This is National Mental Illness Awareness Week. As a psychiatric dietitian, I see so many people, all with a different story. I have patients with chronic mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, mental illnesses that are associated with drug or alcohol abuse, mental illnesses in the form of eating disorders or depression; The list goes on and on. Did you know that one in five people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime (source: NAMI.org)? We are all at risk of mental illness at some point in our lives and there is no shame in that. We are all unique and have unique experiences that lead us to different places in our lives.
You may be thinking, what's this dietitian doing talking about mental health? Well, nutrition plays a huge role in keeping our brains healthy and a healthy brain is one way to combat mental health issues, and can definitely improve quality of life for those suffering with a mental illness.
The brain is an amazing organ! It controls all the other organs in our body and never stops working, so it only makes sense that we would provide it with superb fuel! Making healthy food choices allows us to get rid of harmful free radicals and the "junk" that can make us susceptible to mood disorders and exacerbate the symptoms associated with mental illness. For example, research indicates that diets high in refined sugars can worsen depression (source: health.harvard.edu).
The brain is not the only organ to concern ourselves with when it comes to mental health. The entire gastrointestinal tract is crucial, not only in overall health, but specifically mental health. We each have a unique intestinal microbiome where healthy bacteria works to prevent inflammation and the buildup of toxins, but also helps to stimulate the production serotonin, which is important in regulating your mood. There is a direct connection between the brain and gut and focusing on keeping both of these systems in tip top shape is the secret to maintaining your overall health and improving your mental health!
So, what is superb fuel? We need to start by focusing on getting back to nature and getting rid of the harmful substances that we put into our bodies every day:
1. Load up on fruits and vegetables. All different kinds and colors! Try to get 9 servings a day to enhance your ability to decrease harmful inflammation and fight off free radicals.
2. Avoid refined sugars and processed foods. These are pro-inflammatory and have little nutritional value (this includes sugar sweetened beverages and processed grains).
3. Add in some healthy fats (nuts, seeds, nut butters, healthy oils like olive oil).
4. Limit dairy products.
5. Choose leaner types of meat.
6. Add fermented foods like sauerkraut or use a probiotic (these help keep your good gut bacteria happy).
7. Avoid the junk (candies, cakies, pies, cookies).
I usually tell people to follow the 80/20 rule. Eat superb fuel 80% of the time and you've probably got some room for the less than superb fuel sources! Unless, you are dealing with a chronic disease or autoimmune condition, in that case, the reward of eating junk is probably not worth the consequence. Find balance in your eating habits so you can enjoy a great quality of life and improved mental health. Our bodies do so much for us, they deserve the best!
If you have questions or want more information, let me know!