Eating and Brain Health
In this medically-oriented age, the term “chemical imbalance” is often tossed around to describe the distress experienced by individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, or other emotional conditions. This, for many people, is a scary experience – to be diagnosed with a “chemical imbalance” of the brain.
Often, such a “diagnosis” adds to the sense of distress, powerlessness, and hopelessness that individual might already be suffering. Clients have at times said to me (as their counselor) “I’d rather be struggling with diabetes or heart disease or cancer than with this devastating brain disease!” Often, their fear of this “diagnosis” comes from watching the decades-long struggles of a parent or other loved one with a similar emotional challenge – who has perhaps taken medication for years but never really improved. Such clients fear that they might inevitably be destined to a similar miserable fate – and feel hopeless to stop the cycle.
However, after many decades of investigation, there is still no clear scientific evidence substantiating the “chemical imbalance theory” – nor is there any clear test or medical procedure to determine what is the nature or treatment needs of that particular “imbalance.” What has become very clear over decades of investigation, however, is that simple, everyday lifestyle decisions made by individuals and families affect, in a very direct and powerful way, the functioning and health of the human brain.
You are what you eat - And so is your brain!
The good news about that is that very simple, commonsense strategies can go a long way to facilitate and restore proper brain function, and to help provide relief from depression, anxiety, and other emotional distresses. A quick search on Google, for example, will reveal hundreds of studies, carried out over many decades, on the relationship between “depression and nutrition” and between “depression and exercise.”
The short version is – when you eat healthy food, it helps your brain functioning as much as it helps your lungs, liver, or any other physical organ; and when you eat junk (usually saturated in unnatural fats, sugars, and, oh yes…chemicals!) it contributes to emotional dysfunction on a powerfully physical level.
The brain cannot function properly on junk food and junk drinks, any more than a finely-built Mazarati or Porsche can function properly on the wrong fuel. Try pouring lemonade, or root beer, or fine expensive wine into your vehicle’s gas tank – and see how far that vehicle will take you! Even the most pricey, finely-crafted vehicle will sputter and finally fail when subjected to such abuse
Similarly, try forgetting to replace the spark plugs, or to rotate the tires, or to provide that regular needed tune-up for your vehicle. No matter how high the quality of the vehicle when it was first manufactured, such abuse and neglect will inevitably result in system failure – over time, the vehicle will simply be unable to function at all.
Most of us would never think of abusing our automobiles in this way. Yet on a regular, at least daily basis, most of us pour fluids and junk foods into our bodies – and hence, into our brains – that they were never designed to run on. We inundate our physical systems with daily floods of unnatural chemicals – and then wonder why so many in recent decades have suffered with devastating, longterm symptoms of “chemical imbalance!”
Happily, the same foods and processes that help bodies be healthy also contribute to healthy brain function. The “anti-depression” diet, for example, is essentially indistinguishable from the “anti-cancer diet,” the “anti-diabetis diet,” or other nutritional prescriptions for health and healing. All of these recommend whole, fresh, high-fiber food, particularly lots of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. All recommend against processed food, sugar, trans fats, and caffeine (which can contribute substantially to anxiety, as well as to depression and other emotional ailments.) All recommend pure water as a primary drink, since the body (and the brain) depend on this fluid for effective distribution of nutrients, and for elimination of waste materials that otherwise clog organ systems and interfere with proper functioning.
Exercise - Good for the body, good for the brain
Alongside healthy nutrition, the role of physical exercise to maintain health – both physical and emotional – has been well substantiated by many research studies. Exercise helps moderate cortisol, the stress hormone. It also bumps up the production of endorphins that contribute to positive energy and sense of wellbeing. It assists in mobilizing the proper functioning of every organ system in the body – including that most central, magnificent organ – the brain.
Increasingly, we are a depressed and anxious people. There are many factors contributing to this, especially since the 1980′s when depression was first declared an epidemic in the United States. Some of these factors are complex and difficult to resolve.
But one of the factors within the immediate control of most people is what foods are eaten, and whether or not exercise occurs. As we become more sedentary and more addicted to junk foods and drinks, we become more vulnerable to depression and other emotional disorders. As we adapt our lifestyles to healthy choices, including regular exercise and wholesome natural food, we contribute powerfully to the restoration of our health – both physical and emotional – and can even help prevent future episodes with illness and malfunction of body and brain.
Such physical interventions, by themselves, are generally not enough to resolve serious emotional issues. But it’s like putting gas in the fuel tank – a first, crucial step.
Once the right fuel is there, then (and only then!) can the vehicle start moving to where it needs to go next. It’s a first, essential step in a satisfying, complete healing process.
-- Carrie M. Wrigley, LCSW, Morning Light Counseling