National Nutrition Month, celebrated in March, stresses the importance of a balanced diet and exercise. Not only does nutrition impact our physical health, but studies also show that it ultimately affects our mood and poor nutrition can contribute to the worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.
Fueling Our Mental Wellness with Nutrition
When we experience emotional stressors that are impacting our overall wellness, it can feel like so much is out of our control. Nutrition is one thing we can control that can help our bodies and minds. Eating food with good nutrients fuels the brain and releases toxins from our bodies. When we eat foods that are good for us, we trigger the release of feel-good hormones and help rebuild cells at the same time.
When our bodies are malnourished, it can take a toll on our physical and mental health.
Malnourishment in protein, dairy, vitamins, and sunlight can lead to vitamin D deficiency, significant tooth decay, damage to the digestive system, skin patches, hair loss, elevated stress levels, and decreased ability to cope with the unknown.
Good nutrition can help manage the impacts of mental health disorders.
For those of us living with a mental health disorder, shifts that occur in our brains are often outside of our control. Good nutrition–combined with professional mental health support and medication (as appropriate)–can help our brains from entering crisis/fight or flight modes.
Natural Mood Enhancers
Serotonin and dopamine are mood-enhancing chemicals in the brain that affect mood and mental well-being (in other words, they make us feel good).
Releasing serotonin and dopamine is important because it can help us manage the impacts of depression, stress, and mental illness. Exposure to natural light and exercise helps our body maintain healthy serotonin and dopamine levels. Eating good food also helps by naturally triggering our feel-good systems without the use of mind-altering substances.
Giving our bodies the tools needed to function properly and at maximum efficiency can improve our overall mood, happiness, and healthy sleep patterns. Good nutrition can also help heal damaged receptor cells, muscles, organs, and systems within our bodies.
Addiction and Cravings in the Brain
Addiction is a disease related to dopamine and serotonin release and is a result of changes in the chemical makeup of the brain. Addiction makes a person crave a substance they are misusing. When something feels good, we want to continue doing that activity or using that substance. Drugs and alcohol appear to impact the body in a "feel-good way," similar to how it feels when we release dopamine and serotonin–but there is also a dangerous flipside to that feeling. Over time, drugs and alcohol begin to interfere with the natural, balanced release of dopamine and serotonin, which can lead to feelings of depression.
Sugar has a similar effect on the brain. As with drugs, sugar triggers the brain's reward system and increases the production of dopamine.
Impacts of Sugar Consumption
The minute something sweet hits our tongues, our taste buds send a message to our brain saying, "this is awesome!" Our brain's reward system then ignites and releases dopamine. From there, our pancreas releases insulin which our body uses to move the sugar to our cells to use for energy.
When we consume sugar regularly, dopamine receptors start to down-regulate, so we need more sugar to get the same rush. Yet, when the body detects more sugar, it releases more insulin that results in a sugar crash. Our body responds to the crash by producing intense cravings, just like the craving experienced during active drug and alcohol addiction.
The only way to feel better is to consume more sugar–and the cycle starts over again.
We can all relate to the discomfort of hunger pains or episodes of "hangry-ness." Consuming excess sugar, being malnourished, or not eating a well-balanced diet for sustained lengths of time can take us beyond hangry-ness and impact our mental wellness. Extreme crashes can trigger our bodies into an adrenalin release and send our brains into crisis "fight or flight mode." When this happens, blood flow decreases to the part of the brain where we make decisions. We can also begin to feel shaky, sweaty, irritable, or aggressive.
For people in recovery from substance use disorder or mental illness, these intense cravings during low blood sugar/hypoglycemic episodes can lead to relapse or the obsession to want to drink/use drugs. Using foods to increase dopamine production as well as eating a well-balanced diet can prevent these fight or flight episodes from happening.
Feel Good, Naturally
Hitting every food group will help our overall health and balance our feel-good hormones. This includes protein, whole grain/fibrous foods, dairy, fruits, and veggies. Some foods that are known to elevate feel-good hormones are:
- Nuts and seeds
- Turkey and poultry
- Eggs, tofu
Rebuild and Regenerate
Eating a well-balanced diet can help repair damaged lining on the intestines, brain, muscles, and cells. Think of it as a patching kit that we can use on ourselves to help heal physical damage and wounds. For instance, foods high in fiber and protein can help to balance blood sugar, and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids have been found to rebuild damaged brain cells.
Make small changes and take it one day at a time.
- In the grocery store, shop around the perimeter before aisles. Hit the produce, meat, eggs, and dairy areas first.
- At home, put fruits and vegetables front and center in the refrigerator or on the counter.
- Set an hour aside once a week to wash and sort fruits and vegetables. This will make it easy to grab them on the go during the week.
- Eating the colors of the rainbow will help us get important vitamins like Vitamin A, K, and C. Pick a color of the rainbow to start with and incorporate a new color each week. The goal is to eat nutrient-dense foods while decreasing sugars and simple carbs.
Nutrition, the North Range way
Thinking of nutrition in the context of addiction and mental health is a new concept for some. At North Range, we integrate nutrition into the recovery process. Residential clients are offered homemade, nutrient-dense meals and snacks centered around their recovery needs. Meals are built around the MyPlate approach to food planning and nutrition. Clients receive nutrition classes that teach them how to use food as a wellness tool.
Our person-centered nutrition support encourages healthier relationships with food to strengthen the recovery journey.