“You are what you eat” – so says the age-old adage that counsels good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. While most people think of this as meaning “if you eat fat, you become fat,” nutrition affects far more than your outer appearance and your physical health. There is a strong, albeit less acknowledged, connection between your diet and your mental health. This means that nutrition has a critical role to play in mood conditions such as depression and bipolar disorder. If you truly are what you eat, then junk food will do more than make you look bad. It will make you feel bad, as well.
Unstable Moods, Unstable Diets
Most laypeople (and even a handful of health professionals) tend to think of the mental and the physical as two separate spheres. Obesity is a physical condition, so it’s remedied physically: with exercise and proper nutrition. Depression, on the other hand, is mental. So, it’s treated with mental remedies: therapy, medication, etc.
Breaking Down the Physical-Mental Barrier
None of this is to say that bipolar disorder isn’t mental, or that obesity isn’t physical. However, there are many connections between the two conditions that transcend the whole physical-mental distinction. A study published by World Psychiatry surveyed mental illness patients from 1966 to 2010 and found that “nutritional and metabolic diseases…are, compared to the general population, more prevalent among people with [severe mental illness].”
Nutritional and metabolic diseases encompasses obesity and much more, while mood disorders falls under the scope of severe mental illness. The primary connection between these two health issues is thought to be serotonin, a lack of which goes hand-in-hand with mood disorders. There are several reasons why serotonin deficiency can lead to inadequate physical health. Major explanations include the following:
- Binge eating, especially of foods that are high in calories, sugar and carbohydrates, in order to improve one’s mood in the short-term. The craving for these foods derives from their saturation of tryptophan, a primary amino acid that helps to build serotonin.
- Chemical imbalances in general, particularly those experienced during a bipolar manic episode, can result in impulsive decisions regarding one’s health.
- Major mood disorders, especially depression, can also cause the sufferer to adopt a sedentary lifestyle that neglects exercise or any physical activity.
- Many medications used to treat mood disorders run the risk of weight gain as a side-effect. Such medications range from antipsychotics to mood stabilizers to anti-depressants and include clozapine, quetiapine (Seroquel), paroxetine (Paxil), and lithium.
Mood & Obesity: A Double-Edged Sword
The co-occurrence of depression or mania on the one hand and obesity on the other makes mental illness a double-edged sword that is all the more difficult to manage and overcome. Overeating and bypassing exercise often do feel good in the moment, but it is fleeting and cannot be sustained in order to healthily deal with one’s mood issues. In fact, these behavioral patterns are likely to cause further and more acute mood instability.
Multiple studies have indeed pointed out a correlation between eating junk food and increased depression. An unbalanced diet will lack nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins, which are necessary to feel good and give serotonin the boost it needs. The lethargy that comes with depressive episodes are also more likely to cause one to stay indoors, depriving them of the Vitamin D that sunlight synthesizes. Lastly, body image issues are not to be taken lightly here. Those with depression already suffer from low self-esteem, which gets compounded when they overeat and gain weight.
Overcoming the Cycle
When depression leads to overeating and overeating leads to even worse feelings of depression, the inertia of the dietary-mood cycle can be difficult to overcome. Thus, it is important to realize above all else that there is a connection between mood and nutrition, and it goes both ways. Eating junk won’t help you feel good in the long run, but eating well certainly will.
Educating those with mood disorders is imperative, and some therapists will even incorporate this into their sessions. While little can be done to eliminate the cravings that come with psychotropic medications, psychologists can train their patients to control those cravings. Using cognitive behavioral therapy and other methods, those with mental illness can force themselves to overcome their negativity and do the things they don’t want to do: think positively, eat healthily, and exercise regularly.
Once adopted, a healthy lifestyle quickly gains momentum and becomes easier to sustain with every passing day. Patients experience the natural rewards of good health, which are both physical and mental. On a biological level, the daily rush of endorphins that comes from exercising creates an incentive to do it again. Psychologically, they feel better about their lives and what they are doing. Physical fitness and good nutrition not only improve body image and boost their feelings of self-worth, but also alleviate the shame of overeating and feeling lazy.
Just like the cycle of depression and obesity, the cycle of good mental and physical health is hard to break once it takes form. All people — whether depressed, manic or unaffected by mental illness — truly are what they eat. Knowing this, we have all the more reason to eat right.
Contributed by: All About Recovery, Inc.