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May is Mediterranean and Mental Health Month

“Good nutrition creates health in all areas of our existence. All parts are interconnected.”

T. Collin Campbell


Food and Mood:

To put it simply - food and mood go hand-in-hand. I’m sure we all heard the famous saying “you are what you eat”. The philosophy behind this slogan has been embraced by nutrition enthusiasts for over a century.

We know that food nourishes our bodies and provides fuel (or calories) so our bodies can move, our heart can beat, our lungs can breathe, and our brain can think. Our body is active 24/7...yes, even while we sleep, it’s just working at a slower pace. My point is...our bodies never stop. And if we have to fill up with some source of calories...let’s make it of premium quality so we can feel our best..body, mind, and soul.

What Is The Connection Between Mental Health and Nutrition?

Like I discussed in my previous posts this year, food is made up of macro and micronutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins, and fat. These macronutrients contain calories which provide your body with the energy it needs to be active in your day. Whole foods, meaning they are not processed and they come from the earth such as fruits, grains, and vegetables all contain vitamins and minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients. These components play a hundred different vital roles in your health including metabolism, growth, strengthening your immune system, repairing cellular damage, brain function, and yes, mood. Deficiencies in vitamins and minerals can interrupt many of these functions in your body.

There has been a ton of research explaining the relationship between the brain and the gut. The digestive tract contains the largest amount of nerves aside from the brain and is responsible for 95% of your serotonin production. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to stabilize moods, appetite, digestion and sleep. So we can agree that the hormone serotonin and all the nerves in the gastrointestinal tract can affect your entire body.

To further explain, the vagus nerve connects the digestive tract with your brain, and it’s this connection that allows your colon and your brain to send messages back and forth to each other. It’s pretty cool when you think about it. To break it down a bit more... the vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which includes mood control, immune response, digestion, and heart rate. So it all makes more sense why upset in the mind can equal upset in the gut and vise versa. Given this, it’s no wonder that feeling stressed or anxious can take a toll on your stomach, even when you didn’t eat anything questionable the day before.

Depression and anxiety can also disrupt the hormone balance in the body and since now we know how the brain and gut are connected, we have a better understanding of how feeling depressed can warp the bacteria in the digestive tract. This disruption or “dysbiosis” may signal an immune response which in turn, may cause inflammation.

Depression also has a tendency to suppress your appetite which can cause nausea or constipation. Stress can induce cravings for comfort foods which tend to be full of sugar and are usually highly processed. I have been known to reach for sugary treats myself at times when I have felt overwhelmed, so if you can relate, you are not alone.

Can Anything Beside Dietary Changes Help?

The answer is yes! Try these quick and simple exercises to get out of your head and back into your body. Some slow breaths can really help you drop into your body so you can get a better gage on how you are feeling emotionally. Usually we are so busy with our day, we don’t even realize we have not checked in with ourselves. This can also help us understand our mood in relation to food cravings. Doing one or a few of these simple exercises can leave you feeling more grounded and more aware as you go through your day.

Breathing Exercises:

Belly breathing is easy to do and very relaxing. Try this basic exercise anytime you need to relax or relieve stress.


First steps. Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down. First, take a normal breath. Then take a deep breath: Breathe in slowly through your nose, allowing your chest and lower belly to rise as you fill your lungs. Let your abdomen expand fully. Now breathe out slowly through your mouth (or your nose, if that feels more natural). Repeat this exercise at least 3 times or until you are feeling more centered.


Take A Walk In Nature: Unplug and get back to basics. Humans evolved in nature and spending some time outside, enjoying the scenery can improve your mood and lower your blood pressure. It’s a free and easy way to clear your head and find some new inspiration and perspective.


Pet An Animal: This is a good idea anytime but research shows that petting an animal can lower your heart rate, and really just put a smile on your face.


Mediation: I personally use an app myself for guided meditation sessions. This helps me center myself and focus on what's happening in both my body and my mind. If I am feeling anxious or stressed, I pay attention to where I feel that sensation in my body. If I am feeling relaxed, I focus on where I feel that release in my body. It’s pretty great actually and Headspace and Calm are both great apps that offer a few free sessions to see if guided meditation is right for you. I was a skeptic for years and now I can’t recommend it enough. All you need it 10 minutes to reap all the rewards!

“Go With Your Gut.”

Hopefully we have a fuller understanding about what this means. This would be your gut confirming what you already know in your body...but may be questioning in your brain. If you feel it in your body...then listen. And I don’t just mean emotional cues, pay attention to how your body reacts after eating certain foods as well. Do you feel clarity and energized? Do you feel bloated and fatigued? There are no right and wrong answers, you know how you feel when you feel it...just listen and trust to yourself. As a quick example, I have a co-worker who told me that “Sandwiches make her sad.” This may sound strange and even a bit funny but that combination of carbohydrate and meat just didn’t agree with her...even if sandwiches are delicious. This example is an opportunity to...no, not give up sandwiches but swap out some meat for some veggies or tofu and perhaps use hummus instead of mayo which is high in saturated fat. Try a whole grain or spinach wrap instead of sliced bread. These small adjustments may change the whole sandwich outlook and allow you to get creative and reinvent some old sammy classics, while putting a smile of your face.


The Mediterranean Diet - An Oldie But A Goodie

The American Heart Association recommends the Mediterranean Diet year after year. This pattern of eating focuses on vegetables, whole grains, fruits, beans and legumes. It also incorporates low-fat or fat-free-dairy, lean proteins and healthy oils including olive, canola, flaxseed, walnut and more!

The Mediterranean Diet strongly encourages limiting processed food, meats, saturated fats, refined sugars and carbs and beverages packed with added sugar. But we all had to know that was coming.

There are foods within this diet that can also help with digestive issues as well as depression, anxiety and stress. Whole foods are more ideal than processed foods since many of their natural nutrients are lost during processing. Try out some suggestions below!

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Whole grains (brown rice, whole grain bread - fiber aids in digestion)

  • Lean proteins such as fish, chicken and pork (salmon and mackerel are some good fish options due to their high Omega 3 content.)

  • Yogurt (low fat greek yogurt is always a good place to start-you can add in berries and nuts for an antioxidant/protein punch as well.)

  • Avocados (also high in Omega 3’s)

  • Fruits (Bananas, berries and citrus fruits are lower in fructose and may cause less gas and bloating. Try these first and see how you feel.)

  • Kale and spinach (I know, you are tired of reading about kale and spinach, but they do contribute healthy bacteria in your gut).

Try to avoid processed foods for now that contain lots of flour, sugar and fat. I’m not saying forever and please enjoy your favorite treats on occasion….just see how you feel in your body and mind without processed foods for a bit.

As I’ve said in my prior posts, start out with small changes. Don't try to do everything at once. Even one positive change to your diet is a great start, and you will feel that difference. Only do what works for you and always be kind to yourself. You are doing a great job already! And Remember….Health starts from the inside out….but also from the ground up!

To discuss more detailed information regarding the topics within this blog, or to inquire about customized nutrition plans, please reach out to Cathleen Winter at cathleen@wellnesswithincw.com


A Little About Me

My name is Mary DeBlasio, and I live in Silver Spring, MD. I am currently a student studying Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of the District of Columbia. I graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s of Science in May of 2021. I am very interested in mindful eating, and foods that correlate with the seasons. My goal after graduation is to pursue a dietetic internship with a focus on clinical dietetics. I would like to concentrate on patients suffering from gastrointestinal issues. All my information is backed by credible sources cited within the blog.

Sources

Clapp, M., Aurora, N., Herrera, L., Bhatia, M., Wilen, E., & Wakefield, S. (2017). Gut Microbiota’s Effect on Mental Health: The Gut-Brain Axis. Clinics and Practice, 7(4), 131–136. https://doi.org/10.4081/cp.2017.987

5 Foods to Improve Your Digestion. Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/5-foods-to-improve-your-digestion.

Madison, A., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2019). Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: human–bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 28, 105–110. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2019.01.011

How to Calm an Anxious Stomach: The Brain-Gut Connection. Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. (2018, July 19). https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/how-calm-anxious-stomach-brain-gut-connection.

MD, E. S. (2020, March 31). Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Harvard Health Blog. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626.

Sathyanarayana Rao, T. S., Asha, M. R., Ramesh, B. N., & Jagannatha Rao, K. S. (2008). Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 50(2), 77. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.42391

Serotonin. Serotonin | Hormone Health Network. (n.d.). https://www.hormone.org/your-health-and-hormones/glands-and-hormones-a-to-z/hormones/serotonin#:~:text=Serotonin%20is%20the%20key%20hormone,to%20communicate%20with%20each%20other.


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