Almost every day of the week, I work with a client suffering with mental health symptoms who’s been in therapy for years, has tried various medications with minimal results, and nobody has ever bothered to ask them what they eat.
For years working as a therapist I never asked either…
I went to graduate school in psychology for seven years and did two years of postdoctoral training in psychoanalysis, and never heard a professor ever mention the connection between diet and mental health, NOT even once. The psychological training I got was amazing, but the relationship between nutrition and mental health was just not on their radar.
One Conversation Can Change Everything
Then, more than a decade ago, a chance meeting with a chiropractor at a party turned my world on its head.
After I finished the Mood Cure, I felt like I had just been given a really cool pair of x-ray glasses. It gave me a new way of understanding mood and behavior and I was sold! It was also the beginning of my lifelong exploration of the food/mood connection.
I learned that moods can be a product of our past experience or faulty thinking (the basic premise of all of my training as a psychologist) but can also be influenced by the food choices we make every day.
I became aware that there were times when negative moods were actually not real feelings at all, but “false moods” caused by negative reactions to specific foods or other lifestyle factors.
This was literally a revelation to me, and teasing out whether feelings are “real” and based in feelings, or “false” and rooted in food choices, is some of the most important work I do with people every day.
At this point, I’m not sure how I could help people if we didn’t talk about food!
Food as Therapy
In fact, I have found helping people to make very simple dietary changes to be the easiest and most powerful way to help with stuck mental health symptoms.
It can take up to six weeks to see whether an antidepressant is going to work, but in just a few days you can see the benefits of changing your diet!
In my practice I ask people to make simple but targeted dietary changes before anything else.
Fancy interventions like biochemical testing to find the “root underlying causes” of their symptoms or a total diet makeover like the Whole30 can come later if needed.
The amazing thing is that this is an experiment you can do on your own, right now!
After working on diet with hundreds of people suffering from mental health issues, patterns started to emerge and I became more clear about what simple changes were usually most effective.
The 3 Most Powerful Food Fixes For Mental Health
1 ) Increase your protein intake to 70-75 grams a day.
The single most powerful dietary step you can take to enhance your mood is to start counting protein grams (use a protein counter like this one.)
First, get a sense of what your average daily protein intake is for three days by recording everything you eat that contains protein. If your is average less than 70-75 grams, do an experiment for a week and see how you feel boosting your protein to somewhere in the 70-75 gram range per day. You may be surprised at the results!
I am going to tell you right now, I have seen this step literally change lives…Don’t believe it, try it for yourself.
So why is it a big deal for depressed people to get enough protein?
When you eat anything with protein, it’s broken down into amino acids.
And amino acids are the only thing in the world that can be made into the mood supportive neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine, two of the most important chemical when it comes to depression.
So, no protein=bad moods!
It’s that simple.
2) Eat for Stable Blood Sugar
It’s amazing how much havoc unstable blood sugar can cause to your mood.
The Standard American Diet with all of it’s processed food, sweets and sodas is pretty much a recipe for a constant ride on the “blood sugar roller coaster,” with blood sugar spiking and crashing all day.
Not only is this a setup for diabetes, it invariably leads to days filled with anxiety and depression, guaranteed!
Take a look at some of the symptoms caused by low blood sugar, also called hypoglycemia:
What do you think the average therapist or psychiatrist would think after hearing these symptoms? Depression or hypoglycemia?
I think we all know the answer!
So how do you know if blood sugar stability is a problem?
The gold standard would be a medical test called a 6-hour Glucose Tolerance Test (GTT.) Generally speaking, it is difficult to get a medical provider to do this test and I think it will be pretty easy for you to figure out whether hypoglycemia might be issue for you by thinking about your symptoms.
Here are some clues that you have blood sugar issues:
If you become shaky, anxious, angry, disoriented or depressed after going less than four hours without food, you probably have issues with blood sugar and it’s worth taking the steps below to see if they help. The KEY here is wether symptoms coincide with going too long without eating.
And of course the proof is in the pudding! If you benefit from addressing hypoglycemia symptoms than likely it’s affecting your mood.
Here are some basic steps to take to eat for more stable blood sugar (and of course more stable moods):
-Start by eating 5-6 small meals a day; Going too long between meals cause blood sugar to dip.
-Begin avoiding foods that raise blood sugar quickly. Use the glycemic index as a guide when thinking about food choices for hypoglycemia by focusing on eating mostly low glycemic foods which keep blood sugar stable.
This would definitely include all foods with sugar, processed grains, breads, white flour and might include whole grains, beans and fruit (you have to experiment to see how restrictive you need to be.)
-Focus on consuming real foods including meats, low glycemic vegetables, nuts, seeds, and good quality fats.
– Avoid substances known to exacerbate hypoglycemia because of their effect on the adrenal glands, including caffeine, tobacco and alcohol.
If you find that it’s difficult to go more than a few hours without symptoms and eating more frequently does not stabilize your mood, the amino acid L-Glutamine can be a lifesaver. Take 1000mg between meals at the times that you have blood sugar dips. Glutamine can be used by the brain as fuel, and can ward off hypoglycemia symptoms.
3) Avoid Gluten Containing Grains and Dairy
When we think about bad mood foods, gluten and dairy are at the top of the list.
Problems with gluten and dairy fall into three main categories:
First, they are inflammatory and much research has connected systemic inflammation to depression.
Second, gluten and dairy are the most common food to cause delayed food sensitivities, which have been linked to many systemic and interrelated problems including gastrointestinal issues, immune system dysregulation and depression.
And third, in some people gluten and casein (the protein in dairy), can’t be broken down completely and react with opiate receptors in the brain causing many mental health symptoms, including those seen in autism, schizophrenia, and depression.
Experimenting with a gluten and dairy free diet may end up being one of the most important steps that you can take to address your depression.
If you choose to move forward with the experiment, start by removing ALL gluten and dairy for one month. It is important to remove ALL sources, because in sensitive people, a little can cause massive problems. Here’s a list of food to avoid.
Just remember you can, and probably will, feel worse before you feel better. Many people are addicted to these foods and can go through a period of withdrawal before feeling better (withdrawal symptoms can last up to 2 weeks or longer.) Stick with it, it will be worth it!
One important thing is to reintroduce the gluten and casein one at a time. Do this by choosing the one you want to introduce first and have three meals with it in one day and then stop eating it for 48 hours and just watch for symptoms. Do the same with the other one. Waiting 48-hours will give time for any delayed food sensitivities to become apparent.
After this experiment you will have much more information about how gluten and dairy contribute to your depression.
If you have mental health symptoms and have had less than full remission of your symptoms after going to therapy and taking medication, I would encourage you to work with these food experiments.
Let us know about what you notice by leaving a comment below. I know other people will benefit from hearing about your experience.
Also if you found this helpful and would like to hear more about the underlying causes of depression come to my website at MoodHealing.com to sign up for my email list to get more cutting edge articles about nutritional and integrative treatments for mental health.
In good (mental) health,
Dr. Josh Friedman has more than 25 years experience in mental health as a client, psychologist, and functional nutrition practitioner. After working in the field for a few years, he realized how many people were still struggling with depression and other mental health issues even after years of therapy and medication. Over time he became increasingly uncomfortable with the limitations of standard psychiatric treatment and knew there had to be a better way. Over the past decade and a half, he has committed himself to learning as much as he could about the root causes of mental health symptoms. To share this information and to help people get unstuck, he started Alternative Mental Health Solution.