Food for thought

food serotonin

Food for thought

It is no surprise that when we eat better and exercise regularly, we often feel better. But what about food and our mental health?

You cant hardly throw a stick these days and not hit someone that isn’t on a medication for either anxiety or depression –  or both. In my office it is so rare to find a client that has no medications than to find one that does. It almost seems to be a cultural phenomenon.

Though medications have helped many people that struggle with different issues, I cant help but think that we are not always looking at the whole picture.

I had a client that struggled with depression and anxiety in the worst way. He was having many physical symptoms (shakes and chest tightness, extreme emotion) and we were making only limited progress on his anxiety. After having him assessed by a doctor, it was discovered that his liver and stomach were in such poor condition from years of bad dieting and alcohol abuse, that he wasn’t even able to absorb his proper nutrients and function properly. Once he started to sort out his eating and drinking habits, his anxiety dramatically decreased and his mood started to become much lighter.

I am starting to see this more and more everyday. In fact the more I become aware of the importance that food and proper diet and exercise plays on a persons mental well being, the more I assess for it. It became very apparent that there was simple things we can do in our lives that might be able to help us avoid drugs all together.

I see a lot of things that clients are doing to themselves that are not helping:

Drugs and alcohol

It is amazing how many people drink wine or beer, or smoke marijuana on a nightly bases.  There are many different reasons for doing this, and even some research that says that having a drink a day could possibly be good for you. But the people that drink a bottle of wine, or six pack a day, are likely struggling mentally in a big way. Alcohol and drugs have a way of creeping into your life, and fogging up your mind and body. I’m not an advocate of abstinence, but I have seen alcohol play a big part in robbing peoples minds, bodies and relationships.

If you find yourself regularly drinking to relax, reduce stressful days, fall asleep or escape, then it is likely you might have a concept of alcohol that could be leading you to dependence. The kind of thinking where we use drugs and alcohol to constantly alter mood and feelings, are surely depleting us of our nutrients, peace and mental health.

Coffee and Sugar

These are two of my favorite things. But when we take them to extreme then we are likely slowing down our bodies and minds. The body works hard at leveling out our blood sugars and producing insulin, and constantly overloading ourselves with caffeine and sugars doesn’t help it. I once read that sweet mind is a slow mind.

To much sugars and coffee will likely leave us feeling agitated, cranky, edgy and restless. It will also make it harder for our bodies to settle down once we have been triggered and make it harder to sleep and rest.

Wrong kinds of foods

I like a double cheeseburger as much as the next guy, but I also understand that making that a regular part of my diet is going to impact my quality of life in the long run (mentally and physically). I see many clients that eat to many processed, fatty foods and not nearly enough of the foods that can help increase cognitive function.

Here is a list of some things that are usually missing from depressed and anxious clients diets:

AntioxidantsDarkly colored vegetables and fruits (contain phytochemicals) Things like blueberries and green tea, pinto beans, apples, cranberries, artichokes

Omega-3 –  Omega-3 fatty acids are found in many kinds of seafood, like salmon, halibut, and scallops, as well as walnuts and flaxseeds.

B vitaminsThe messages our brain sends back and forth between our nerves depend on B-complex vitamins, especially folic acid, vitamin B6, and choline. Dark greens, crab, red meat, spinach, asparagus, romaine lettuce, and turnips are all good.  Beans also contain folic acids and there are many different types.  Also eggs, skim milk, soybeans, peanut butter, potatoes, and whole grain breads and cereals are good choices as well.

Vitamin EVitamin E, especially taken along with vitamin C, has been linked to reduced cognitive decline with aging. Foods rich in vitamin E: tofu, almonds, avocado, shrimp, mustard and turnip greens, spinach, broccoli, sunflower seeds, almonds, or olives/olive oil.

When it comes to food and mental health, there is a lot we can do to help ourselves. It doesn’t have to be huge dramatic changes, all done in one week. You can set small goals and work your way to a higher, clearer quality of life step by step.

Start by increasing foods and behaviors that increase serotonin (neurotransmitter) levels. Like fish, turkey, beef, cheese, nuts, eggs and beans.

Then slowly decrease some of your habits, like drugs, alcohol, sugar….After you are starting to gain traction, you might also want to increase your exersice regime or start participating in more outdoor activities.

This is not an easy transition, but your brain will thank you and reward you by feeling clearer, and lighter.


Ken McDonnell

Registered Professional Counselor

778 846 3569