Boost Mental Health with Nutrition

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The foods that we eat on a daily basis play a dynamic role in our brain chemistry.  Foods help regulate mood, emotions and brain-signaling pathways.  Healthy foods help to keep the brain healthy, while unhealthy foods can contribute to sluggishness, brain “fog,” and mood symptoms, among other health problems.   

One of the key elements in keeping our mind and body running smoothly is keeping inflammation at bay.  This helps to keep our tissues healthy, our metabolism running efficiently, and our digestive system healthy.  Inflammation is a culprit in many chronic diseases and has been linked to depression and anxiety, in addition to diabetes, heart disease and cancer. 

Inflammation is influenced by a number of factors including poor diet, exposure to toxins, or stress.  We can make a conscious decision to reduce risk for inflammation by consuming healthy foods that keep our gut (sometimes called the “gut brain”) healthy and mood-boosting chemicals plentiful.  This is one way to help counter some of the effects of environmental stressors on health.   

So … what can we do to decrease inflammation or keep inflammation from occurring? Cutting out the top five inflammatory foods is a good start. The top five inflammatory foods are corn, soy, gluten, sugar and dairy:

Corn we buy today is different from the native corn that sustained earlier settlers in the US.  Corn has become a staple of food manufacturing in the US and is a primary source of unhealthy sugars including dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, and sucrose.  These sugars are particularly taxing due to effects on the brain and their ability to bypass our hormonal messaging system that cues us to cease consumption. 

Soy production has also been modified in recent decades and is known to deplete mood-stabilizing nutrients such as magnesium, zinc, and calcium.  Fermented soy such as miso is a healthier alternative to raw soy, and is a treasured ingredient in Asian cultures that boast greater longevity among their populations.

Gluten is found in wheat and is now found in higher concentrations due to flour production using short “dwarf wheat.”  Gluten can be particularly problematic for those with gluten sensitivity, but has been shown to contribute to inflammation even for those without food sensitivities. 

Sugar is now known to be highly addictive and damaging to bodily tissues.  You might notice mild inflammation in your mouth after eating copious amounts of sugar and you can expect that this effect would continue throughout the digestive tract.  High sugar consumption has been linked to diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and dementia. 

Dairy foods, once hailed as an excellent source of calcium, have been found to contribute to inflammation, even in those who are not lactose intolerant.  Cow’s milk is harder on the digestive system than once believed and this results in greater inflammation.  Calcium, on the other hand, is found in sufficient amounts in whey protein, dark green vegetables, sweet potatoes and oranges.

Simple dietary changes such as replacing inflammatory foods with healthier foods offer an effective way to feel better, both mentally and physically.  With the exception of those with food allergies or sensitivities, complete eradication of inflammatory foods is not necessary. However, by following a diet that is lower in inflammatory foods, we reap the benefits of fewer digestive problems (e.g., bloating, diarrhea), improved energy, and improved mood.  Even small changes in diet, when sustained over time, can make a difference in how we feel both physically and mentally. 

If you would like more information about preparing healthy meals, contact the Health and Wellness Center at 228-2294. For mental health matters, consider stopping into Family Health and asking about BHOP, or you can call the Mental Health Clinic at 228-4926.