Mental Health and Nutrition and Lifestyle
Fight or Flight
Our bodies are an interconnected web of systems through which our mental health directly impacts our digestive system. We can understand this by exploring the Fight or Flight response to stressors. Our bodies, in order to respond to stressful situations release stress hormones that signal to our body to release glucose stores. This glucose gives us the extra energy to evade danger and run away. In order to conserve energy to be allocated to evading danger, our body puts our digestive system on pause. Hundreds of years ago, this stress response is what kept us alive but now this stress response is the cause of many illnesses. Thanks to our sedentary lifestyle and chronic stress we are constantly releasing glucose stores and our digestive system is constantly on pause.
How this Affects Gut Health
Because of this relationship between mental health and gut health, we want to avoid chronic stress. According to the GI society, common digestive issues that may occur because of the stress are:
- GERD or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
- Peptic Ulcer Disease
- Poor nutrient absorption
- IBS or Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Inflammatory Bowel Diseases such as Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis
- Symptoms including pain, bloating, nausea and discomfort
Exercise and Mental Health
One of the most effective ways to avoid these consequences of chronic stress is exercise. “The efficacy of exercise in patients seems generally comparable with patients receiving antidepressant medication and both tend to be better than the placebo in patients with MDD. Placebo response rates were high, suggesting that a considerable portion of the therapeutic response is determined by patient expectations, ongoing symptom monitoring, attention, and other nonspecific factors.” (3) Blumenthal et. al. The way this works is that exercise turns off the fight or flight response which signals to the brain that the danger has been evaded. Once the fight or flight response is turned off, the brain then turns the digestive system back on, bringing it back to optimal function. Exercise also releases dopamine and endorphins which are your body’s “feel good” hormones. The amount of exercise necessary to facilitate this positive response differs from person to person and differs by the amount of stress one is experiencing.
How Does Diet Affect Mental Health
Just as mental health affects the digestive system, the digestive system also affects mental health. The major contributing factor to poor mental health is inflammation. Inflammation is a defense mechanism that protects the body from infection and disease. However, chronic inflammation is detrimental to one’s health and has been linked to an increase in depression and depressive symptoms. It also important to mention that 90% of the body’s serotonin (a hormone whose abundance is linked to a decrease in depression and anxiety) is made in the gut. I guess you could say happy gut happy life.
Inflammatory Foods to Avoid
Sugar and refined carbohydrates provide the body with an immediate surge of blood sugar. The natural body response to this increase in blood sugar is to increase inflammation.
Fatty meats containing large amounts of saturated fats and preservatives have also been seen to increase inflammation and impair gut heath. This includes deli meat, pepperoni, sausages, and more.
Chicken, eggs and fish contain high amounts of an omega-6 fatty acid called arachidonic acid. This acid is a major contributor to inflammation in the body. These foods have also been linked to an increase in oxidative stress in the body.
Foods to Incorporate
Antioxidant Rich Foods
Consuming antioxidant rich foods prevents the inflammatory response the body has to oxidation. The best way to incorporate an antioxidant rich diet is to eat colorfully. The following foods are some antioxidant rich foods:
- Grapes (red, purple and blue)
- Sweet potatoes
- Butternut Squash
- Green Tea
Fiber is an important ingredient in decreasing inflammation because it has been known to lower blood sugar levels and promote good gut health. High fiber foods (in order from most to least) include:
- Split peas, boiled
- Lentils, boiled
- Black beans, boiled
- Baked beans, canned
- Chia seeds
- Green peas
- Whole wheat spaghetti
- Brussel sprouts
- Potato (with skin)
- Sweet corn
Given that the brain is 75% water, it is vital that we stay hydrated in order to avoid the shrinking in the brain in order to maintain good mental health. Here are some steps to avoid dehydration:
- Always hydrate before and after workouts
- Keep a hydration log
- Keep a large reusable water bottle that you use to track water intake
- Make sure that you are drinking enough water to keep your urination a light yellow color
There are many foods that are found to have antiinflammatory effects on the body including:
- Black pepper
- Red pepper
- And many more….
Our bodies and minds are a complicated interconnected web of systems that work together to preserve our wellbeing. In order to preserve the wellbeing of the mind, we have to preserve the wellbeing of the body and vice versa. Attempts to truly understand the essence of the mind and body are continuous and sometimes feeble. We do know that we are what we eat. Your body is made up entirely of the molecules that we have ingested which is exactly why we should focus on eating the most wholesome ingredients we can get our hands on.
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