professionals advise individuals to minimize their meat and dairy intake and focus on whole foods like those that contain healthy fats, whole grains, legumes, and other veggies. An emphasis placed on color and variety of natural, nutrient-rich foods ensure that we receive an array of healthy victuals that help us function and perform at our best. One of the biggest problems in today’s society is the reliance on highly processed (but easily/readily available) foods. Many of the preprepared snacks and meals are high in sugar and while sugar can cause a temporary spike in various “feel good” chemicals like dopamine, it actually inflames the gut which feeds the bad bacteria, resulting in mood and energy fluctuations.
Since the brain and nervous system rely on nourishment to build new products like cells and tissues, it is important to feed the body the various carbohydrates, proteins, and minerals it requires. For optimal body and brain health, specialists suggest incorporating (and prioritizing) these food groups into your daily diet:
There are innumerable diets and paradigms out there on the ultimate, proper health management, but the general consensus agrees on a combination of more fruits and vegetables (high in fiber and antioxidants), equal amounts of proteins and whole grains, and a small amount of natural fat.
Our culture is increasingly becoming touch and go, rushing about and scheduling responsibilities and playtime strategically throughout our busy days. Often, we don’t allot the time to savor the foods we’re eating; we watch TV while scarfing down dinner and rarely make mealtime its own destination. What once was an act of necessary, life-giving sustenance is now (for many) merely a pesky pit stop we must make lest we wish to forgo everything else we actually want to do.
Intentional mindfulness (throughout all areas of life, but particularly when eating) can be a great way to get more in tune with your body and the present moment you’re experiencing. Much of health and wellness comes down to an awareness. Once we are attentive, it becomes slightly easier to make decisions that are healthy and wise and right for our own minds and bodies.
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Healthy eating can go a long way. However, it does not cure all. If you or someone you know struggles with mental health concerns or uses substances like alcohol or drugs to self medicate, help is available. Know you are not alone and there are treatment providers waiting to answer your questions and get you the help you need. Reach out today for more information.
Hannah Zwemer graduated with a BA in dance and a minor in educational studies from Denison University in 2017 before moving to Orlando to work as a performer at Walt Disney World. While at Disney, she discovered her passion for writing and pursued a master’s degree in creative writing with an emphasis in nonfiction. She is passionate about helping people in any way she can while simultaneously sharing stories that remind us that the best of us are still only human.