Foods and lifestyle habits to help the brain/mind to stay calm
When I look back at my life, and all the tough times I have been through; if there is anything that has held it all together for me it’s been my diet, meditation, and exercise routine-all being equally important. Over the years it became like brushing my teeth, or wearing my underwear, one just never forgot to do all three. While you may think, I am in the field and it comes easy to me; honestly, it takes a lot of discipline and commitment, also something that only comes from the way you eat. I have been lucky to encounter Vipassana mediation 26 years ago, and that’s been an integral part of my daily routine, it’s kept me grounded and centered.
Our entire existence all the time 24×7 is filtered through our minds taking in stimuli daily, and these filters down into our unconscious mind where they are judged and coloured with past traumas, which we relive over and over, and only then do we react negatively with aversion, creating more anxiety and more stress for ourselves. During the last year the situation around us, social media, news, people with opinions, the fear of testing positive, being or dying alone; has made us more isolated and fearful, causing issues that many have walked into my counselling practice with. Depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, stress-related headaches, and many other off-shoots of the stress we are going through are the kind of cases I have seen during this period, and it’s sad to see that the very basics of nutrition are lost to so many people, while it is so easy to fix.
If you are feeling depressed, anxious, or stressed, you are not alone. We are in a bad mood epidemic, which is as large as the Covid-19 epidemic itself. Much of our increasing stress comes from fixing the gut and the brain, which stem from nutritional needs that are not met on a day-to-day basis or our won compromised ability to absorb what we are eating due to the dysfunction of our guts.
Your brain sends you clues when it’s not functioning at its optimum
- You won’t be sleeping well
- You maybe lose your ability to be enthusiastic about stuff
- You may crave sugar most times
- Your dependency on alcohol, coffee or marijuana
- You will feel overwhelmed
- You may lose the ability to want to get up and workout
- Your thinking may be muddled
- You will feel lethargic
How does the brain work?
A lot of how happy you are comes from the neurotransmitter or hormone serotonin, it is the key hormone that stabilizes your mood, feelings, emotions of happiness. It also helps with sleeping, digestion, eating; if your brain has less of this hormone it will lead to mood swings and depression. You will be more focused, grounded, stable, and happier if you have adequate serotonin. Serotonin is synthesized in your body from tryptophan, an amino acid (protein building block) found in many foods. Tryptophan first converts into a substance called 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), which then converts directly into serotonin. This crucial three-step process can be interfered with by many things. If there isn’t enough tryptophan in your diet, thew. Your body will not make enough 5-HTP or serotonin to keep you happy. Or there may be many foods in your diet that deplete serotonin-like caffeine, alcohol, artificial sweeteners, lack of exercise, stress, or a genetic predisposition to have less serotonin. However, a lot of people in this state are given very little hope from their psychiatrists or psychologists on how fixing their nutrition and lifestyle can help them climb out of this mess.
Rani age 34 came to me with obsessive-compulsive disorder coupled with anxiety in April 2020, because the Covid-19 pandemic had broken out, she was in fear of the virus (as her form stated); she had gone back to her hometown in Bhopal as she was worried about her mental health and started medication under a psychiatrist. She reached out to me, wanting to get better. When a client comes to you for any health issue, you deal with 3 psychologies together: the psychology of the health issues (in this case obsessive-compulsive disorder), the psychology of how each food group will impact her, and the psychology of your client (that is, her mindset at the time). In my experience as a health practitioner, I use these three aspects to deal with every client. By fixing Rani’s foods, and using them in a way to give her brain the sustained supply of all her neurotransmitters, her health got back to being better in just a month. She said she had hit rock bottom, and her obsessive-compulsive disorder manifested in washing her hands every 20 minutes, and the skin looked like that of a 60-year-old. She knew that getting addicted to medicine was not the way out, the post I did on mental health on my Instagram, made her reach out to me. Her diet had made her strong and has given her more confidence to do things that she was not doing before, wash her hands compulsively a lot lesser than she used to. Her anxiety medication was reduced to half within a month of eating right, and she felt good.
How does food help?
As I mentioned before first the base foods need to be right. Which means are you eating foods that deplete serotonin? These are: stimulants like too much alcohol, coffee, diet pills, drinks that are high on caffeine; are you consuming artificial sweeteners, as they have ingredients that interfere with serotonin production; too much sugar will also cause melodrama, mood swings and leave you depleted besides gobbling up all that serotonin-the combination of sugar and starches push the adrenal glands into an overdrive causing exhaustion-pushing another hormone cortisol into action. Refined oils in Indian diets, as they get oxidized in the body causing cellular damage; and saturated or hydrogenated fats. Dairy (cow’s milk) again huge in the Indian context, does not serve well for anxiety issues. Consuming high carb meals in combination with other foods like eggs, or tofu, or vegetables; make them affect you much less on the sugar load rather than eating them in isolation, and causing those high sugar spikes and lifestyle too will affect serotonin: skipping meals (being nutrient deficient—many vitamins and minerals assist in the conversion of tryptophan to 5-HTP and then serotonin), large gaps between meals, balancing protein carbohydrates and fats, stress and in cold countries, sunlight as in the pandemic where all of us are stuck at home not going out (do sit in the sun), poor quality sleep.
Also, I must mention here that if your brain produces catecholamines, you feel upbeat. What are these? Dopamine, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. These brain chemicals also determine how you are going to feel. As does the amino acid tyrosine, found in protein-rich foods.
Which foods can help your brain and mind?
- The brain’s primary fuel is glucose, good sugars coming from the right foods and your carbohydrates, so we need to see are getting the right carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are a good source of sugars and fibre, and also promote the smooth functioning of the digestive tract; ensuring proper waste elimination. Here, I cannot emphasize the necessity of whole grains from brown/red rice to any good millet that aids with the amounts of antioxidants and anti-ageing benefits (brown rice alone has 70 anti-ageing antioxidants). If someone is insulin resistant, it helps to keep these at a modicum in the diet. To minimize what you may have in the day, 20% of daily volume consumption works well.
- Good quality protein helps you stay satiated, keep blood sugars stable. Protein also maintains our muscles; your intestinal lining has muscle fibres; this means lean protein if you eat fish, meats, eggs (non-vegetarians), aged cheese, cottage cheese, and plant-based protein if you are a vegetarian/vegan. Excess protein (animal protein) is not good for you, so balance it with vegetables and greens. We don’t want those pathways getting blocked we must maintain the quality of blood being clean and not toxic. Eat 20-30 grams of protein per meal.
- Vegetables, which not only have good quality fibre (4-5 cups a day); especially coloured vegetables that have plenty of beta carotene that converts to Vitamin A to repair skin (of the gut lining). Plus, leafy greens and green vegetables (also in the form of barley grass or wheatgrass), mimic the blood structure and are necessary for cleansing the blood and the much-needed chlorophyll they provide. You need the high energy of higher-carbohydrate vegetables like potatoes, corn, pumpkin (lal kaddu/bhopla), and yams in addition to low-starch vegetables. Lots of greens, some yellow and red vegetables.
- Fermented foods, serve as a crucial part of any diet plan supplying good amounts of probiotics to nourish our guts. Foods like sauerkraut, quick pickles, non-dairy kefir, kimchi are highly recommended.
- Nuts and seeds bring in the trace minerals, good fats – especially omega – 3 fats (increases dopamine) found in also oily fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and cold-pressed oils are needed. Olive oil and some ghee are always good to use.
- Fruits again provide a plethora of vitamins and antioxidants to help gut repair. Fruits are rich in B6 the vitamin that your brain must have to make serotonin. They also protect the brain’s cell membrane, promoting all neurotransmitter activity. Vitamin C is a stress-fighting vitamin in most fruits.
- Just the right amount of water or liquids as too much will loosen and expand our tissues, a lot of water comes from the foods you eat. An excess of liquids puts pressure on the kidneys, bladder, and sweat glands as well; making us tired over time. We need just enough, one way of measuring this is to ask ourselves: are we thirsty?
- Adding sea vegetables like spirulina helps in detoxification, vitamins, protein, minerals, and antioxidants.
- Workout and exercise regularly, and keep your lifestyle in check by establishing regular eating habits, sleep habits, and positive thoughts.
- MEDITATE, cultivate the practice of meditation, it’s an exercise for the brain, just like you push your weights to build biceps, you need to push your brain to work positively. Buy my book on Vipassana meditation.