There’s a framed sign in my kitchen that says, eat good food. It’s a simple concept and one I like to think sets the tone for my family and how we approach our meals. Eating well is important at all stages of life because nutrition goes beyond your physical body. It’s about nourishing your whole self so that your physical, mental, and energetic well-being are as healthy as possible.
Admittedly it has become harder and harder to keep all three of these areas balanced. There are so many societal pressures telling you to push through symptoms and ignore the signs that your body isn’t happy. This is especially true when it comes to energy levels and mood. In my practice as a naturopath and as a sports nutrition provider for a variety of Olympic and high-level athletes, I’ve seen a rise in issues around digestion, anxiety, low energy availability, and undernourishment.
I call it ‘health drift’, which is when burdens on your body start to stack up, or your ability to cope diminishes and you move away from your optimum state of wellbeing. People of all ages and backgrounds experience health drift. It happens because everything in your body is interrelated, so if you’re suffering in one area, inevitably your body will access energy from somewhere else. And running continually short on energy isn’t sustainable and eventually your body will start to lose its ability to function in a healthy state. Once this happens, you’re drifting and it can be difficult to return to a place of equilibrium.
Health is a balance between whatever burdens you have on your life, and the ability of your body to cope with the stress that’s thrown at it.
If your constitution and fortitude are strong, and you are mindful, you’ll be able to course correct and recover from any health drift when you become aware of it. But if you’ve been drifting for awhile, you might need a new map to get back to a place where you feel good again.
When you consider food and how it impacts your mental health and mood, two patterns commonly emerge – you’re undernourished in food quantity but also often in food quality. In nutrition, there are two main nutrient categories: macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients are the proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, while the micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals. I like to think of the food coming into your body as cargo on a train coming into the station. Your food is unloaded in your digestive tract and distributed to the centres where it is destined to do its work.
When it comes to the continuum of food choices, it’s important to optimize the balance between the macros and the robustness in the micronutrients. Choosing to feed your body and mind through whole food choices and healthy habits is the way forward if you want to change how you feel. For example, did you know that the brain is made from fats? Your brain is the key to your body, so would you rather it was composed of flax oil or french fry grease? All kidding aside, this is why the food choices you make are essential to building a healthy body and supporting all of its functions.
Diving in a bit more to what drives your nervous system, let’s take a look at your hormones and chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters. Many of the main ones are built from amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan and norepinephrine, and dopamine is made from tyrosine. In order to make the neurotransmitters or hormones, your body needs co-factors (helper nutrients) from vitamins and minerals. Folate, Vitamins C, B3, and B6 are co-factors in the production of serotonin while Copper, Vitamin C and B6 are co-factors in the creation of dopamine and norepinephrine. The takeaway here is that you can’t make something from nothing.
If the food you are eating doesn’t contain a balance of nutrients and these vital co-factors, your body can’t thrive.
When you are undernourished in either food quantity or quality, you are essentially injuring the operation of the systems within your body. Just as you can suffer from a musculoskeletal injury, you can unknowingly injure your energetics. This in turn can compromise your mental health and is the reason why funnelling a good supply of nutrients into your body is a valuable and essential part of staying balanced. If you aren’t eating well, then your macros or micros are under fuelled and your health bucket will drain and become empty. When this happens, your body is more prone to anxiety and low mood, and your ability to handle stress is also reduced.
This is why, bite-for-bite, it’s important to make quality nutrient-rich choices and make them consistently. Rather than eliminating certain foods and creating restrictions, focus on making nourishing choices. When I work with patients on their nutrition or health habits, I find they often already know where they need to focus. Although I have extensive experience helping build a successful path forward, being self aware helps my patients decide where to start. And it’s not about being perfect but rather about working towards doing a good job most of the time.
Begin with one or two changes and find the path of least resistance so that you can start like you intend to go on. The goal is to gain some consistent habits and then evolve to the next set of changes, if needed. To be consistent with your nourishment, you may need to set up systems or develop strategies that will work for your unique routine. Often chronic states require a multifactorial approach, so your plan may require several elements to be adjusted.
It’s all about finding balance and setting yourself up for success, so I favour a methodical and evolving plan. I like to focus on seeing the forest from the trees.
I use these concepts in helping steer and respond to my own life. Although I thrive on a full and ever-changing schedule, having three young children with two working parents brings a lot of demands that can sometimes become overwhelming. Whenever I feel myself in the weeds, I look at how I’m supporting my own health and adjust my habits where needed. I remind myself that I’m not able to fully support my family, clients, or friends if I’m not taking care of myself first. I see this pattern a lot with parents who are so quick to take care of their children by packing them nutritious lunches, but then fail to make something healthy for themselves. Nourish your body and mind first and your inner circle will flourish because of your commitment to your own health.
Some starting points for supporting mental health through food are:
- Incorporating Omega 3 oils — this can be regularly eating fish, adding ground flaxseed to your baking, or adding flax oil to your homemade salad dressing;
- Choose animal-based proteins that are grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic-free whenever possible;
- Starting your day with a nutrient dense meal. If you are going to be out and about, then pack yourself several snacks or a meal to eat along your way;
- Eat some vegetables early in your day — don’t wait for dinner. Add them to a shake or soup, or as a snack with a dip such as hummus;
- Pulse your food in throughout the day — think three meals and two snacks day-over-day;
- When you eat, try to have a protein and a whole food carbohydrate;
- Embrace foods with a good balance of fats such as nut and seed butters or avocado and coconut. Sprinkle shredded coconut on a bowl of oatmeal or scoop half an avocado with a spoon from its skin; and
- Take time to prep and prepare food ahead of time if your schedule requires it.
Make one small change and feel the difference it makes. Then make another. Consistently prioritizing your health and keeping your focus on nourishing can enable you to move from a vicious health cycle, to a virtuous and balanced one. And it all can start with the food choices and health habits you make. Focusing on your health, from the inside out, can help make you unsinkable.