This post is one that I feel I should have written right when I started blogging: it’s all about the link between food and mental health. Because yes, what you eat can absolutely influence how you feel not just physically but also mentally and even emotionally.
Instead, what I’m hoping to do is inspire you to think for yourself. To pay attention to how what you’re eating and what you’re drinking affects your mental health and your mood.
Because let’s face it: what really truly matters is what you discover for yourself. That’s so much more powerful than anything I (or anybody else for that matter) can tell you to do.
food and mental health - personal experiences
Below you’ll find statements of past and current clients, of myself and of people that I’ve asked online in a recent post on Instagram and Facebook.
The number one thing that features in every single story I’ve come across so far is around sugar. So let’s start with some of those stories before moving onto gluten, coffee and intermittent fasting.
"I'm really surprised how much of an effect sugar has on my mood"
One of my clients has recently worked very hard on reducing her sugar consumption. She didn’t primarily do so for her mood but more so to loose weight and gain energy.
She was managing very well and was loosing weight despite eating far more than ever before. The autumn school holidays came around and she had a few occasions of eating more like she used to, and her sugar consumption went up again for a while.
I still remember her telling me how surprised she was to discover that it really was the sugar that made her feel much worse, her mood including.
"I used to eat bags and bags of raisins, not knowing how much they'd be messing with my blood sugar levels"
This one is from me. Back when I was feeling really low and down, I remember sitting on the sofa eating endless amounts of raisins. Given that they’re fruit, I was thinking that they’d be good for me. This was before my nutritional therapy training…
Raisins, as any other dried fruit, are packed with sugar. What I didn’t realise was that this sugar would trigger blood sugar spikes and crashes. If you want to read more about the effect of sugar on your health, here’s a post I wrote about it earlier. But in a nutshell:
After breaking down your carbohydrates (such as raisins) in your gut, the sugar from it gets absorbed into your bloodstream.
You’ve always got a certain amount of sugar in your bloodstream and that’s a very good thing. So when that level goes up after eating and digesting, your body will send out insulin which will then take that excess sugar out of the bloodstream and into the many different cells in your body.
So that sugar in your bloodstream is super important for your body to make energy, but too much of it is no good.
So what I was experiencing after eating all these very many raisins were blood sugar spikes and crashes. I was on a real blood sugar rollercoaster ride that was directly impacting not just my energy but also my mood and cognitive functions.
A lot of the symptoms you might get from those rollercoaster rides actually overlap with symptoms of depression and anxiety:
Fatigue, exhaustion, physical weakness, irritability, unreasonable anger, racing thoughts, feeling anxious or nervous, brain fog or difficulty concentrating.
That was a big discovery for me!
"I know I'm relying on sugar and chocolate for comfort"
This came from a lovely woman online who shared that she’s aware of a connection between her mood and her sugar intake, yet really struggles to reduce the sweet stuff. And who can’t resonate with that?
Sugar is addictive and there’s research to back it up. It activates reward centres in our brains and makes us crave more. You can actually get withdrawal symptoms which again proves just how powerful sugar is on our brains.
So please don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re on a journey to eat less sugar. It takes time and practice and a lot of commitment.
What’s really interesting is that once you eat much less of it, you’ll then find most convential sweet things way too sweet. Your taste buds do adjust!
"So as long as I'm exercising regularly, I'm not craving the sugar much"
Last one about sugar, I promise. This is from a previous client of mine who was really stuck in feelings and symptoms of depression.
She used to exercise a lot but after an injury couldn’t do that for a while. One thing led to another and she ended up eating mostly comfort and sweet foods, and feeling very, very low.
Once we started working together she picked up her exercise routine again, and made a commitment to eat very little sugar. Her mood improved enourmously after just a month and she found that her exercising actually movitated her to keep her sugar intake low.
Obviously, it’s far easier to do this sort of thing when you’ve got somebody cheering you along, but the point is this:
Often we comfort eat because something else in our lives is missing, perhaps completely so or just a little. Maybe that feeling of being truly alive. Maybe of feeling good in your skin. Happy about your job, your family, your health, etc.
This woman was very aware of the link between her low mood and her high sugar intake. But it wasn’t until she got back into her passion of exercising that she was able to eat less of it.
"Gluten does not make me feel great"
This one came from another lovely woman in my online community, and her statement could apply to me as well.
Gluten is an interesting one. There is so much out there about gluten intolerance as well as being actually celiac.
Again, there’s quite a bit of research in this area. Particularly if you are suffering from digestive symptoms, following a strict gluten free diet for a few weeks might be a valuable strategy for you to explore – as part of an overall and holistic approach.
If gluten is triggering inflammation inside your gut, you could end up experiencing that cognitively and mentally through inflammation in your brain.
But some people are undoubtedly doing very well eating gluten as part of a balanced diet. I’d argue the biggest problem for most of us is eating too much of it and lacking other nutritious food sources. Plus, a lot of the gluten that we consume are in products that are highly refined and processed.
As for me, my eczema starts to come back if I eat foods that contain gluten for a few days. The same for dairy. I’m a lot less reactive to those foods than I used to be, but mostly I stay away from them.
And like the woman I’m sharing this statement from, I’m also pretty confident that gluten affects my mood too. But it’s often hard to tell because a lot of the high-gluten foods are often also the ones that trigger blood sugar rollercoaster as I talked about above. Is it the gluten or is it the sugar?
"One cup of coffee makes me feel better vs I feel so horrible when I drink coffee but I struggle to give it up"
If you’re ever confused as to why there are sooooo many different messages around healthy eating, then it’s because of this: we are all different and our bodies respond and react in different ways.
Coffee is such a great example for this.
I know some people who really cannot handle it very well at all. They might be exhausted, stressed out and are really running on empty. Or perhaps they are dealing with a chronic health condition, or their liver cannot detoxify it efficiently for various reasons and so coffee just makes them feel horrible.
Yet for others, coffee can actually be a wonderful thing. In terms of mental health, it can (for some) lift your mood by raising dopamine and adrenaline.
It all depends on how you respond to it.
"I feel even better now with intermittent fasting
No doubt there’ll be an entire blog post dedicated to this topic at some point. Intermittent fasting is done by quite a few people now for various reasons.
In a nutshell, intermittent fasting is a diet where you alternate between periods of restricting your calory intake to periods of eating normally. So it’s all about when you eat.
Perhaps you’ve heard about time restricted eating too which is gaining lots of attention now. Time restricted eating is a form of intermittent fasting: it’s all about eating your food in a particular window of time each day. And then nothing outside of that time. That window typically ranges from 6 to 12 hours of eating.
One of my previous clients now does this with a 6 hour eating window, and is feeling amazing on it. She said she rarely feels the need for comfort food and her energy levels are amazing.
I just find this all fascinating. But again, the most important thing to know about intermittent fasting is this:
It might work for you, it might not. Or at least not now. If you feel like trying it, then do so with curiosity and an open mind. It’s yet another way to support your mental and physical way through eating – what and when you eat.
But by no means do you have to do it all!
I hope you’ve found these stories about personal experiences around food and mental health useful. There needs to definitely be a part 2 for it at some point. Part 2 would focus on the kinds of foods that people have discovered make them feel good – instead of bad! Do let me know if you’d like to contribute to that.
But for now, I’d encourage you to have a think for yourself. Which foods do not make you feel great? Which ones might be contributing to low mood?
And if you’d like to work with me to help you break free from those foods (and work on a whole lot of other goals too), then simply get in touch to book a free phone call with me. We’ll talk about what’s going on for you and whether working with me might help you with that.