With all the searching we are doing in our lives to find happiness; one of the best and simplest ways to do this is through what we eat. You can eat for happiness. Depression and anxiety are common diseases but they are not easy to treat however the food we use to fuel our body plays a significant role in the impact these diseases have on our lives.
Where did the joy go?
Depression and anxiety tendencies are growing with over 120 million people diagnosed world wide with depression. Closer to home it is estimated that 45% of people will experience a mental health condition during their lifetimes. And let’s face it depression really sucks. I’m not even talking about the kind of depression or anxiety that would make you go and get help. Many of us don’t go and get the help, so you don’t need to be ‘diagnosed’ to know you need a boost of happiness. So many of us have lost the joy for life.
For those that have sought medical help many people have found that therapy and anti-depressants are not a cure all, trying drug after drug, therapy after therapy. These treatments are not working to help stop or reverse these disorders. And yes they are a disorder; You aren’t meant to feel like this. Medications treat the symptoms; sometimes not even those very effectively; but not the cause. I have a very firm view that the path out of illness or disorders is by investigating the path that got you there in the first place.
The impact of mental health disorders is wide reaching. The following statistics were taken from a study on those suffering with depression and anxiety (Twenge, 2015)
23% couldn’t sleep
30% felt overwhelmed
36% couldn’t remember things
As well as experiencing feelings of being lost, like the colour has been taken out of the rainbow; lost your passion for life; eating too much or too little; irritable; feeling hopeless or worthless and experiencing shortness of breath. These may not be common everyday occurrences, they could just creep into you day every now or then, or you could be experiencing these much more frequently.
Can nutrition make you feel happier?
Much like depression and anxiety, how our body interacts with food is also complex.
Our brain uses the foods we eat as fuel to work. It is a very greedy organ, it needs a lot of nutrients, water, oxygen, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals to do it’s job. The brain needs to make neurotransmitters to ensure that every process in our body does it’s thing. What happens if our bodies are deprived of these? The brain is also deprived.
In Australia 95% of Adults do not get the required intake of 5 serves of vegetables and 2 serves fruit daily. Vegetables are the single biggest supplier of vitamins and minerals to our bodies. The recommended 5 serves is for a healthy individual, to maintain adequate health. Those who are experiencing health challenges such as anxiety or depression will potentially need more to support their bodies requirement. So if we are not eating vegetables what are we replacing it with? Unfortunately in most instances it’s processed foods. This is having an impact on our mental health. Your chance of experiencing depressive tendencies increases by a huge 60% when a nutrient deficient, highly processed diet is consumed (Akbaraly et al, 2009).
Effects of poor nutrition
Our bodies are constantly fighting inflammation, it’s a very normal process. It does become a problem when our body turns on our inflammation response but doesn’t turn it off. This becomes chronic inflammation. Like most chronic conditions they sit just below the surface, not causing any major problems for us but just slowly making life harder. This happens because pro-inflammatory markers interact with proteins in our brain and change them.
The gastrointestinal (GI) tract absorbs nutrients needed for our body including our brain. It also helps to remove and constrain harmful substances . To do this it needs beneficial bacteria. This bacteria allows our GI tract to extract the necessary minerals, make vitamins and digest our food. This can become out of whack with irritation or inflammation. This leads to what is described as a leaky gut, where particles enter our blood that aren’t meant to be there. The blood’s role is to provide oxygen, remove waste and carry nutrients. Sixty litres of blood is pumped into brain every hour, that blood carries with it all the nutrients the brain needs but it can also carry the junk that has found its way into the blood as a result of our leaky gut. These foreign particles from our leaky gut can cause different parts of our brain not to function correctly and increase inflammation, hence the cycle is on repeat.
Our happy hormone, Serotonin, is actually made in the gut not in the brain. If our gut is not working properly, if it doesn’t have the vitamins, minerals and bacteria available to convert into this hormone, so there will be a lack of it. This can have a direct effect on how we feel each day.
What we eat feeds our mitochondria. Mitochondria are the little powerhouses that are found in the cells of our body. They literally make them work. Our body uses the food we eat to extract nutrients, vitamins and minerals to feed these little guys with. Thanks to Dr Libby I like to think of them as little mice in a wheel, running around. The better we feed them the faster they go. These mitochondria are so important to brain function and cognition as well as generally how much energy we have.
What should I eat for happiness?
Pretty much anything that makes our bodies healthier will also make our brains healthier and help improve our GI tract, decreasing inflammation and increasing the production of those important vitamins, minerals and hormones we need.
Specifically here are some foods that have been shown to have improvements on mental health
Omega 3: We get our dose of this through oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, nuts and seeds. It is great for brain function. It has also been shown to ease symptoms of depression.
All the B-vitamins: I cannot encourage you enough to eat these, not only to make you happier but just so your body can do it’s thing. The best part they are found in so many foods: meat, green leafy vegetables, eggs, seafood, legumes. Deficiencies in B12 have be linked to depression (Almeida et al, 2014). Ensuring you have enough B6 and Folic Acid can also have a beneficial impact.
Selenium: Found in cod, Brazil nuts, walnuts and poultry. This is an essential mineral which means our body cannot produce it, we have to get from food. It is vital for creating antioxidant reactions (the reactions that stop our cells oxidising, similar to how oxygen makes some metals rust) with other nutrients in cells. It has been shown that there is a link with low selenium and mental disorders.
Tryptophan: Found in beef, turkey, dairy products and dark leafy genes. This is vital for our bodies to help convert the protein we eat into the 22 essential (remember that means our bodies can’t make them) amino acids our body needs each day We can not store protein so we need to keep nourishing our bodies with this. It is also necessary to make Serotonin – that’s our happiness hormone.
Nurture your gut bacteria. These little guys do so much work to keep us healthy and happy. Good quality yoghurt, sauerkraut, kifer, bone broth and kombucha will help support your gut. If you think this could be a problem for you please seek help in this area, for some this could have adverse reactions and does needs to be properly managed.
Now I’m not saying that going out today and starting to eat the above recommendations will make you feel instantly better – although I must say the thought of a nice piece of crispy skinned salmon does put a smile on my face… These work together in context with each other – you can’t bio hack your way to happiness. Like I said earlier generally the way out of illness or disorders are the same way you came in. Supplement with caution. It should always be a case of real foods first. Not all supplements are created equal, the quality of these do vary. I would strongly suggest working with someone, like a health coach who values a real food approach, bio-individuality and empowering their clients to take back control of their health, to help with this
Just a touch on lifestyle
Get outside! Vitamin D: The sun! A totally free but not so easy vitamin to get is so important to our overall health and happiness. Over 50% of women in New South Wales are lacking in this vitamin. It is extremely important for brain development and function. Literature reviews into it’s direct impact on happiness have been met with mixed results but there are clinical trials in progress where they are using sun therapy to treat those with depressive or anxious tendencies – so stay tuned. I think just knowing how good you feel when you have had chance to be outside, you know how good the sun can make you feel.
Make sure you are eating adequately; calorie restriction is nutrient restriction. Food = nutrients. Choose whole foods. Choose meat that is antibiotic and hormone free and vegetables and fruit exposed to the least amount of pesticides as you can.
Make sure you are getting adequate good fat intake. Our hormones and some of our vitamins like vitamin D need fat to do their thing. Not having enough fat means our hormones and vitamins will not be able to perform or get to the places in our bodies were they are needed. Fresh food doesn’t actually take that long to prep, again seek help in the area if you need it.
We are all individuals, different foods will effect us in different ways. You need to pay attention to you. Notice and name your feelings at different points during the day and link it to foods and what has been happening lifestyle wise for you that day. A food/mood diary is great for this.
Avoid the depressive stuff. I may be about to become unpopular but alcohol is a nervous system depressant. Caffeine builds you up but knocks you down just as much and for some people causes anxiety and insomnia. Sugar and the preservatives in processed foods can worsen inflammation. Avoid glue containing foods for a week.
Think about when you take antibiotics, they are designed to kill bacteria, this includes gut bacteria. Don’t forget to build it back up with your yoghurts, kefir’s, saurkraut’s.
Self-care is key
The way you feel just didn’t happen overnight, you cannot expect for it to just go away overnight. You can begin to support yourself, by caring for yourself enough to make some changes, to bring back that feeling of joy into your life. Self-care is so important, reconnecting with what your body is telling you, is the best first step to healing. Remember there is plenty of help out there to support and empower you with this. Love yourself enough to bring back that joy.
Akbaraly, TN., Brunner, EJ., Ferrie, JE., Marmot, MG., Kivimaki, M. & Singh-Manoux, A. (2009). Dietary pattern and depressive symptoms in middle age. The British Journal of Psychiatry 195(5), 408-413
Almeida, OP., Ford, AH., Hirani, V., Singh, V., vanBockxmeer, FM., McCaul, K. & Flicker, L. (2014). B vitamins to enhance treatment response to antidepressants in middle-aged and older adults: results from B-VITAGE randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. The British Journal of Psychiatry, published online Sept, 2014. Doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.114.145177
Twenge, JM. (2015). Time Period and Birth Cohort Differences in Depressive Symptoms in the U.S., 1982-2013. Social Indicators Research 121(2), 437-454