When I was chronically ill, I had a lot of food intolerances, most which I have recovered from. Although I wouldn’t want to go back to that, I’m grateful for that experience because it taught me a lot about how food affects your body. I became very aware of food allergies as well, and the difference between an allergy and an intolerance. I also learned a lot about food additives, and how, even in a healthy person, they can negatively affect your body.
Now I’m not saying that everyone reacts the same way to these foods. Everyone is different and what may affect one person, has no effect on another. Look at MSG, I can’t eat that stuff! Yet many people have absolutely no issue with it, and it’s not actually “bad”, but it’s bad for me and others who are sensitive to MSG.
Often it comes down to ‘how much’. Yeah, food additives are not good. They’re not real food; being manufactured in a lab somewhere. And yes, it’s good to avoid these things where possible. However, someone who is quite sensitive may feel negative side effects, particularly mood effects, a lot easier than someone who is not so sensitive, and it’s probably best to avoid additives altogether.
So, in general, those who are healthy (physically and mentally) may find that the occasional lolly or soft drink, or packet of chips is no big deal. However, it becomes a big deal when it’s a daily thing and it begins push other healthy foods out of the diet.
How Does Food Affect My Emotional Health?
In Western countries, people are eating a greater amount of food than ever before. But this doesn’t mean that they are well nourished. Unfortunately, many people don’t get enough nutrients to support good brain health; choosing a diet heavy in processed foods, high in sugar and loaded with additives.
Nutritionists (mainly those in the complementary sector), have recognised the connection between nutritional deficiencies and poor mental health for a long time. Psychiatrists are only now realising this connection and understanding the benefits of using nutritional approaches in their treatments.
Inflammation is a common cause of mental health problems, which begins in the gut. Research is showing that nutrients such as magnesium, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin D3 and omega 3 can help to relieve depression and anxiety, improving people’s mood. These nutrients have also shown to improve the mental capacity of those with Alzheimer’s disease.
Many people lack magnesium in their diet, yet it’s an important nutrient for emotional health. One study showed how daily supplementation of magnesium citrate improved the symptoms of depression and anxiety in participants.
Omega 3 fatty acids is also shown to be associated with mental and emotional health. This nutrient is vital for the development and functioning of the central nervous system. A lack of omega 3 is associated with poor comprehension, cognitive decline, and low mood. B vitamins and zinc have also been found to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
How Does Gut Health Affect My Mood?
We know that 90% of serotonin receptors are located in the gut. Serotonin is the key hormone that stabilises mood, happiness and creates feelings of wellbeing. The gut and brain are in constant communicated via the vagus nerve. This connection allows us to understand the connection between diet and disease, including anxiety and depression.
What we eat affects our gut health, which also affects our emotional health. Processed foods and foods containing chemical additives are especially bad for gut health. Ultra-processed foods which are common in the Western diet are manufactured to be extra tasty. This is done by using substances extracted from foods such as sugar and starch, adding food constituents like hydrogenated fats, or adding laboratory-made additives such as colours and flavour enhancers. Some examples of ultra-processed foods include, packaged snack foods, soft drinks, buns, pastries, instant noodles, chicken nuggets and fish fingers.
We already know that a diet high in processed foods contributes to inflammation and disease. Research has shown that “fixing diet first”, before trying gut-modifying therapies such as probiotics, is the best approached to take. Avoiding processed and ultra-processed foods while eating a diet of whole foods should be the first step to improve gut health and overall wellbeing.
It is important to be careful about using food as the only method of treatment for emotional health. For mild to moderate conditions, this can be very effective. However, for serious depression and anxiety further treatment will be needed and it’s important to seek proper medical advice from your doctor.
A few days ago, I came across a study which linked two specific beneficial bacteria strains to depression. The study found that those who had been diagnosed with depression had consistently low levels of these strains of bacteria. Now I can’t for the life of me find this damn article again, and I have forgotten the names of these two bacteria strains. One started with ‘C’ and one started with ‘D’. Yeah helpful, I know, but I'll tell you what I learnt from what I read.
I guess, knowing the names isn’t really important, but understanding how to encourage the growth of these beneficial bacteria is what we really want to know. Further research into the strain that starts with ‘C’ lead me to omega 3. This surprised me. I’ve always associated foods that encourage the grown of good bacteria to be plant based, you know, to provide the little guys with fibre and resistant starch (prebiotics). So, a fatty acid was something different and I had to know more.
One of these beneficial bacterial strains was also shown to be a pathway for dopamine, an important neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood by creating positive feelings of reward and increasing motivation. People with depression often show low motivation and a decrease in pleasure; both which are linked with dopamine.
I also came across a few other studies which showed that omega 3 fatty acid supplementation significantly increased the diversity of a handful of beneficial bacteria. Including at least one associated with depression.
There’s a whole heap of information out there about prebiotic dietary fibre and it’s beneficial effects on our gut microbiome. However, the impact that dietary fats (like omega 3) has on the human microbiome is not covered much, just yet. So far, studies are showing some positive effects using omega 3 supplementation, but that makes me wonder about the effects of a healthy diet? Oily fish, olive oil?
One study looked at the effects of supplementing with omega 3 compared to the well-known prebiotic fibre ‘inulin’. Although both resulted in an increase of beneficial bacteria, each supported the grow of different types of bacteria. So, in other words, one isn’t better than the other. But one will give you different results compared to the other. Therefore, eating a wide range of foods is the best method to take.
Watch Out for Fad Diets
Singling out nutrients (while this may bring on some temporary positive results), will reduce your microbiome diversity. Look at one of the healthiest diets in the world, the Mediterranean diet. They consume such a huge variety of everything, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, fish, bread, wholegrains, olive oil and wine. They have a major focus on plant foods, but their diet is balanced, varied and abundant. Olive oil and oily fish is consumed regularly in the Mediterranean diet, both which are good sources of omega 3.
Unfortunately, when we start cutting out food groups, commonly a result of fad diets such as paleo, keto, low carb, fasting diets and gluten free, we deprive ourselves of what our body needs! Variety. You can’t get all of the nutrients you need from only one of two food groups. You need them all in moderation (if possible).
I better add that I only included gluten free for those who take on this diet when they don’t need to. If you are gluten intolerant, coeliac or have an allergy, then it’s absolutely necessary to be gluten free. I was gluten intolerant (non-coeliac) for about ten years, it sucked. But now that I have recovered, I LOVE gluten and I am much healthier with it. Pass the bread. That experience taught me about how cutting out an entire food group (even though it was necessary at the time), can actually be detrimental to your health.
The Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet is an inspiration to me. It’s not really a diet, but rather a lifestyle that draws its inspiration from southern European countries. They understand moderation and variety. They have an emphasis on plant foods, grains, beans, olive oil, fish and poultry. All which supports a healthy gut. Although they do eat red meat, it’s more of a “treat” food, and served only a few times a month in small amounts. Red meat is not good for our microbiome in large quantities, and the Western diet encourages a lot of red meat, unfortunately.
Studies show that those who follow a Mediterranean diet have a lower risk of many diseases, including diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and obesity. However, you may notice that included on the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid (see below), is physical activity and socialisation. So, this is more of a lifestyle than just a diet.
There are several studies showing that the Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of depression and is an effective treatment for depressive symptoms. This is most likely due to the amazing gut health benefits (gut-brain connection), as well as the countless other nutritional benefits this style of eating will provide.
Stress is another factor that impacts our gut health. I don’t know what the stress levels are like in these counties that follow the Mediterranean diet, but I have a feeling it’s less than we have in Western countries. I’ll save that for another article, or I’ll never shut up.
Anywho, if you’re interested in taking up ‘Mediterranean-style eating’, the good news is, it’s not difficult. There is no single definition of a Mediterranean diet, but based on some research I found, here are some loose rules:
Update, 5th January 2021 - Although this isn't the same article I read originally. This article is about the same study which mentions the names of the bacteria.
I have recently gone through hell and back with someone who I believed to be one person, who changed in an instant. The change was shocking, scary and cruel. But it was something I am thankful for. Why? Because it helped me to learn a lot about what I want and need, and what happens when you challenged another person’s mask by putting up healthy boundaries. I saw the real person that had been hiding behind an emotional mask.
The Emotional Masks We Wear
Many people wear emotional masks to hide feelings that they don’t want to deal with. Emotional masks are worn due to fear. There are many reasons for this; some people come from family backgrounds that have never supported or encouraged open expression of emotions. Or sometimes a person has been through trauma or difficulties in the past and feel like they can’t express, or don’t want to express the emotions associated with the event.
Sometimes people who stop showing their own emotions to people around them, stop recognising their own emotions completely. Emotional masks are a common way to avoid dealing with these difficult emotions. These aren’t actual physical masks I’m talking about. So, what exactly are emotional masks? Here’s a few examples:
Unfortunately for those who live behind emotional masks for a long time may begin to find softer emotions trigger anger easily. Such as sadness, shame and fear. It can also lead to substance abuse, such as alcoholism and drug use as a way to numb the emotions that they don’t want to deal with.
Why Wear Emotional Masks?
Everyone wears masks to some degree. However, when it’s a long-term habit to cover emotions that you don’t want to face, it becomes unhealthy and it negatively affects your relationships. One of the most common reasons people wear masks is the fear of people finding them out. One of our greatest fears is showing our true selves!
“Be yourself, everyone else is taken.” Oscar Wilde.
The Courage to Look Behind the Eyes of Another Person
What happens when someone see’s through your mask to the real person? This is a deeply unnerving experience for the mask wearer. They have been caught out. Everyone longs to be seen, and known for who they really are. But the fear of being seen may be too much for the mask wearer to handle. They may not be ready, or just may not want to face their difficult emotions.
“The greatest battle we face as human beings is the battle to protect our true selves from the self the world wants us to become.” E.E. Cummings.
Seeing another person for who they truly are, even if they don’t see it, can be a wonderful thing. However, if you challenge their mask it can trigger their fear of being found out causing them to turn on you. You have challenged their ego, their entire sense of self, even though it’s fake.
Uh oh spaghetti-O!
Challenging someone to take off their mask means showing their authentic self. This is a very vulnerable thing to do and requires a huge amount of courage, and a great deal of trust. But if you never do it, the past will continue to affect your present.
“You can’t change the past, but you can change how it affects you.” Unknown.
Why Should You Take Off Your Masks?
We ALL wear emotional masks to some degree, and this can be ok when it’s not taken to the extreme. However, there will come a point in life when juggling all of these masks becomes exhausting and pointless. Vulnerability isn’t a weakness, it’s a true strength. Masks are the real signs of weakness. Masks push away the ones who love you the most. Masks can create isolation and loneliness.
Most of us can tell immediately when we are in the presence of an authentic person. One without masks, who is not “putting on a show”. These are the people who enjoy the deep sense of peace authenticity brings. They experience life and love to the fullest. It doesn’t mean they don’t experience pain, but they don’t allow past experiences to prevent them from getting the most out of the present.
There are not many studies currently available on the Mediterranean diet and its effects on mental health; however, there is some evidence which shows that the nutrients gained from this diet, such as antioxidants, omega 3 fatty acids, fibre and B-vitamins positively effect mood and brain function.
What is missing from many studies is the impact that the Mediterranean lifestyle also has on mental health, which includes diet, lifestyle, social and cultural aspects. Although diet does play a part in treating mental illness, it is not the only aspect which should be considered.
What a person eats directly affects functioning of the brain, and as a result, a person’s mood. The brain can only function at it optimal levels when a good diet rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals is consumed. A poor diet that is high in refined food has been shown in multiple studies to affect brain function and increase symptoms of disorders such as depression.
The Mediterranean diet is associated with reducing the risks of many chronic diseases, however there is currently limited research on the affects it has on mental health. Many components of the Mediterranean diet encourage healthy brain function such as omega 3 fatty acids, antioxidants and B vitamins. As well as this, the Mediterranean diet is rich in vitamins, minerals, polyunsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants which have been shown to have a positive impact on mental health.
How Diet Affects Mood
The gastrointestinal tract is lined with millions of nerve cells, making it more than just a place to digest food, but also a mood regulator. Around 95% of serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. The production of serotonin and the functioning of the neurons in the gastrointestinal tract are highly influenced by the intestinal microbiome which are directly affected by diet.
Studies have shown that traditional diets such as the Mediterranean diet, can lower the risk of depression by 25% to 35% when compared to a Western diet. This is due to the abundance of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and seafood in traditional diets such as the Mediterranean diet, as well as the limited amounts of red meat and dairy consumed.
Recently more evidence has shown that there is a link between diet and mental health. Studies have shown that consuming a healthy diet rich in vegetables, fruits, olive oil, nuts, legumes and fish can provide protection against depressive symptoms. However, a diet high in sugar and processed foods is seen to have a negative impact on mental health, particularly depression.
The Mediterranean diet provides an abundance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes and fish. These foods are rich in antioxidants, fibre and many other nutrients that are positively associated with mental health. The Mediterranean diet provides a much higher proportion of omega 3 fatty acids compare to the high consumption of omega 6 fatty acids seen in a typical Western diet. Research has shown the importance of omega 3 fatty acid in supporting good mental health.
The key concepts of the Mediterranean diet and its effect on mental health are due to the diet being rich in a variety of nutrients which are associated with positive mental health effects. The Mediterranean diet is rich in antioxidants, omega 3 fatty acids, and B vitamins which are shown to positively affect mental health and brain function.
The Mediterranean Lifestyle
The existing theories indicate that the Mediterranean diet and its effects on mental health isn’t just about what food is consumed. It’s also about the lifestyle. The Mediterranean lifestyle is a holistic approach to supporting mental health. Although the diet provides a rich source of nutrients which are shown to positively affect mental health and brain function, the Mediterranean lifestyle also plays an important role. This include the social aspects and physical activity.
The benefits of a meal go far beyond the nutritional aspects in the Mediterranean culture. The social benefits of leisure time, cooking, sharing, and eating together in positive company support good mental health which are all depicted in the Mediterranean diet pyramid as essential aspects. Another important component of the Mediterranean lifestyle is leisure time which provides a social aspect beneficial for mental health.
More studies need to be done which include a whole lifestyle approach. A lack of social connectiveness can contribute to poor mental health including depression. However positive social connections can reduce the risk of poor mental health.
The Mediterranean lifestyle has a very important social aspect which supports overall wellness. The Mediterranean diet pyramid provides a holistic representation of a healthy lifestyle which benefits mental health including not only diet but also the cultural, social and physical aspects of good health. Looking at a single aspect such as diet does provide some benefits, however taking a holistic approach provides more long term positive effects for mental health as well as overall wellbeing.
Take home messages:
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While most of us are aware of the physical side effects from too much screen time, including the impacts on vision, sleep, and weight gain from sitting down constantly, there hasn’t been many studies done to show the effects on mental health in adults.
A 2014 Nielsen report found that on average, adults spend 11 hours a day in front of screens. Is it possible that this may have an affect on mental health as well as physical health?
Studies have shown that too much screen time, especially at night affects sleep quality. One study was done on the effects of technology use on sleep at the University of Gothenburg, led by Dr. Sara Thomee. Thomee stated that the blue light emitted from screens suppresses melatonin production, preventing a restful night’s sleep. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland which regulates sleep and essentially helps you wind down at the end of the day. A lack of good quality sleep is associated with anxiety and depression.
Anxiety can also be caused by the constant influx of information through social media and other forms of media. Too much negative news can become overwhelming, leading to depression or anxiety.
Dr. Graham Davey, a British psychologist stated that constant negative news and violent media exposure contributes to depression, anxiety, stress, and possibly post-traumatic stress disorder. Negative news can significantly change someone’s mood and increase personal worries. This may lead to more negative or aggressive interactions with the world, due to subconsciously focusing on negative and threatening events.
Another issue with overusing technology is addiction. Certain types of screen time can cause dopamine to be released, such as social media. Each time you received a new post reaction, reply or message certain parts of the brain are activated and you receive a hit of dopamine. Over time this may become additive.
From the limited amounts of studies done so far, results have indicated that there is a correlation between screen time and mental health issues in adults. This includes addiction, depression, anxiety and aggression. However, not enough is known yet about the impact of screen time on mental health; and it’s still too early to determine a causation. We can’t be sure whether it’s the screens causing mental health issues, or those already suffering from mental health issues who are drawn to use technology more often.
It’s difficult to determine a “recommended amount of screen time” for adults, as many people need to use technology as part of their jobs. But you can look at how you’re using your screen time, and how it’s effecting your social life, physical fitness and overall health. If it’s negatively impacting other responsibilities and activities in your life, then you may need to take a break.
Like anything it’s all about balance. Take regular breaks and get outside as much as possible.
Today I started my car and the radio came on. It just happened to be the beginning of a song called Mad World by Gary Jules. I first heard this song in the movie Donnie Darko, but I have never really paid attention to the lyrics, although I found the song quite depressing. For some reason today I paid attention. While I believe most music isn’t so much about what is put in, but more about what the listener gets out of it. A song's meaning might be very different depending on the person, and that’s ok, it’s a personal thing.
I felt this song has a very strong message, and it’s probably a similar message many people get. The Gary Jules version is a cover of the Tears For Fears original, however I find the Tears For Fears version doesn’t have the same impact as the newer version. I feel like this song explains perfectly what I try to put into my own writing. For example:
All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places, worn out faces
Bright and early for their daily races
Going nowhere, going nowhere
Their tears are filling up their glasses
No expression, no expression
Hide my head, I want to drown my sorrow
No tomorrow, no tomorrow
To me this verse describes the typical life of those stuck in the “rat race”. “All around me are familiar faces, worn out places, worn out faces”, seeing the same crowd every day, worn out, depressed, doing the same thing every day, and “going nowhere”. Not following their heart, but doing what the think the must do. Or even what the have to do to get by, even though it’s not what they want to be doing. The next part really got to me, “no expression”. How many times have you sat on public transport during peak hour and looked around? Really looked at the faces around you? So many people look like blank zombies, where’s their happiness gone and how can I help them?
Here are two short films below that I find very inspirational:
I feel like this verse also touches on the loss of connection between humans. We see many people every day, but we aren’t connected anymore. Usually because we are looking at our phones. When did we become so afraid of strangers? Of course you have to be careful, but the majority of people are good and you will find that out when you connect. Smile at a stranger, you never know what that might mean to them, or how it will change their day.
The next verse is probably the most saddest part of the song for me:
Children waiting for the day, they feel good
Happy birthday, happy birthday
Made to feel the way that every child should
Sit and listen, sit and listen
Went to school and I was very nervous
No one knew me, no one knew me
Hello teacher, tell me what's my lesson
Look right through me, look right through me
I put the first two lines in bold because this really kicks you in the guts. And I think this applies to adults more than it does to kids. As an adult we believe that happiness will come at some point in the future, usually from something we are trying to “get”. This training starts young. Children know how to be happy, they know how to follow their passions and live in the present. Unfortunately we adults beat this out of them (not literally).
They learn that happiness comes from things, you will be happy when you get “this and that” on your birthday, or at some future point. But right now you must be serious and get your work done. There is a time to be serious and work, but where's the balance gone? Kids want to be creative, they learn from expressing themselves in their own individual way. While many schools are starting to recognise this, they are still placed into boxes and expected to all be the same. And when you’re different, you are bullied at school, or the “weirdo” as an adult.
So why can't we find happiness in the present? We are always looking towards the future, but life isn't there, it's here. "There" doesn't exist yet. And unfortunately it's often the latest "thing" we can buy that we think will bring us happiness. Quite often buying the latest "in thing" will bring some amount of happiness, but it won’t last. So we move on to the next phone, or TV, or whatever is “in” at that moment.
Minimalism is a great movement to get in to. However I personally wouldn’t take it as far as some people do, ending up with one lonely chair in a bare room. I like my home to be cosy and filled with enough, but not too much furniture. I found it very empowering to go through all of my stuff over time (probably about a year), and sell or donate everything that I either didn’t need, serve a practical purpose, or didn’t love. It was a slow process because I found it hard to give up some items, even though they didn’t serve a purpose for me, I guess I was scared that one day I might “need” this item. But I got braver and I haven’t missed anything I have gotten rid of.
I now carefully think about purchases before I make them and decide if I really need the item, or if I will love this item and not get sick of it after a few weeks. One thing I have notice (apart from saving money), is that I now buy better quality things, or secondhand things that will last and bring joy to me over the long term. Instead of cheap rubbish that breaks after a month, or is so mass produced that it has no originality. Quality, not quantity as they say! There’s something beautiful about secondhand furniture. It has a history and quality that you don't get from new furniture.
Now I’ve gotten a little of track here, so lastly I will cover the chorus of the song:
And I find it kinda funny, I find it kinda sad
The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had
I find it hard to tell you, I find it hard to take
When people run in circles it's a very very
Mad world, mad world
I found the verses spoke to me more than the chorus. But the chorus tells me that to some people, dying is more exciting than living in this mad world. A world where we run in circles. In other words getting nowhere. But not nowhere in a physical sense. Nowhere in a spiritual sense. We ignore our spiritual side, and whether we like it or not we are physical, mental and spiritual beings. We must nurture all of these parts to live in harmony with ourselves and others.
At the moment, at least in the Western world, we pay the most attention to the physical and the mental sides. We need to learn how to listen to our hearts more and follow our intuition and passions; which could actually be working in an office. But it could also be singing, or art, or writing, or a doctor, or a scientist; I could go on. Whatever it is, at the very least try. You might fail, but at least you tried.
“It's better to regret what you have done than what you haven't.” ~ Paul Arden.
You don’t need to go crazy and quit your job to follow your heart. It could be something as simple as doing what brings you joy in your spare time instead of watching TV or browsing Facebook. Doing what society tells you to do may make you rich, but will it make you happy?
"Everyone you meet always ask if you have a career, are married or own a house as if life was some kind of grocery list. But no one ever asks you if you are happy" ~ Heath Ledger.