Many people seeking help for mental health issues look first to chemical intervention in the form of a medication. There is another chemical intervention which you can utilize yourself - your diet. Having a healthy diet is crucial when trying to fight for your mental health, especially where mood disorders are concerned. How can dietary changes affect depression, anxiety and mood swings?
Good mental health is about maintaining balance, in your thoughts, in your actions and especially in your emotions. When addressing nutrition for mental health it is important to understand how food nourishes and fuels your body as well as the part it plays in providing your body with necessary nutrients for maintaining that balance that it is important for peace of mind.
1. Complex Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are the body's preferred source of energy. Your body will burn carbohydrates first before turning to protein or fats. A lack of energy sources in the body will result in the body shutting down and altering activity levels. People who are chronically tired often feel sad and hopeless as a result. To keep your emotions on an even keel it is important to have a slow steady stream of carbohydrates broken down and made available in the bloodstream for energy.
People struggling with depression and/or mood swings often rely heavily on simple carbohydrates (sugars) rather than complex carbohydrates (starches). Simple carbohydrates (candies, table sugar, honey, sodas, fruits, milk products) break down quickly in the bloodstream and hit it with a bang that provides immediate energy. This is why they are preferred by people with depression. However, what goes up must come down, usually with the same speed and intensity. The surge of energy is followed by a crash when the sugar is quickly burned up. This crash exacerbates depression, fatigue, impaired concentration and memory and irritability. However, all simple carbohydrates are not equal. There is a difference between the simplest carbohydrates like table sugar, sodas and candies which are referred to as "empty calories" because they provide so much glucose, an easily broken down form of sugar, and no nutritional value. Compare these with fruits and milk products whose sugars (fructose and galactose respectively) are somewhat harder to break down, enter the bloodstream a bit more gradually and have a somewhat milder crash and provide significant nutrition such as vitamin C and calcium. If you are craving something sweet have an apple or orange rather than a candy bar.
Complex carbohydrates (whole grains, starchy vegetables and beans) are even harder for the body to metabolize and provide and slow, constant stream of fuel for the body's energy demands. This avoids the peaks and crashes of the simple carbohydrates. Whole grains also provide lots of B vitamins which calm and stabilize the mood and help your body metabolize carbohydrates for increased energy.
It is important to eat high quality proteins like chicken, fish, turkey, soy, dairy products and beans. (I am a very big fan of beans. They are usually high in protein, low in fat and high in fiber.) Proteins are made of amino acids. Your body uses amino acids to make neurotransmitters in the brain. These chemicals (like serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine and GABA) are the chemicals which antidepressants and anxiolytics (anti-anxiety medications) seek to increase to improve your mood and calm you. Chicken and turkey are also high in tryptophan, which the body also uses to make serotonin, one of the primary neurotransmitters for lifting and calming the mood. Running short on these neurotransmitters results in depression, irritability, difficulty thinking and remembering, insomnia, fatigue and anxiety. Having sufficient stores of these neurotransmitters available to the brain helps it regulate emotions and thinking. Providing your body with the necessary ingredients to manufacture these neurotransmitters is vital for improving your mental health and keeping things in balance.
The benefits of a low fat diet for fighting weight gain and heart disease have been highly touted. However, many don't realize that limiting your fat intake too severely of healthy fats can result in serious mood changes, irritability and aggression. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish have been found to help stabilize mood swings and decrease stress. "Good fats" burn clean in the bloodstream compared to "bad fats" which clog the arteries and narrow the blood vessels. Good fats include olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocadoes and fish. Exchange that fried chicken for a grilled salmon. Replace a mayonnaise dressing with an olive oil and vinegar splash.
It's always amazing to me to find people struggling with serious anxiety problems who are still drinking a significant amount of caffeine everyday. Since I don't drink caffeine on a regular basis I have no tolerance for it and it literally makes me shake when I do drink it. I can't imagine throwing that in on top of an anxiety problem. If anxiety is the problem, I would eliminate caffeine all together and see if it helps.
For people with mood disorders, caffeine provides a serious rush of energy, but like simple carbohydrates (sugars) you crash when it wears off. This peak and crash pattern is not good for people trying to stabilize mood swings and the crash will exacerbate depressive symptoms.