Food is a necessity of life. It keeps us alive. It sustains us.
It’s pleasure you can receive without the muss and fuss of another human.
But food also has some shadowy slopes. In fact food can sometimes be downright dangerous.
Food can create a filter—good or bad—through which you perceive your world. Your choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and even your portion sizes, can make or break your mood. For example, your menu choices and amounts can contribute to calm and contentment or to anxiety and debilitating depression.
Food is powerful.
Appreciation of the relationship between food and mood is exploding. This link is being studied and applied in human medicine, from pediatrics to geriatrics, and even in the growing research labyrinths of small and large animal veterinary medicine.
Nutritional Psychology is an emerging science surrounding how food and nutrients affect mood and behavior. Nutritional psychologists appreciate the relationship between food and our internal experience of our outward universe.
What you eat so affects the world-life-viewpoint that you carry around inside your head, it becomes downright malpractice and declaredly stupid, to not first assess and improve one’s diet when one suffers mood disorders, before reaching for pharmaceutical scripts. This applies to all aspects of anxiety and depression, to trauma to panic, and even insomnia to overwhelm. Assessing your food/mood link applies to all situations of emotional distress, unless there’s an emergency scenario with any threat of suicide.
If you or someone you love suffers emotionally from any varietals of emotional distress and life inhibiting moods and ability to act fully, a practitioner trained to evaluate food intake and make dietary and nutrient recommendations, before pharmaceutical intervention, makes huge sense.
This is critical for two reasons. First food is a powerful mood modulator with no complicating side effects and it often can help the person see a more rose-colored light. Secondly, meds used to treat mood issues are not as effective as we previously had thought, and are far more dangerous than we ever considered possible.
Take antidepressants for example. A large and impressive study from McMaster University published in 2017 has shown that both tricyclic and SSRI forms of antidepressants are linked to increased risk of premature death from all causes except heart disease. The authors remind us that unfortunately, antidepressants have turned out to be much less effective in many persons than intended, they also often cause dangerous “rebound” when trying to get off them, and shock of shockers, they increase the risk for early death from multiple causes by 33% in those who take them, prescribed by their well-intentioned doctors.
Depression statistics are depressing.
Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, has written that 46% of Americans fit a diagnosis for one form of mental illness or another. One of every five American children experiences depression or anxiety. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that stated that nearly 20 percent of American children (aged 3 to 17) suffer from some form of mental disorder, (loosely defined as “serious changes in the ways children handle their emotions, learn, or behave). The Institute of National Mental Health released statistics demonstrating that 25.1% of kids from 13 to 18 years old suffer with anxiety.
What is what we are eating could heal much of this suffering?
What if what you fed your kids could help them be more congruent family members, achieve better academically, be less bullied, or morph from adolescence to adulthood with less drama/trauma?
Are you willing to approach your kitchen as a powerful portal into your family’s moods, present and future?
Food Mood Research
Research published in the prestigious British Journal of Psychiatry tracked dietary patterns and risk of depression in 3,486 participants over a five-year period. Individuals eating whole foods reported fewer symptoms of depression compared to those who ate mostly processed foods. Vegetarians reported more positive moods compared to meat eaters.
A study by the department of nutrition at Arizona State University on vegetarians versus meat eating Seventh Day Adventists found that eating more veggies boosted mental health and happiness.
People who consume diets high in veggies over a period of extended time, have lower levels of inflammatory markers in their tissues, especially their brain tissue. Brain inflammation is linked to mood issues like anxiety and depression as well as neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Science shows that fruits and vegetables contain powerful mood protective compounds. People who consume more colorful fresh fruits and veggies have less “brain on fire” and less dark perceptions of how their lives are unfolding.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are rich in brain, neurotransmitter and mood protective compounds like antioxidants and phytochemicals. Plant foods are the only foods that contain the plant chemical quercetin. It acts on the brain like an anti-depressant MAO inhibitor, boosting “happy neurotransmitters” and boosting mood.
Fresh veggies, fruits, olives, avocados healthy fats and healthy proteins like fish, seeds and nuts, also contain building blocks of happy neurotransmitters such as omega-3 fatty acids and healthy amino acids like tryptophan.
But it’s not just nutrient poor and highly processed junk food, or too much meat, or too much sugar that can ding your mood.
Healthy food can turn mood kryptonite too!
This connection between food and mood has been known for decades, but rarely embraced by typical medical clinicians. But statistics don’t lie. Published research shows beyond a doubt that food intolerances and allergies are on the rise, especially in children, and with it, more anxiety, depression, and emotional distress.
Once, however, you realize the influence of food on your brain, mood, and quality of life, you can choose to make improved food choices. And have improved emotional management.
The “Food Sensitivity Syndrome”
The link between food and emotional issues has been known and proven by research for about five decades. A link that shows that we can eat even healthy foods, but if our body regards it as “foe” and our tissues react adversely to it, it can severely damage our mood and life.
This type of food/mood reactive link, is often referred to as “food sensitivity syndromes”— cases in which consuming certain foods are directly linked to increased sensations of anxiety, depression, brain fog and variations on a theme of emotional distress
There is a famous study, now long forgotten, that is one of my favorite examples of the food sensitivity syndrome. It was published in the prestigious journal, The Lancet, a while back. But knowledge and facts don’t age over time. They hold their veracity.
This was a report about six patients with longstanding physical and mental symptoms who had not been helped by many years of conventional medical investigation and treatment. These people had severe life-disabling phobias, hallucinations, and chronic skin conditions. They couldn’t leave their homes, or interact in the world in normal ways, or hold down jobs. But their “cure” had eluded many well-intentioned and reputable doctors for years.
In this study, the patients were blindfolded. Foods were administered through a tube into their stomachs. The patients were monitored for their response.
All six patients had reproducible fears, phobias, hallucinations, dermatologic welts and rashes, and emotional distress when their unique trigger foods were put down into the stomach tube and thus entered their bloodstream.
What were the most common trigger foods? Black tea and coffee.
When these patients completely (emphasis on completely) removed the trigger foods from their diet, all their serious debilitating life-long issues stopped. They were no longer captives in their homes or by their phobias.
The authors of this clinical study said this small pilot trial supports the view that some foods may cause widespread and disabling symptoms in people who are sensitive to them. This article, remember, was published in The Lancet in the 1970s.
Food is powerful. It affects your brain. It can affect how you see your world. It can promote calm or fear. It can help you sleep or ruin it. It may be more the cause of your insomnia than a benzodiazepine deficiency.
Digestion is part of how you react to food.
The act of digestion takes food and breaks it down into nourishment. If your digestion is robust and all is going well.
When food is adequately digested, it enters your body as nourishment. It could be called your “food friend,” meaning it nourishes and supports you. If food is not adequately digested, it can actually become a “food foe,” meaning it can act against you and be harmful to your tissues, especially your brain. Food foes can adversely effect your physiology, your neuronal tissue, and your mood.
Almost 20 years ago, I wrote the first nutrition, mind, and gut book, called Healthy Digestion the Natural Way (Wiley). It was the first book to link the gut, the mind, and food. In it I mentioned a fascinating study that linked food issues—food foes—with anxiety and depression. This study was published in a peer review journal, Haptogastroenterology.
This study compared mental health scores in patients with irritable bowel syndrome and lactose intolerances to healthy patients without gut issues or food sensitivities. All participants were tested for anxiety and depression. The results showed that people with “gut issues” and “food intolerant issues” (in this case, a milk sugar or lactose insufficiency), suffered with significantly higher levels of anxiety and depression.
The authors suggested that part of the mechanism of food allergy influence on mood is mediated by mast cells. Mast cells are white blood cells that are part of our immune system. When these circular cells excessively break open, called degranulation, irritating granular like substances are liberated into your bloodstream. These promote inflammation. They can travel throughout the highways of your blood stream, affecting far away and diverse tissues, such as your brain and nervous system. De-granulating mast cells can contribute to on-going mental and mood anguish.
How often have you heard someone complain to a practitioner that they had disabling anxiety and their practitioner recommended looking at their diet? Not often.
In today’s “pharmacalized” world, we look toward scripts, not food, to save us.
The human race is paying a huge price for the downstream adverse issues linked to taking these meds. When the answer might be what you put into your mouth.
Diet equals how you feel and think.
Your doctor doesn’t usually look at it this way. But you need to. Why? Because no one will ever care about your health as much as you do. And every drug has a shadow side, while cleaning up your diet doesn’t.
Food sensitivity problems are on the rise.
From my alma mater, the University of Michigan, a review was published in Oct. 2017 that informed psychiatrists about the food allergy/mental health link, especially in children and teens. The authors say, hey, mood docs, consider food as part of the problem, because then the fix might be food, not meds.
The Michigan authors concluded, “The prevalence of food allergy is increasing. The burden of day-to-day management of food allergy is significant and can have a negative impact on quality of life for both parents of those with food allergy, and the children themselves. This can impact social functioning, academic functioning, and mental health.”
Food allergies really affect mood. Kids with food allergy experience more bullying than peers. They have greater issues identifying their emotions, in transiting from adolescence to adulthood, and in academic abilities.
Food allergies are on the rise and with them are also rising levels of alexithymia (difficulty in recognizing and expressing emotions).
This is significant. It means that when children ingest “foe” foods, they may be less in touch with their emotions, less likely to do well in school, and more likely to have issues maturing.
Also, “friend” or “foe” foods can play a role in obesity. Certain foe foods act similarly to morphine-like molecules within the brain. They promote addictive eating. Thus, personal foe foods can lead to overeating. Overeating can lead to more belly fat. Increased belly fat can make it more difficult to be mindful, to regulate one’s behavior, including appetite, and to feel confident within one’s own body suit.
See Berkson’s blog below on mindfulness and belly fat at https://drlindseyberkson.com/bigger-belly-fat-smaller-brain-size-shocking-link-mindfulness-15-sophisticated-action-steps/
How are the ways foe food dings mood?
- Food that is not properly broken down can “leak” across the gut wall and travel via the blood into the brain, where it can cause inflammation, malfunction, and mood changes.
- Food can release or inhibit morphine-like molecules that promote food addiction.
- Junk food choices can decrease nutrient reserves, which block enzymatic action and hormone signals, so brain and mood function is altered.
- Processed foods are high in pesticides and hormone-altering chemicals that can damage brain structure and function.
- Food containing powerful food nutrients can improve neurotransmitters, brain structure and mood and even sleep infrastructure.
- Food and/or chemical reactivity’s can cause mast cell release that can “stress” the autonomic nervous system and promote anxiety, mood issues, and a rainbow set of emotional distress symptoms.
Dartmouth researchers wrote a review on the increase of food allergies in children being significantly linked to increased risk of anxiety and depression, in the children as well as their family members.
Research clearly links foe foods, reactive foods, to mental health issues, as well as processed and unhealthy food choices to mental woes.
But this has not yet trickled down into most clinical trenches.
Despite all the research, there is still not much recognition that food is a powerful mood modulator.
The Department of Psychiatry at the University of Arizona was tired of this debate, so they designed a unique study. They looked at 500 college students and tested their reactivity to foods, but also added their reactivity to scents and chemicals.
The Arizona scientists found that young adults, who are more “reactive”— either to food and/or chemicals—are more apt to have psychological patterns that include anxiety and depression. They also exhibit increases indigestion, headaches, memory problems, and overall emotional distress. This can affect academic performance as well as social behaviors.
In other words, those with unidentified foe foods in their diet often don’t feel so well physically or mentally. A huge part of their healing is identifying these unfriendly foods, removing them from their diet, improving their overall dietary choices, and boosting their overall digestive capabilities. All that is best done with practitioners that focus on nutrition, the gut, and natural answers.
What if your child suffers with anxiety, fatigue, and/or depression? Wouldn’t it be better if identifying their foe foods and improving their digestion could help them, instead of giving their young and still developing brains and bodies potentially dangerous medications? Medications that are often linked to adverse brain and longevity effects?
And the benefits of improving food choices and natural answers often occur rapidly and with no complications, as can occur with pharmaceutical agents.
The big take away.
- You make about 200 “fork-in-the-road” decisions a day. That sounds like a lot, and it is. Each choice of what to put inside your body can lift or dampen your mood, and your interpretation of reality.
- Food is mood medicine.
- Part of treating anxiety and depression should be identification and treatment of food and chemical reactivity’s.
- Food improvement should be considered before drug intervention.
- Boosting gut, microbiome and digestive health is part of making food more your friend than your foe.
- Food choices have enormous influence over mental health and mood.
- Even if your doctors don’t realize this, you can take action with food as medicine, today!
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