It’s likely this summer did not pan out the way you’d planned. It’s understandable that as a result many people are feeling down and depressed. And it’s easy to think that true happiness is at the bottom of a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, but I can promise you that you won’t find it there (trust me, I’ve tried).
However, the idea that food contributes to mental health and has the potential to make you feel better isn’t entirely off track. What we put into our bodies either makes them feel better – or worse.
Did you know that boosting vitamin D intake can help with anxiety? By making simple shifts in what you eat on a daily basis, you may feel happier, less agitated, and more energized. Here’s how:
If you’ve ever had a “gut reaction,” it’s likely a signal sent from your other “brain”: your gut. Let me clarify. A whopping 70% of our immune cells are in our gut. In other words, the health of your gut can actually impact the health of your brain since food changes the types of bacteria present in your gut microbiome. The bacteria in your gut may become less diverse as a result of your food choices which may cause the bad bacteria to outgrow good bacteria, triggering a cascade of negative health effects. Food may also influence chemical messages sent between your gut and brain that may make you feel either depressed and drained or uplifted and energized.
So how can we make our gut healthier? The first thing that you can do is minimize the foods that dull your mood such as sugar, high glycemic load carbohydrates ( bread, pasta, white potatoes and rice) and artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame. Don’t panic, this doesn’t mean you have to write high glycemic carbs off for life, but the quality of carbohydrates you eat truly matters! Try swapping in steel cut oats, quinoa, beans and lentils a couple times per week to start the process.
Also consider taking prebiotics and probiotics to increase gut health. Prebiotics become fermented by probiotics found in your gut, this process creates short chain fatty acids, which can lead to an increase of serotonin (the “happy” chemical) from your brain.
Probiotics are available as supplements, but it’s preferable to increase your levels of friendly bacteria through dietary sources such as yogurts, tempeh, miso, kimchi or sauerkraut. Examples of prebiotic-rich foods include berries, green bananas, garlic, onion, legumes, oats, dandelion greens, asparagus and leeks. Seasonings, spices and herbs — like turmeric, saffron and oregano — are also “good mood foods” because of their antioxidant properties that help the brain fight off free radicals.
Interested in eating these foods and supporting local Philadelphia businesses at the same time? Hit up Fishtown Ferments for naturally fermented local produce. Or, if you’re looking for a way to get fresh produce – and fresh air – walk over to your neighborhood farmers’ market. Just don’t forget to drink 64 oz. of water daily to stay hydrated. Every Saturday in Rittenhouse Park, you can pick up amazing local produce from family-owned Rineer Family Farms. Just remember to place an order online ahead of time.
Food isn’t the only thing that can help improve your mood.
To quote everyone’s favorite fictional female attorney, Elle Woods, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.” But while Reese Witherspoon’s character in the movie Legally Blonde meant well, she was a bit off.
Though endorphins do increase in our blood plasma through exercise, those in the blood don’t affect the levels in the brain. However, when you participate in aerobic exercise you help to increase the levels of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain, which helps us handle stress. Exercise can also release oxytocin and cause a dopamine response, which influences the “pleasure circuit” in our brain. In other words, exercise can make you feel good.
If you’re looking for a way to get in a good workout and support local businesses, my top five recommendations are:
We can’t forget about other forms of self-care. Another way to take care of our bodies is by showing them a little TLC after all of the stress they’ve been under. If you feel badly about spending money on a trip to the spa or nail salon, keep in mind that these places can also help to improve our mental health and support some of the local businesses that have been hardest hit.
If you’re looking for an out-of-this-world holistic day spa, my favorite is The Spa Terme Di Aroma in Old City offering aromatherapy massages (with masks!) and other services centered on healing and meditation. And for those nails we’ve been neglecting, treat yourself to a mani and pedi at Naturale Salon in Center City. Using all-natural ingredients like ginseng, kojic acid, and jasmine, it’ll be an hour and a half of restoration.
The path to feeling better isn’t always easy. It often takes a combination of things to improve our moods. It may be a process and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you’re struggling with anxiety, depression, or stress in general (I’ll be the first to raise my hand), please know that you’re not alone. Take the steps to change your diet and your lifestyle and you may start to see the glass a bit fuller.
Theresa Shank is a registered dietitian and the founder of Philly Dietitian.