10 Ways to Use Food As a Wonder-Drug for Mental Health

The 10 Rules of Food and Mood

In an astonishing study, UK mental health charity Mind found that making basic changes to diet can significantly reduce and in some cases totally eliminate the symptoms of mental illness. This includes anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. If you want to harness the power of food to become happier and reduce symptoms of mental ill health, follow as many of the following rules as you can.

1. Hydrate

Many of us spend most of our time being a bit dehydrated without realising it. We often mistake this low level thirst for hunger, so we snack instead of drink.

Ideally we should all be drinking eight medium sized glasses of water a day, or around 2 litres. Start small, aiming for 3 or 4 glasses / 1 litre a day and slowly crank it up over time.

Props can help – buying bottles of mineral water or always having a full jug and glass on your desk. Also, if the tap water in your area tastes bad, adding a bit of concentrated lemon juice makes it better. Also a filter jug can make tap water a whole lot nicer.

2. Cut Sugar

The sugar industry is a multi billion pound business. Just like the tobacco industry denied it posed any hard to health, there is too much profit to be made from sugar for the truth about how harmful it is to health, including mental health, to be fully recognised yet in public.

Because sugary food is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream it causes blood sugar spikes that can cause mood imbalance. Sugar also drains B vitamins from your body, and B vitamins are essential for maintaining good mental health.

Sugar is in almost all packaged food you buy. Check the labels of what you buy for just a week and you will be astonished at how much is sneaked into our food. Start by cutting out the obviously sugary things in your diet: sugary drinks, sweets, chocolate, cakes, puddings and biscuits. When you have done this, then begin to avoid it more generally. Make your own food as often as possible instead of buying it pre made. Cook batches of soups, stew and sauces and freeze them. Bring your own lunch to work instead of getting a sandwich from the shop (yes there is sugar even in a lot of the sandwiches we buy. It’s even in salt-and-vinegar crisps).

If you have a sweet tooth, I recommend buying Xylitol (looks like sugar, tastes like sugar, but doesn’t do the harm sugar does) from health shops, or using acacia honey. Acacia honey is the only honey that is not too sugar rich to be healthy.

2. Brown not white

Refined carbohydrates meaning white bread, pasta, rice and most processed foods use up the mood-enhancing B vitamins. So when it comes to grains and cereal, always opt for whole and brown, not refined and white. Whole grains have B6 – a key mental health nutrient.

3. Nuts and seeds

Sunflower seeds and peanuts have got a lot of B3, cashews and hazelnuts are good sources of B6, and flax seeds and pumpkin seeds are full of Omega 3s. Brazil nuts have a lot of selenium. All these nutrients plus the zinc and magnesium in seeds and nuts play a big role in strong mental health.

Toasting them under the grill and adding them to soups, salads, stews and bowls of breakfast cereal is the easiest way of getting extra nuts and seeds into your diet without having to feast on birdseed.

4. Eat the right meat

Vitamin B6 – another mental health vitamin – can be found in meats but avoid processed meat, it’s not only linked to poor mental health but also to cancer. Unprocessed chicken and turkey are excellent sources of the nutrient and they also have tryptophan, an amino acid that boosts serotonin production – a lack of serotonin causes problems with mental health. Fish, especially mackerel, herring and salmon will give you a good dose of B12, which like all the other B vitamins is vital in your regular diet if you are going to have the best mental health possible. Vitamin B12 deficiency have been linked to extreme mood disorder. Also cod, salmon, snapper, trout and tuna have a lot of B6. If you are a vegetarian you should consider supplementing your B vitamin intake with vitamin pills.

5. More Fruit and Vegetables

Best rule of thumb with fruit and vegetables is go for as much variety and colour as you can and to also make sure that dark green leafy vegetables are eaten every day.

The magnesium that you get in dark green leafy vegetables has a chemical similarity to lithium, a common drug treatment for serious mood disorders. Vitamin b9, also known as folic acid is found in dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, watercress, cabbage and broccoli. Without enough b9, mental well-being is compromised.

Sweet peppers, spinach, baked potatoes with their skin, green peas, yams, broccoli, asparagus are excellent sources of vitamin B6.

High levels of mental health nutrient Vitamin C can come from eating a lot of fruit and vegetables too.

Garlic has anti anxiety and anti depressant qualities, so if you like it, eat it a lot. (Roast it, crush it into salad dressings or add it to sauces and stews).

6. Include beans, peas and pulses

Chick peas, kidney beans, lentils and soya beans are vitamin B6-rich. A single serving of any of these each day can lower the risk of bipolar. If you are a veggie, they are a great source of the tryptophan you’ll be missing from poultry and fish.

7. Reduce dairy

Cow dairy can cause symptoms of mental illness so it’s good to cut back on it. Cow dairy protein (bovine casein) – causes a slight immune reaction in a lot of people. There is a correlation between people with bipolar diagnoses and casein intolerance, and studies have shown that reducing dairy, along with the other rules of food and mood that I list here, was effective at reducing and even eliminating all symptoms of serious mental illness.

This may be because when people drink milk they show a marked increase in the peptide beta-casomorphin 6, which may aggravate or cause psychological disturbance. There are so many milk substitutes out there it is relatively easy to avoid dairy: replace it with soya milk, almond milk, oat milk or rice milk.

8. Less caffeine

Caffeine also alters both your blood sugar and your mood and is best kept to a minimum.

9. Low alcohol

No single legal thing will compromise your mental health as much as alcohol does. If you skip this rule, the rest will all be done for nothing. Keep alcohol to a minimum, drink small amounts and only on occasion if you need to drink at all. Pints of soda water make an excellent (and cheap) substitution for pints of beer or cider, I find, so you can still go to the pub and be sociable.

10. More Omega 3

Most people lack Omega 3, a type of fatty acid. These are essential for balanced, resilient mental health. The richest dietary source of omega 3 is oily fish like salmon, mackerel and herring. The more fish the population of a country eats the lower is their incidence of depression and omega 3 is the reason why. In one study bipolar disorder came out on top as the number 1 illness most associated with lack of omega 3 essential fatty acids. Vegetarian sources of omega 3 are flaxseed, humous, olive oil and even Brussels sprouts.

Any of the changes you make that bring your diet more into line with these rules will benefit your mental (and physical) health. Make small changes and build it up gradually because new habits that are formed slowly tend to last longer than drastic overhauls.