As the pandemic unfolded, the mental health epidemic slowly began to reveal itself. Typically mental health – particularly the darker side of it remains shrouded in taboo and silence. Most people who struggle with it do so in secrecy, never revealing the extent to which it affects their day-to-day lives and those they love. With everyone home and nowhere else to go and few to see, facing yourself became inevitable. For those who have long struggled with depression and anxiety, it was less shocking and more relief that we finally began an open, honest discussion about mental health struggles. Food and diet have played a role in these stressors.
The busiest amongst us were forced to slow down with the rest of the world. There was no chronic scheduling, ladder climbing, racing, and overworking to mask what our minds and bodies needed to reveal. If being alone or quiet with your emotions does not come naturally, you’re in good company. Most of us are in the business of doing, not feeling. When we stop to listen and process, rather than reacting for the first quick fix or mindless distraction, we become mind- FULL. We then find that our bodies are a beautiful, intricately attuned orchestra bursting with guidance.
Diversity makes you think
One of my Business Communications courses this semester at Harvard was a public speaking course. Amongst my favorite things about my classes is the range of people and backgrounds. Yes, everyone is intelligent, experts in one or more fields, ambitious and hungry to improve and grow. Aside from that, the similarities end. There are Fortune 500 CEOs, teachers, tech whizzes, entrepreneurs, and plenty of people who used the pandemic as an opportunity to make a pivot. For our final speech accounting for a large portion of our grade, we had to speak about how the Covid Pandemic affected us and/or our family.
Much to my surprise, speech after speech dove bravely and honestly into individual struggles with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideations, and more. Peers from all over the world divulged these dark struggles and the hope and self-awareness it took to get through them and keep getting through them. Discovery and ultimately recovery occurred in an array of ways. Mindfulness, meditation, yoga, sometimes medication, and talk therapy were amongst the healing modalities shared. Many individuals shared what a difference eating better had on them.
Food guided by instinct
Without being told, our bodies know when to blink, inhale, exhale, rise and rest. Since the beginning of time, Mother Nature has been the conductor of the symphony that is our body. So, what does any of this have to do with food and mood? When we are attuned to ourselves and the rhythms of nature, we discover what foods are available with each season for us to function our best. Instead of exhausting ourselves and resources using more than we need, we find nourishment from what is all around us.
Ever notice how cucumbers or other fresh fruit become more abundant in warmer months? We actually crave that crisp, cool lightness and more sweetness because our bodies need it. With sweat and hotter temperatures, cucumbers, watermelon, and other seasonal produce are incredibly hydrating and refreshing. Summer squash for dinner is not only readily available in these months it’s a perfect complement to dinner because it won’t weigh you down. This is much better than its more grounding relative winter squash.
Sugar is so comforting to many people. Baking evokes warmth and comfort. Processed sugar also causes drastic drops and rises in blood sugar which affects our mood and energy levels. What goes up must come down. That is a fundamental law of physics and sheds light on the phrase “sugar high.” At the bottom of that high will come the low and a need to fill it. I recommend dark chocolate. Chocolate has several rewarding mood-enhancing properties. Cinnamon, sweet potatoes, and some onions are also fantastic for starving off sugar cravings and satisfying our need for sweetness. Instead of using food as a drug, use it as the powerful healing tool that it is.
When I decided to get off all meds cold turkey, I was scared but ready. Since the age of 14, I’d been prescribed a laundry list of antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, sleep meds for insomnia, and amphetamines for focus. I was up, I was down, and I was a slave to my psychiatrist and pharmacy. Never did I feel addicted to these medications. I simply trusted doctors that I’d see for 15 minutes every 1-3 months to heal me better than myself. I trusted a tiny capsule over the power encapsulated within my own wisdom and inner resources.
Sitting with my memories and emotions is rarely suggested but needed. No one told me how to deal with feelings in practical, tactical ways or said it was safe to do so. That takes time, and time is something most doctors have little of. If you’ve ever been diagnosed with depression and anxiety then prescribed meds, you know that while sometimes necessary, it can be so problematic and alienating.
*As a quick aside, I do want to state that I am not anti-medicine. It can absolutely serve a purpose in circumstances in which you’ve tried everything, exhausted every means of healing, and still struggle.
Food and nutrition training
Nutrition training consists of about an hour for most doctors in med school and is often outdated and extremely broad. Most western medicine does not acknowledge a mind, body, or spirit connection even though most high functioning machines operate.
Deciding to take back my health on every level meant educating myself. It required fierce trust and commitment to myself and Mother Nature, as well as attunement to every rhythm and cycle around me. I had to get curious and experiment, and it’s what I hope you will do too.
In my case, and that of many people I’ve met and worked with, we never gave ourselves and our inner resources a chance. With trial, error, and a willingness to learn, you’ll find what foods work best for your mind and body. Avocadoes and bananas do wonders for anxiety, as does full-fat yogurt. Committing to a diet of mostly healthy fats and whole foods can prove energizing and mood-boosting than any antidepressant on the market. If, like me, your depression and anxiety prove particularly resistant, resist the urge to quit on yourself. Instead, ditch gluten (seriously!) and commit to healing your gut. With over 90% of serotonin produced in our gut, reducing inflammation and dysbiosis of the gut can be a game-changer. Incorporate fermented foods and probiotic means. Choose what you give life to!
Is focus an issue? Me too! Blueberries are a daily part of my diet as they have anticodons that boost cognitive function.
Fatty fish like salmon and oysters have EPA and DHA that our brains love. Vitamin D is also essential to melatonin and serotonin production. Still, most people are deficient – particularly if you’re in a climate with less sunshine.
Tips to avoid bad habits
Overeating or trouble regulating intake? Use fiber! Fiber is lacking in most SAD (Standard American Diet) diets, but it’s vital! Fiber is the difference between being satiated and energized for hours vs. “needing” food 6x a day. Imagine working for hours on end without needing to stop and reach for that Power Bar laden with empty calories or biting someone’s head off in a state of “hanger.” You’re the master of your domain!
Green tea has polyphenol and theanine content that enhances mod and sustains focus – think Japanese Zen masters. Better yet, drink like a Japanese Zen Master, and the thinking will follow!
Nuts and seeds like walnuts, Brazil nuts, and cashews are another healthy fat and precursor for melatonin and tryptophan, which is necessary for deep, restful sleep. I could seriously keep going, but hopefully, you get the picture. Food is freaking powerful. Combine a nutritionally optimized diet with 20 minutes a day of movement, more water, and sunshine, and I dare you to not feel more alive. It’s not easy and it takes time. Easy was not part of the deal. Neither are excuses or giving up on yourself. Committing to a healthier diet and daily acts of movement and mindfulness are some of the most radical forms of self-love and self-care imaginable, and you are worth it.