Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you areJean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
Over the years, I have experienced varying extremes of diets due to mental health issues. On one side was gluttony. Anything that changed my state of mind in a small amount must work better if I had MORE. More takeaways. More alcohol. More sweets. More salt. More fat. The outcome from this approach? I got more unhealthy and more miserable. On the other end of the spectrum is the complete obsession with diet. Counting calories. Skipping meals. Exessive exercise. Neither situation is desirable. Both lead to further mental health issues. Eventually, I learned what worked for me and found a balance.
My diet didn’t change because I became happier. I became happier because I changed my diet. I took the medication I was prescribed and started exercising (I talk about that here). All of those things combined have helped immensely in the last few months. But the lessons over my life around food have played a large part in my recovery. Here a few of the things that I have learned and hopefully if you are struggling it may help.
Firstly sugar. If you haven’t seen the documentary “That Sugar Movie“, I strongly suggest you do. Especially if you have children. It is a clear expose of the dangers of an unregulated sugar diet. And sugar is everywhere. Take Granola. Often seen as a healthy alternative to commercial breakfast cereal, Granola contains around 24g of Sugar per 122g. Now, what does that mean? Well, the recommended daily amount of sugar for women is 25g?! So the total amount is nearly consumed by one cup of Granola. Why does it matter? Excess sugar turns to fat. And sugar affects mental health as well.
A high-sugar diet impacts both physical and mental health. Sugar suppresses activity of a hormone called BDNF that is low in individuals with depression and schizophrenia. Sugar is also at the root of chronic inflammation, which impacts the immune system, the brain and other systems in the body and also has been implicated in depression.4 Ways Sugar Could Be Harming Your Mental Health | Psychology Today
Take a can of Coke for example. One 12 ounce can contains 39g of sugar. One can. That is nearly twice what is recommended. But sugar is often seen as a safe energy boost. A banana is a safe energy boost. Processed sugar is far from it. Switching to sugar-free seems like a safe option? Not quite. Artificial sweeteners trigger the hunger response which can lead to overeating. Which in turn can lead to guilt and remorse. And let’s just be clear here, I am not shaming peoples shapes. What I am promoting is a healthy lifestyle that benefits individuals both physically and mentally. A diet based on artificial stimulants such as caffeine and sugar leads to a peaks and troughs mental cycle. Highs and lows. The highs are when we function or are productive. The lows are seen as a negative and demand rectification through further stimulants. An addictive cycle is created. But in a hyperactive, fast-paced lifestyle the highs and lows are seen as normal. Stress is a part of the rat race. Life is stressful sometimes. But surprisingly sugar intake is linked to stress; “How can your blood sugar cause stress? When we experience regular stress, our adrenal glands make more of a stress hormone called cortisol. Along with managing stress, this hormone also manages your blood sugar. Whenever your blood sugar level changes too fast, your adrenal glands release cortisol to pull it back up again. Unstable blood sugar can make you feel the same as you would feel when an event makes you angry, frustrated or frightened.” Anxious basically.
Now, cortisol realised into the bloodstream to counter the increase in sugar. When this happens a craving for sugar starts to counter the loss of energy. If more sugar is consumed then the cycle repeats. A negative pattern is created with dangerous effects.
After the pressure or danger has passed, your cortisol level should calm down. Your heart, blood pressure, and other body systems will get back to normal. But what if you’re under constant stress and the alarm button stays on? It can derail your body’s most important functions. It can also lead to a number of health problems, including anxiety and depression, headaches, heart disease, memory and concentration problems, problems with digestion, trouble sleeping and weight gain.Cortisol: What It Does & How To Regulate Cortisol Levels (webmd.com)
Sugar is portrayed as innocuous in our culture but the diabetes statistics suggest otherwise. Sugar is related to being overweight. Being overweight leads to diabetes. Like alcohol, sugar needs to be treated as harmful. Moderation is vital for balance. Maybe sugar will eventually become the new tobacco. By which I mean once they have rinsed all the tax possible from it, they will then profess to how dangerous it is. And then increase the tax some more after people are addicted.
Most of the blogs on my page are about being an alcoholic or being a recovering alcoholic. My life vastly improved when I quit drinking. I only quit alcohol because I couldn’t moderate. I used alcohol to mask my underlying mental health issues; anxiety and depression. Quitting didn’t cure them but it did make them more manageable. In fact, it made my whole life more manageable. There are of course ups and downs in life. Alcohol enabled me to ignore my problems and as a result, my life got worse. I then needed more alcohol… an addictive cycle.
For someone experiencing anxiety, a drink might help them feel more at ease, but this feeling is short-lived. The so-called ‘relaxed’ feeling somebody may say they experience after having a drink is due to the chemical changes alcohol causes in the brain. But these effects wear off fast. Relying on alcohol to mask anxiety could also lead to a greater reliance on it to relax. A likely side-effect of this is the increased risk of building up a tolerance to alcohol. Over time you will need to drink more alcohol to get the same feeling. And, in the medium to longer term, this pattern often leads to alcohol dependence.Mental Health: Effects of Alcohol on the Brain | Drinkaware
If a friend who was experiencing depression asked how to reduce the symptoms. I would suggest they limit their alcohol intake. The short-term benefits of alcohol are vastly outweighed by the potential future negatives. Overindulgence in alcohol can be fun until the next day. Guilt, shame and remorse for overspending or behaviour that is out of character only exacerbate mental health issues. Added into this is the fact that alcohol directly affects brain chemistry and can lead to depression it should be treated with caution. Especially, in individuals with mental health issues.
Once I quit drinking I needed to find a treat in something. Alcohol was replaced by fast food. The Friday night takeaway meal became my indulgence. I would vary each week; Chinese, Indian, kebab, pizza. Each one would be seen as a treat. But after eating each I would feel worse than before. A treat doesn’t make you feel worse, does it? If I’m going to treat myself, then it should make me feel better? I mean if it makes me feel worse then it isn’t a treat. The initial hit of sugar, salt and fat would be vastly outweighed by the lethargy that would weigh me down. I soon realised it wasn’t a treat at all. It was an often expensive depressant. I had swapped one depressant for another.
The old adage “you are what you eat,” has an element of truth. Research has shown the link between what we eat and our mental health. This isn’t based on the external changes but the internal changes. The altering of brain chemistry (Is fast food making us depressed? – BBC Future). Maybe a change of diet will lead to a change of mood? It did for me. But it all sounds a little soulless, doesn’t it? A life without alcohol, sugar and fast food. It’s borderline monastic to live without these things! I would challenge this assumption. I would suggest that happiness has been conflated with pleasure. Without pleasure, there is no happiness. To be happy we must consume. But it is a deeply floored idea. For every up, there is a down. The highs lead to lows. The constant careering from peaks to troughs leads to anxiety and depression. By looking at what we consume we may be able to understand the way we feel.
Initially, a future without overconsumption of these things did seem bleak to me. It seemed pointless and empty. That’s when I realised it was a choice; try to change or accept the unhappiness. So I learned to moderate. I couldn’t moderate alcohol, I had to quit for good. The others I have learned to have in moderation. In all honesty, I prefer cooking something like tacos instead of ordering fast food. And paired with an exercising regime I feel better than I have for a long time. Who would have known that a healthy balance brings far more happiness than artificial stimulation?
Thanks for reading,
I used to be 18st 6lbs. And at 5’10”, I was massively overweight. The weight loss journey is documented here A guide to #wellness – Barstool to the Beach (fromthebarstooltothebeach.com)
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