Health & Wellness

Mental Health Monday: How food can affect your mental health

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When you open up your pantry, what you reach for can impact your mood.

“We know that mood and food are definitely linked and people use food and drinks to manipulate their feelings,” said Dr. Naomi Parella, chief of lifestyle medicine at RUSH University Medical Center.

We often reach for comfort foods when we’re feeling stressed or sad, but Parella said sugary foods can do more harm than good. To combat unhealthy swings in blood sugar, the human body will pump out insulin.

“What insulin does is it helps bring the sugars down, so that your blood sugars will stay stable. But when insulin is very high, it turns off your body's ability to burn fat,” Parella said. “It means you don't have access to your fat cells, which means you're going to be on this roller coaster ride, because you don't have enough fuel. And that can cause feelings of anxiety, depression, mental fog and fatigue.”

Sugar can also be addictive, creating the same dopamine surge you’d find with other addictive substances.

“Once you have that sugar addiction, you're going to constantly be seeking more sugar, but it can never be satisfied. So that roller coaster creates a lot of mental instability, as well as fatigue because you’ve got that crash,” Parella said.

In addition to limiting sugary foods, Dr. Parella recommends you also watch what you drink. She says what your body and mind really need is water.

“The brain sits in water. It is made of protein and fats, and it uses salts and proteins to communicate with itself and the rest of the body,” Parella said. “So if you know that's what your brain needs and is made up of, you have to make sure you supply that.”

 In addition to drinking water, Parella recommends eating a variety of fruits, vegetables and proteins, including the amino acids from animal proteins or the supplemental equivalent, to fuel our mental health.

“Protein, vegetables, drinking enough water, those would be all important because your body needs those things, as well as omega-3 fatty acids,” Parella said.

Parella says a low carb diet may work for some people. Another option is intermittent fasting, when you limit your daily eating to a specific window of the day. For example, fasting for 16 hours and only eating within an 8-hour window.

“If there's a period of time that you don't eat, then your insulin can come down. And again, that allows your body to just kind of sort of self-regulate,” Parella said.

When you’re grocery shopping, you may not be thinking about your mental health, but Parella says we should.

“A lot of people feel that mental health happens to them, and it's out of control,” Parella said. “We can actually positively impact mental health by making really great choices with our food and drink.”

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