Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.
Hippocrates – the ancient Greek physician, is considered one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine (Wikipedia). Thousands of years later, his words are more relevant than ever with so much of our food being heavily processed and packaged, it’s hardly recognizable as natural food. It reminds me of another great quote from more recent times: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That comes from Michael Pollan’s 2008 book In Defense of Food where he describes exactly what he means by food – food is what our great grandparents would recognize as food. Before the pharmaceutical age, herbs, spices, and other edible plants were used in the form of tinctures, teas, and poultices for healing. Currently in my possession is a medical text book over 100 years old written by doctors from all over the world, and it’s filled with remedies involving herbs and other plants, and includes hand-drawn diagrams for identification. It also recommends fresh air, water, adequate sleep and exercise for good health. While the advice may be simple, it’s not always easy to achieve, or to maintain if you’re already doing it. With technology, sedentary lifestyles and processed food being the new norm, it can be a challenge to remember and implement the simple advice from both old and ancient times; practices that could mean the difference between healthy weight and obesity, between feeling foggy and thinking clearly, or between feeling anxious and jittery and feeling calm. You might be thinking food doesn’t have much impact on your emotional state, but more and more it is being proven there is a connection between food and mood.
“Brain function is directly influenced by what you eat, and by nutritional deficiencies, allergens, infections, toxins, and stress” (Hyman, 2008, p. 22).
In his book, The UltraMind Solution, Dr. Hyman also explains that recent discoveries about how behaviour, mood and mental functioning are linked to biology; further advances are finding how our thoughts, feelings and life experiences actually shape our brains and influence our biology (p. 20). The brain, like the rest of the body, requires nutrients to function. By nutrients, I mean food that is nutritious and includes all the biochemical components of vitamins, minerals, and is composed of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Yes, fats! The healthy ones, omega-3s and such like you find in nuts, seeds, olive oil and fish. The brain is about 60% fat (see link below for reference), so it’s best to give it a steady stream of healthy fats to maintain optimal functioning. In fact, the article explains that studies have shown low levels of cholesterol (a fat) are associated with depression, aggression and antisocial behaviour. Omega-3s, it explains, are valuable in treating depression and other psychiatric disorders. The brain also needs a steady stream of glucose, but not the refined stuff you get in pop or cake, glucose from fresh fruit and vegetables, and healthy, whole grains. The more processed the food, the fewer actual nutrients it contains. Nutritional deficiencies significantly contribute to many forms of ill health and disease, both physical and psychological.The “livescience” link below has more great info on brain food.
Another great resource on this topic is the book featured below; it also comes as a card pack, which is the version I own, and use regularly with clients in my private practice. Dr. Amen, through diagrams and plain language, describes the areas of the brain involved in depression, anxiety, attention issues, and obsessiveness and the nutrition recommended to better manage these issues and reduce symptoms. As a quick example – for anxiety and attention issues (as in ADHD), high protein and low carbohydrate foods are recommended because they stabilize blood sugar. For depression he recommends a high carbohydrate diet because carbohydrates (healthy carbs – whole grains, fruit and veg) promote serotonin production, and serotonin is a feel-good neurotransmitter; and for obssessiveness/being stuck, more healthy fats are advised (such as nuts, seeds, fish oil, olive oil and avocado). Of course it’s important to remember to take a balanced approach and just because high protein may be good for anxiety, your brain and body still need nutrients that come from other sources like fruit and vegetables, and whole grains. Reducing or eliminating refined sugar and caffeine is also helpful. Equally important is understanding how alcohol can aggravate anxiety and depression, so be mindful of your intake, and consider the benefits of reducing or eliminating it.
To sum up, a healthy balanced diet is important for physical and mental health….what we put into our stomachs does impact how we feel emotionally. A healthy, balanced diet includes fruit and vegetables, protein (meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, beans), whole grains (brown or wild, rice, quinoa, oats, etc.), healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil), and remember food is what your great grandparents would recognize as food. Limit refined sugar, caffeine and alcohol, and stay well hydrated with clean water.
It has often been said (in too many places for me to reference them all!) that the stomach is the second brain. Listen to it.
“There is an incredible healing power within each of us that knows exactly where each of our ailments is and knows exactly what to do to correct them. That healing power is available to you at little cost and in unlimited quantities.” (Dr. John Matsen, N.D., Eating Alive).
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