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Food for Thought — Answering Your Questions: Mental Health

This question was sent in by a reader in response to Janet Verney’s request for reader questions. See this article for more information.

“Given the difficulties of this past year (and from my perspective as a mental health therapist) I’ve seen a sharp increase in the spectrum of disorders related to both anxiety and depression both in adults and children. Since our bodies are, of course, not separate from our minds/emotions, what advice do you have for folks wanting to support their mental health by supporting their physical health? Are there specific routines, foods, supplements, or exercises that best support this? Specific symptoms I’m thinking of are related to increasing energy, focus, and keeping the body calm. Also, is there a difference in what you recommend for children, teens, and adults?” –Tracy 

Hi Tracy – Thank you for bringing this question forward and doing all you do to support others struggling with these issues. Yes, it is a very common concern, especially during this pandemic! I have been fascinated with the gut-brain, food-mood connection for some time and I am happy to share my thoughts on this.

I am all about getting to the root of the problem and it is so much more than food sometimes. Working with someone like yourself is so important to cover all basis. Ok, let’s break this down into 6 steps to improve that gut-brain connection!

  1. Eliminate FEAR & Fire up those Neurotransmitters – I hear from many that they live in fear day to day, for various reasons, including Covid. Fear was once my biggest enemy and like many others who lived in fear day to day, it began to erode my health. I learned early on to replace “fear” with “hope,” but things still were not improving… One day I heard someone say “eliminate the word HOPE from your vocabulary” and I thought how can this be; this is what I live on. He then went on to say “hope leaves room for doubt” – ponder that for moment. It wasn’t until I replaced the word hope with the word BELIEVE that the magic happened! Every time fear or hope popped into my head, I stopped and rephrased my thought with believe and things greatly improved. If you are struggling with depression or anxiety you are not alone. Did you know that roughly 80% of your thoughts on a daily basis lean towards the negative? Time to change that up! This is where I encourage my clients to take a journal, or to use the notes app in their phone, to keep a log of their thoughts and every time a negative one pops into their head to rephrase it into a positive statement. Often they find a pattern of negative thoughts, like an annoying song you can’t get out of your head. The more you practice this, the more it will become your new norm. If you haven’t read the book You Can Heal Your Life by Louise L Hay, be sure to pick up a copy and get reading – this book literally changed my life!
  2. Strengthen Vagal Tone – The vagus nerve runs stem to stern, in other words, brain to gut! This incredible nerve is often overlooked and can play a major role in anxiety and depression. Improving vagal tone can be as easy as adopting a daily routine of a specific yoga twist, nostril breathing exercises, humming a tune throughout the day, spending a few minutes meditating, and focusing on those positive thoughts we just talked about. Look online for more specific vagus nerve ideas.
  3. Move Your Body – We all know how important it is to move our bodies for good health. It is so important for proper digestion, your heart, your bones, and for your state of mind! When you exercise you are releasing endorphins which has a calming effect to the entire body. A gentle walk, adding time and speed as you build your endurance is the best way to go. Don’t go from couch potato to one of the extreme workouts. Be gentle with yourself and ease into a new routine. The idea is to prevent or even eliminate panic or anxiety attacks, but if one sneaks up on you, get moving and take slow deep breaths.
  4. Find Your Zen – Stress plays a major role in this gut-brain connection. When you are on a high speed treadmill of life and not finding any zen time, you are setting yourself up for trouble! Make time for some zen in your life and work to curb some of the daily stressors from your life before it makes you really sick. Some find various forms of meditation to work, others will take their zen from music or art. I find mine when I am creating in my studio. What’s important is to find what works for you and make it a daily habit! In addition to what you can do at home, look at what resources are around you. I find acupuncture and massage on occasion to help me regain my balance when I am feeling a bit off. Energy healing is also a terrific resource to reset and calm the fires.
  5. Feed Yourself a Nutrient Rich Diet – Food and mood is such a thing now and the more we learn about this gut brain connection, the more we are understanding the link to depression and anxiety. So many are eating what we in the nutrition world call the SAD diet, which stands for the Standard American Diet. This is filled with way too much animal protein, highly processed foods, fried foods, sugar laden foods, and lots, and lots of sugary drinks, including alcohol, soda, and these high energy drinks. I call all of the above mentioned foods gut-brain bombs! This way of eating destroys the good bacteria in the microbiome and the bad bacteria start doing a little happy dance while taking over the microbiome. This leads to being nutrient deficient – you are no longer running on all cylinders. It would be like putting diesel fuel in a high performance sports car that calls for unleaded… get the picture? It has also caused an epidemic of obesity and type two diabetes. Is it any wonder your body is talking to you in this way? When it comes to feeding your microbiome to decrease stress and anxiety and to get your balance back, PLANTS rule! Start by upping your daily intake of leafy greens ate every meal. If you are not a salad person, make them the bed of your meal. I like to add my plant based chili, soup, or stew over them. Nuts and seeds are great brain foods, as well as whole grains and legumes. Plant foods are so rich in antioxidants, essential minerals & vitamins that they give the gut and the brain what is needed to thrive! Don’t you see, if you are eating the rainbow of color, whole, organic, unprocessed nutrient rich foods, you don’t have to even think about what to put in your mouth…. Your body will get what it needs! I know, I hear it all the time, where do I get my protein – to this I say, read the book Plant-Strong by Rip Esselstyn. You will be amazed; I know I was. When you are eating well you should not need supplements, but when you are just starting out and if you are dealing with some imbalances, you may need some support with the healing process. There are some great products out there, but there are also some junky brands that may cause more problems, so to this, I encourage you to seek advice from a practitioner who knows the world of supplements. My go to is the CT Center for Health in Middletown. They will do in person, or online appointments. Dr. Michael Kane is very gut-brain savvy and has a wealth of knowledge.
  6. Find Your Tribe – Last, but definitely not least, don’t go this alone. If you are feeling alone, reach out and ask for help. Connect with a close friend, a long lost friend, or make new ones. Take a walk together, or simply chat on the phone. The social connection, even from six feet apart, is so important for mental and emotional health. If you don’t have anyone nearby, join Meet-up.com and pick a group that is of interest to you – many are meeting on zoom these days. The point is, you’re not alone, someone out there is ready to help, or may need your help. Let’s all be there for one another and make this a happier healthier world together!

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I am not a doctor, but I am a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, whose niche is in gut health and who has many resources and experiences in the health & wellness field. I love helping clients to improve their health, to inspire them to reach their goals, and to arm them with insightful questions to ask of their physicians.

You can send your questions to HK-NowEditors@outlook.com, attention FOOD FOR THOUGHT and I will address them on a first come first serve basis. If you prefer to stay anonymous, just use initials, or a made-up name of choice. Let’s make 2021 your best year ever!

Janet E. Verney is an Author, Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, Wellness Designer, and Healthy Food Chef who resides in Higganum and loves helping others to “health-up” their lives!  Also known as the Gut Guru, Janet oversees IIN’s advanced course in Gut Health. Have a burning health or nutrition question, write to Janet at connect@roots2wellness.com. To learn more, visit her website at roots2wellness.com. 

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