Women and Mental Health

Food can be more than just fuel for the body---it can also be medicine for the mind. When it comes to women's mental health, foods can have a profound impact on women's mental health. Read on to know more.

Natasha, came to me feeling blue, and down and out. She said she had felt stressed out for over a year. Her thinking was all foggy, she had insomnia, and a lot of heartburn, her periods were scanty and nothing was working for her. Her blood tests were normal, and there was nothing for the doctor to say about her condition. Natasha, was not going to go the alternative way easily, she was completely dominated by what her doctors were giving her and telling her.

Her biggest step was already taken, when she came to me to take on a diet to change her condition. In the Eastern way of looking at things, we as practitioners believe that you will get many signs before an ailment happens to you. Sometimes, it’s just feeling blue, like what Natasha was going through.

We live in a world which is yang (In the Macrobiotic view = contracted) and refuse to include the yin (expansive energy). Equanimity (thorough meditation and attitude), spirituality and being in the now, are all sidelined for ambition, success at any cost, and being competitive. Today, success is measured by your social media ratings, and how your peers are doing, and we want to be on the top without going through the process. We do not even take notice of how this makes us feel down and out.

There are no pills, potions, lotions or even just eating this food product or that (e.g., your diet may be very bad, but you’re still just having chia seeds in water because you are told it is good for you), to make you feel good. You must seek to rectify your entire diet, and lifestyle, and manage stress to counteract poor health.

Good quality yang can be achieved, by doing the right exercise, and engaging in the right mental activities; while good quality yin can be achieved by eating the right foods (overall diet, not just in isolation), plugging into the divine or universal energy (prana as we Indians call it), spending time with our loved ones.

Three things to get right when mentally low –

  1. DIET in this case must comprise freshly cooked whole foods: whole grain, legumes, vegetables, good quality fermentation, nuts and seeds; mostly vegetarian. Cooking foods make them easier to digest. Avoid dairy, sugar, maida (refined flour), preservatives and refined/processed foods. Stay vegetarian.
  2. STRESS MANAGEMENT via meditation and yoga (pranayama) and walks outdoors (good yin).
  3. DISCIPLINE to do this every single day, and stay plugged into the positive; doing something every day, in the same way, relaxes the nervous system and gets you results. Routine is the name of the game when it comes to good health.

The link between refined carbohydrates with depression

Carbohydrates are found in a wide variety of foods and have often been the focus of new weight-loss diets. However, the emphasis should not be on how many carbohydrates we eat, but on the type.

Refined carbohydrates are contained in refined grains, such as white flour, white bread and white rice. They differ from whole-grain foods because they have been milled – a process that increases the texture and shelf life, but that also removes much of the nutritional value which includes important fibre and vitamins.

Once carbohydrates are eaten, some of the sugar is broken down into glucose that then proceeds to enter the bloodstream. The glycemic index (GI) is a metric tool used to measure and rank the extent to which our body’s sugar levels are raised after eating.

Foods with a low GI take longer to digest and break down and, therefore, enter the bloodstream slowly. This causes the blood’s glucose level to be raised more slowly over a longer period.

In contrast, foods with a high GI cause a more rapid rise in the blood’s glucose level. Refined grains fall into this category, and it is this reason why a high-GI diet can lead to a host of health problems, such as diabetes, obesity and depression or mental health issues.

Foods that have some of the highest GI scores include:

White bread, pasta, corn flakes, puffed rice, bran flakes, instant oatmeal, white rice, rice, macaroni and cheese from a packet; including packaged products with refined carbohydrates.

James Gangwisch, PhD, and colleagues, from the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC), NY, set out to investigate the relationship between a diet high in refined carbohydrates and depression.

High-GI diet increased depression risk by 22%

Researchers analyzed data from more than 90,000 postmenopausal women who participated in the National Institutes of Health’s Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study that was conducted between 1994-1998. The observational study enlisted postmenopausal women between the ages of 50-79 and tracked their health over an average of 8 years.

They examined the levels of depression reported, the types of carbohydrates consumed, the GI rank and the glycemic load.

It was found that high-GI diets increased the risk of depression in postmenopausal women by 22%. Also, higher consumption of lactose, fibre, non-juice fruits and vegetables was significantly associated with a lower chance of developing depression.

The study concludes that further research should be done to see if a low-GI diet could serve as a treatment or primary preventive measure for postmenopausal women suffering from depression.

Here are 4 steps based on neuroscience research in psychology and other mental health fields adapted and edited from The Harvard Business Review – to aid the brain stay away from depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s and other mind-related disorders.

1. Indulge in experiences that make your brain grow

E.g., if you learn a skill from someone who says crochet or tennis this implies you re-creating mental imagery later to call in that experience as a method of learning.

2. Work hard at play

That is, to go on creating yourself endlessly (Henri Bergson). ‘Play’ engages the pre-frontal
cortex (our most highly evolved and recently acquired brain areas), those related to
incentive and reward processing, goal and skill representation, mental imagery and self-knowledge. Companies like Google and Apple, provide environments that encourage
some kind of play, referred to as Zen dens, play spaces, and chat chambers. You must
have a ‘stake’ in the play as ‘risk’ alerts the brain and activated capacities for both reason and imagination.

3. Search for patterns

Challenge both hemispheres of the brain, the left (that which makes you carry out routine
tasks); the right (less structured, more ‘poetic’ part of the brain). Expand the left by
listening to different viewpoints, reading new books and articles, visit places with a focused set of learning objectives.

4. Seek novelty and innovation

To trigger the right hemisphere of the brain like when you take up painting or a child
studies language. Continuous new learning, and having an open attitude, the Buddhist monks
call a ‘beginners mind.’ A challenge activates the right hemisphere: anger, inflammation and the Brain

Your liver and anger

According to TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine); anger is the emotion of the liver. Therefore, automatically if you have anger, frustration or are low, then we know your liver is off (by this I mean lethargic, slow, fatty and not processing blood well). Research also points out to the inflammation markers of people diagnosed with something called IED (Intermittent Explosive Disorder) are very high. Your one marker of inflammation namely CRP (C-reactive protein) produced in the liver in response to an injury or infection and IL-6 (interleukin-6) secreted by the white blood cells arise when the body’s inflammatory response is stimulated. Anger triggers cortisol, which helps mobilize sugar and it also acts as an immune suppressant, lowering levels of IgA a guard of gut mucosa, promoting inflammation. When you have inflammation, the inflammatory cytokines travel through the body damaging tissues and mitochondria, they also infiltrate the brain causing damage. It uses tryptophan to stimulate anxiety-provoking chemicals, instead of serotonin i.e., what you need to feel good and generate less anger.

Someone with a poor gut (unhealthy lifestyle and diet), will naturally be predisposed to a lethargic liver and inflammation, thereby being irritable, and angry and creating more inflammation’ also predisposing them to depression. Trouble then comes about, when you are in anger all the time and your inflammation response is activated and there is no ‘off” switch for it.

Here are some signs that you have brain inflammation –

  1. You are more in a bad mood than a good mood
  2. You feel lethargic and tired easily
  3. You get constant migraines/headaches
  4. You suffer from brain fog
  5. You suffer from eye issues
  6. You are anxious easily

How to get out of mental health issues using food?

Avoid sugar in any form (sugar, colas, sodas, candy, boxed foods with sugar), stay away from refined carbs (maida), stay away from bad quality fats (refined oils, trans and hydrogenated fats), processed and cured foods, artificial sweeteners, alcohol (minimize), stimulants too much of them: coffee, drugs, medication.

How to eat for positive Mental Health –

How to eat to stay positive – lately with all the events surrounding us on ‘mental health’ and how it gets the better of us, we fail to connect the dots between how food can be the foundation on which a lot of ‘mental health issues are given seeds to fructify be it positively or negatively. Believe it or not, you can eat your way out of depression So, here’s a snippet on what you should be doing to help yourselves along on a ‘food-front’; and decrease toxicity.

  1. Stop dependency on medication (Especially anti-depressants, unless needed); look for alternatives Bach flower remedies or homoeopathy. These systems of medication work things differently and don’t mess things up in your head. Even if you are on them, then try weaning yourself off slowly or make an effort to do so.
  2. Eliminate Sugar (refined carbohydrates anything made with maida), coffee, alcohol, anything caffeinated, tonic water, colas, and diet drinks (most times these become a ‘go to’ albeit the comfort sought from them is temporary only to fuel more anxiety later on.
  3. The energy of dairy and dairy products (except ghee) makes for sticky thoughts; as that’s literally what dairy does, stick to your tissues (causing inflammation in brain tissue as well); you will benefit a lot by stopping dairy consumption.
  4. Anything with food additives or food colours which can trigger anxiety-prone reactions
  5. Decreased intake of red meats, energetically known to promote heat and negative thought processes or cured meats.

Foods to include for Mental Health –

The one thing you can do almost immediately starts stabilizing your sugars; by this, I mean to lay the foundation for sustained glucose for the brain. Also, firing the neurotransmitters: namely SEROTONIN (the feel-good hormone). Here is a handy list of 10 things you could do –

  1. Eat whole grain and CHEW it like brown rice or millet (foundation to build your entire day)
  2. Add vegetables, and if you are in a ‘low’ state then take it up to ten cups a day (could do 50% raw and 50% cooked that’s if you can digest raw); include starchy vegetables (unless overweight) then do non-starchy vegetables
  3. Eat to feed the liver, which may be sluggish at this time – a barley shot would help, as barley is the food for the liver
  4. Add probiotics, via fermented foods (give the gut bugs a boost) remember that 95% of serotonin is made in the gut and add prebiotics as well
  5. Using our Indian spices like turmeric (anti-inflammatory) will help with brain inflammation and, black pepper (kali miri), fenugreek (methi), chilli powder (lal mirchi), cumin seeds (jeera); cinnamon (dalchini) balances out the sugar levels.
  6. Eat protein (preferably plant-based)
  7. Consume healthy fats
  8. Eat Fiber from your whole grains, vegetables, lentils/legumes, seeds/nuts and fruit – feed those gut bacteria
  9. Hydrate – rest and sleep
  10. Sweat it out – MOVE

The difference between feeling anxious and getting stressed about it; are 2 different thought processes. First, ‘ACCEPT’ you are anxious. Second, as Pema Chodron (Buddhist Monk) says ‘DON’T ITCH’ that is don’t get involved with it by giving in to the anxiousness, by acting out. Whether it’s reaching for sugar, a cup of coffee, alcohol or getting more stressed and nervous.

Things go wrong when we get wrapped up in emotional responses to our anxiousness making things worse. If you say ‘I feel anger in this moment and accept it chances are you’ll transcend it by observing yourself. I know it sounds simplistic, but try it once.

I have written an excellent book on Vipassana Meditation to get a copy for yourself

Here are some additional tips for you on cultivating some habits to combat depression –

  1. LIVE IN THE ‘MOMENT’ is easier said than done, but coming back to the breath (below your nose and above the upper lip, really helps – watch my youtube video on a short meditation).
  2. DO ONE THING a day that makes you HAPPY: listen to music, engage in play (kids/dogs/pets) – daily relaxation.
  3. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY: Eat right, exercise, sleep and meditate (or plug into something larger).
  4. GET OUT: I usually go to my terrace and sit in the sun, but a few people also go down in my building.
  5. MAKE TIME TO CATCH UP WITH FRIENDS: I find myself having very meaningful conversations with my friends all over the world.
  6. PRACTICE GRATITUDE: Focus on all the good things that are happening to you, and give thanks for them.
  7. DON’T RESIST IT – I am alone and I accept it, then I am not looking at filling up the void with things (be they food or negative thoughts). So, in a sense, I am not reacting to the loneliness, but embracing it.
  8. INVEST IN GOOD FRIENDS & FAMILY – This helps me to satisfy my need for a social connection. I have nurtured good friendships and made sure I invested in them and still do.
  9. BRING CONSCIOUSNESS INTO YOUR LIFE – I take it moment-to-moment. This tool helps to keep you grounded. ECKHART TOLLE writes about the “Power of Now.’ This takes you away from a mind that is coloured by conditioning, judgement, boredom, and negativity.
  10. FOCUS ON ANOTHER PERSON/PET – Take an interest in something outside yourself, like another person (perhaps going through a hard time) or even your pet. This takes you away from being obsessed with the fact that you are alone.
  11. BE PERSISTENT – In seeking out friends, relatives, and others. One of my friends always says to me ‘I never give up’ calling or staying in touch. This is true. Don’t feel bad if they don’t answer, but keep trying them (get out of your ego).
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