Our Diet’s impact On the Brain
The effect that diet has on our psychological well-being has been a major area of interest to me for some years. At age 17, I was diagnosed with an auto-immune illness that caused mental, emotional, and physical changes in my well being. After years of struggling with the side effects of medication and the stress that resulted, I realized that to become healthy, I’d have to take a much more active role in my healing.
Doctors had told me to work on my diet for weight loss reasons. Because of the medications, I had grown to a whopping 274 pounds. This is not something abnormal. In Dr. Gary Null’s book, The Food-Mood Connection (year), Dr. James Gordon is quoted as saying,
“All aspects of diet can affect all aspects of psychological and emotional functioning, and the fact that the average doctor sees no connection between nutrition and the mind is staggering. We’re not used to understanding the power of food in every healing tradition in the world.”(p.13)
The number of illnesses we are being diagnosed with is showing no sign of decreasing. In 2009, I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands. I had tried a Holistic Health Practitioner but the costs were extremely high and for me, at that time, unmanageable. I needed to find a way to do this for myself.
Upon entering the Institute for Integrative nutrition, I began making changes in my life and in my diet. This is when I realized how connected our diet was to our overall health. This seems like something that would be so simple but these foods cause changes in us and we are still only beginning to understand them.
Depending on the chemicals and additives used in the foods and drinks we consume, we will see changes in our mood, behavior, skin, and our weight. In the United States, so much money is used to try to prevent or reverse disease but we are still seeing more and more people being diagnosed with debilitating mental and physical ailments. Dr. Doris Rapp illustrates how a change in diet often produces life altering results, in The Food-Mood Connection (year), when she says, “It can be any one food or often a combination of foods-two or even three foods- that people have to learn to avoid, and their mental condition will improve dramatically”(p.23). She has seen this work in her clients.
More research is proving that our food is playing a major role in these ailments. This paper will address the effects of our diets on our physical and mental well being. From addiction to actual mental disorders, the connectionthat diet has to our overall health is extremely evident.
During our youth, proper nutrition is highly important but is something lacking from the lives of most American youth. Robert V. Kail supports this in Human Development- A Life Span View (year), when he writes, “With inadequate iron, teens are often listless and moody; with inadequate calcium, bones may not develop fully, placing the person at risk later in life for osteoporosis”(p. 303). Most of the diet of the American teen is derived from fast food that is high in sodium and fat. Other ingredients usually found in high supply in these fast foods are sugar and caffeine. These additives are finally being considered as substances that cause addiction similar to that we have towards highly addictive drugs.
Hypoglycemia is one diet related disorder, caused by over consumption of sugar or simple carbohydrates. This condition adversely affects mood. In the book, Integrative Nutrition (year), Joshua Rosenthal illustrates this when he says,
“Carbohydrates are in everything from candy bars to grains and even vegetables. The problem is that people are not eating the types of carbohydrates nature intended. They’re eating carbohydrate-rich foods that have been deformed and denatured… A person with hypoglycemia may feel weak, drowsy, confused, dizzy, and hungry…” (p.121)
When a person’s blood sugar increases and drops rapidly, the body rushes to excrete adrenaline to balance itschemical levels. This rapid increase in adrenaline causes much tension in the body when not released through physical activity. Often, this is when panic attacks occur so a person experiencing this often does not know that they are feeling this tension because of the sugar.
People usually think their panic attacks are caused by the situation they are in when, in fact, the sugary food they might have just ingested could have caused this change in them. Now, consider what we eat for breakfast. After sleeping during the night, many of us wake up and have pastry, sugary drinks, or sugary breakfast bars. These foods would all cause these quick rises and falls in our blood sugar, often leaving us with these feelings of tension and stress, and causing us to lash out at those around us.
Imagine how many children may be simply hypoglycemic but are being diagnosed with mental disorders because they are disruptive in school. Perhaps they just need a healthy breakfast to prepare them for the information they are about to receive. Drugs are not always the answer. In The Food-Mood Connection (year), Dr. Doris Rapp supports this when she says,
“Sixty-six percent of hyperactivity is related to food allergies. Another piece of the puzzle is clearly dust, molds, pollen, and chemicals. Mint-flavored Prozac is hardly the answer if a child’s depression is due to something eaten, touched or smelled that can be avoided.”(p.24)
Diet needs to be considered and taken seriously when looking at a person’s wellbeing.
Sadly when much of our food is being grown and harvested, it is sprayed and grown with the aid of pollutants and pesticides. Many industrial farmers want to grow their goods as big as possible so they are able to profit as much as possible. The consumer’s health is not a factor when considering profit and loss.
Additives, pollutants, and pesticides affect our health when they are ingested. Amazingly, this is allowed and is normal practice on many of the farms that produce much of the food we ingest. In The Food-Mood Connection (year), Dr. Null writes that
“Both acute and chronic low-level exposure to heavy metals have been found to cause a host of problems, such as hyperactivity, aggression, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and reduced cognitive function… Many of the metals that are brought into the body are toxic to the brain and to central nervous system tissue. They interfere with normal metabolism by disrupting enzyme systems.”(p.24)
These are not minor side effects. These side effects are able to impair our decision making and affect our relationships on every level. Besides this, if these agents are affecting out nervous system in a harmful way, they are causing illness and dysfunction. Mercury has been linked to impaired kidney and immune function. As someone who has suffered from both, this is not something to be taken lightly.
What is bewildering is that many of these agents that cause negative side effects are often found in our staple household goods. Dr. Null quotes Dr. Calapai, in The Food-Mood Connection (year) who reports that, “lead, cadmium and arsenic are put into animal feed, as are other heavy metals…aluminum is found in baking powder, table salt, and vanilla powder. It’s used as an emulsifier, and as an anti-caking agent”(pp.24-25). If these products were labeled as cigarettes are and we were made aware of the risk associated with these products, these industries, especially that of the meat and dairy industry, would be extremely negatively impacted.
People are not aware of these products’ and their beginnings because they do not make this information readily available as any smart business person who wants to make money would not. It only makes sense. Sadly, what these practices do not produce are healthy people. These products help to produce sick individuals who end up going through testing and difficulty that they did not see comingand many time before their effects are realized, it is too late. Besides metals, sugar, salt, and caffeine are added to many products today, in high amounts, often producing unhealthy dependencies.
When people change their dependency on sugar, they often find that they feel much healthier and energetic. A man named Bob illustrates this in Dr. Null’s book, The Food-Mood Connection (year), when he writes,
“The first thing I would think about when I got up was what I was going to eat, which usually included cereal with sugar, a pastry, and sugar-laden coffee... Recently, I completed a seven-day fast and a colonic cleansing, and I found that after that cleansing process the craving pretty much disappeared... I think that because I am staying away from sugar, I generally am having better days psychologically.” (p.57)
Caffeine is another addictive substance we usually ingest in the morning, or throughout the day, depending on the level of exhaustion and dependency. Most do not think of caffeine as addictive but studies have proven otherwise.Joshua Rosenthal supports this in Integrative Nutrition(year), when he writes, “Not surprisingly, coffee represents 75% of all caffeine consumed in the United States. If sugar is America’s number-one addiction, then coffee ranks a very close second. Caffeine is a drug, and we are a nation of drug addicts” (p.221).
Caffeine is advertised as a substance that helps to improve awareness, energy, and concentration, and it does these things, but along with them, it has negative side effects. This substance inhibits our bodies from absorbing key minerals such as magnesium, iron, and zinc. With the vitamin deficient diets most of us have, using a substance that prevents us from absorbing key minerals is even more detrimental and causes a breakdown in our bodies’ immune systems.
Coffee, when used heavily has also been linked to osteoporosis and miscarriage. The shock to the adrenal system that occurs after ingesting coffee wakes rejuvenates us but over the long run, these shocks cause increased stress levels inside of us that can weaken our immune system. As with any other drug, when trying to wean off of coffee, withdrawal symptoms often occur. People often report getting headaches and having mild to severe mood swings.
Businesses like Starbucks, McDonalds, and Dunkin Donuts have capitalized on this nation’s thirst for sugar, fat,and caffeine, making drinks and foods laden with each of these substances. Their customers are left craving their fix, sometimes not able to go a day without it. It’s the perfect way to keep your customers returning, seeking that feeling again.
Life often presents us with difficulties and when we do not have appropriate means of dealing with them, we learn to self medicate. Food is one soothing mechanism we all know well. It is used to provide relief during times of sadness and joy.
From the time we are babies, when we cry, we are fed and this soothing mechanism never leaves us. Sadly, I can recall myself using food as a soothing mechanism. It was not until I reached 274 pounds that I realized I had reached a breaking point. The scale was creeping steadily to a point that I felt was of no return.
While in college, after being diagnosed with Wegener’s Granulamatosis, I would sometimes binge to the point that I could not even stay awake. I would be so full that I would feel this strong urge to sleep. I now know why this overwhelming feeling would surface. It was my body rushing blood to my digestive system in an attempt to digest all of the nutrient free food I had just eaten.
Before going to sleep, I would take a laxative, thinking that this would reverse the damage I had just done. At times, I would still fall asleep crying and upset at myself for binging, still feeling the sadness I felt when I had begun that night or day’s binge. I am not alone in doing this. Suffering in silence is what many of us do, at the expense of our mental, emotional, and physical well being. Dr. Null illustrates this in The Food-Mood Connection (year) when he writes,
“Eating disorders, which affect some 8 million Americans, have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. The main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Symptoms of anorexia include refusal to maintain a normal weight for age and height, intense fear of gaining weight or becoming ‘fat,’ body image and misperceptions, and loss of menstrual periods. Bulimia is characterized by binge eating and compensation for binges using measures such as self-induced vomiting, laxatives, and excessive exercise.”(p.79)
I never even considered myself as having suffered from bulimia nervosa until recently while doing my studies. If I had told someone that I was doing this, they might have realized, but instead, I kept it to myself.
When I thought of anorexia and bulimia, I pictured a woman who was slim, not someone whose weight was ballooning. As my personal example illustrates, this is not the case. At the time that this was going on, I was seeing a psychologist and she did not even have any idea. My team of doctors would constantly tell me I needed to lose weight but I had never sat down and talked to someone about my eating habits. This was an important piece of the puzzle that was missing in my healing.
An obese person is usually extremely mineral deficient. Zinc is one essential mineral that is usually lacking. The problem with this is that Zinc is essential to many of our body functions as well as numerous extremely important brain enzyme functions. In The Food-Mood Connection (year), Dr. Gary Null writes that,
“...when humans are placed on zinc-deficient diets, they develop eating disorders…there is an inverse relationship between the level of obesity and the level of zinc…with anorexia nervosa, self-induced starvations, people are always zinc deficient.”(p.81)
Research has shown that we actually lose Zinc when we are under stress. Males store Zinc in their prostate but women do not. Women have to get Zinc from their other body tissues which is why people suffering from anorexia usually experience the wasting away of their muscles.
When our bodies are not able to get the nutrients they need from food, it finds ways to get it from its own reserves. This starts with our muscles, then bones, and then the heart. This is why many anorexic patients suffer from weakened hearts, heart failure, and arrhythmias.
It is amazing when one thinks of how diet affects our mood. Depressed people often lose the urge to eat and lose weight, or in some cases, eat more, and gain significant amounts of weight. When a depressed person is eating less, or eating junk to just make themselves feel satiated, they will often lose many of the necessary proteins, nutrients, and vitamins. Dr. Gary Null writes in The Food-Mood Connection,
“Among other B Vitamins that can affect mental processes are B1 or thiamine, riboflavin, B6 or pyridoxine, and B12… If you have a really significant B vitamin deficiency, the kind that gives you bleeding gums and obvious skin problems, depressions is one of the other symptoms you’d be likely to have.”(pp.92-93)
Tryptophan, an amino acid found in turkey, figs, kiwi, and milk is another that is found to be lacking in depressed people. This amino acid actually has the ability to help raise serotonin levels. Tryptophan has been compared to Prozac and in studies has been found to be as effective as anti-depressants when used in studies.
Up until 1990, Tryptophan was actually being sold in the United States for this purpose but after it was found to be contaminated and caused blood problems in its recipients, the United States Department of Agriculture took it off of the market. The blood complications were not a result of the amino acid, just the contaminant. While the foods that naturally possess Tryptophan help people suffering from depression, certain foods help to cause depression.
Simple carbohydrates should be avoided and fast foods are full of them. Foods like candy bars and French fries cause sharp increases and drops in blood sugar levels and should be avoided. They leave the person wanting to consume them continuously to feed the need to get the high feeling the simple carbohydrates gave them, once again. This cycle leaves the person in it feeling constant lows and highs in their mood.
Fish, flaxseed, and greens are both lacking in most American diets. These foods are rich in Omega-3s, essential fatty acids that make up around one-quarter of the dry weight of our brains. When looking at other countries that rely heavily on greens and fish, we can see how crucial these foods are in avoiding depression. If our brain is not getting what it needs to function, it is bound to malfunction.
Much of the illness we see today is being caused by diet. In The Food-Mood Connection (year), Dr. Lendon Smith writes, “A poor immune system as the result of bad diet, and pesticides on top of some genetic deficiency are leading to a lot of sickness now… there are other ways to improve this and we know that naturopathic methods work”(p.96). We need to be aware of our options and stop looking to take medicine for every ailment. Some of the remedies we need are hiding in our grocery store.
Cravings are often caused by depression. Many people find themselves craving chocolate, not realizing that what their body is truly craving is the magnesium found in the chocolate. Magnesium is lost early when food is processed and is also lost when we are stressing. A reported example of this is when women crave chocolate right before their menstrual period begins. They are losing magnesium and their body knows it needs to replenish it. Chocolate is one place people get magnesium from although many do not even realize this. Joshua Rosenthal illustrates the importance of deconstructing cravings in Integrative Nutrition (year) when he writes,
“The important thing is to understand why you crave what you crave. Most people believe cravings are a problem…Once we realize that the body is a reliable bio-computer that never makes mistakes, it’s much easier to conclude that cravings are critical pieces of information that help you understand what your body needs.”(p.118)
Our bodies are constantly telling us what we need and when we ignore them, we suffer from disease and distress of both the mind and body.
Oftentimes, we are in need of emotional support or vitamins but may not know how to vocalize these needs. Before turning to medicines and more extreme and costly measures, it is important to take a note of what we are putting in and taking from ourselves. A doctor looks at us and attempts to diagnose what is presented but there are things that only we know and feel. The only way to get a complete idea of our health is by looking at ourselves holistically.
Cavanaugh, J. C. with Kail, R. V. (2010) Human Development: A Lifespan View, 5th Edition. Belmont, CA. Wadsworth.
Rosenthal, Joshua. (2008) Integrative Nutrition: Feed Your Hunger for Health & Happiness. New York, NY. Integrative Nutrition Publishing.
Null, Gary. (2008) The Food-Mood Connection: Nutritional and Environmental Approaches to Mental Health and Physical Wellbeing, 2nd Edition. New York, NY. Seven Stories Press.