Ever since my last major depressive episode just over a decade ago, I’ve sought to embrace a holistic attitude to my own mental health. For me it’s been a case of both ‘push’ and ‘pull’.
‘Push’, in the sense that, like many others, I’ve experienced some of the debilitating side-effects of antidepressant medication. These include nausea, weight gain and the loss of libido, though it’s true that each new generation of antidepressants have milder side-effects and I would never advise anyone to stop taking medication without medical advice.
But there is some evidence to believe that, when misapplied, antidepressants can cause more harm than good. Last year, a Nordic Cochrane Centre study last year (2016) found that antidepressants can cause suicidal feelings when given inappropriately to healthy people going through everyday problems. The methodology of this research has been disputed by some experts, but the thrust of its findings – namely that antidepressants should not be given to people experiencing ‘low mood’ – is supported by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. It advises that antidepressants are suitable for ‘moderate to severe depressive illness’, not mild depression.
I say ‘pull’, on the other hand, because I’ve benefitted from exercising more, using mindful breathing techniques, the healing power of poetry, and changing my diet.
I was first intrigued by food’s medicinal power when, about eight years ago, I took our then ten-year-old son George to see a nutritionist about his persistent eczema at a well-known clinic in west London. I was delighted when his scaly red skin healed within a few weeks of changing his diet and reducing the amount of dairy and wheat that he ate.
It wasn’t till several years later that given my own struggles to stay steady and well, I wondered if nutrition could help with mental as much as physical health. I began to experiment, noting which foods made me feel calm, which helped me sleep, and which cheered me up.
Some ideas were thanks to my GP. At a routine check up to see how I was dealing with my anxiety, she told me there was compelling evidence about the links between mood and food. She wrote down a list of ‘happy foods’, which included green leafy vegetables, dark chocolate and oily fish.
I wanted to learn more, but was somewhat confused by all the conflicting nutritional advice. So I got in touch with Alice Mackintosh, a nutritional therapist who at the time worked for a nutritional clinic on London’s Harley Street. Alice holds degrees in both Nutritional Therapy and Biomedical Science.
With her help, and advice from other doctors, dieticians and psychiatrists, I began to overhaul my diet completely. I swapped processed foods for healthier ones, learnt to eat certain foods at certain times, grasped the importance of a healthy gut and started to eat slowly. I was delighted when I began to feel steadier and calmer – and slimmer too. It turns out that losing weight is a pleasing side effect of following a Good Mood Food diet.
Alice gave me practical tools in the form of meal planners, and we began to develop recipes for my symptoms. Our conversations and experiments led to our book, called The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food, which is based on more than 150 nutritional studies. In it, I share in detail what I have learnt about eating for happiness. We report on the foods that have helped me become more energised, cheerier, less anxious, clearer thinking, more balanced and a better sleeper by following a happy diet. The book includes the recipes which put the theory into practice and which – phew – are also delicious enough to have become firm family favourites.
Studies show that a diet marked by processed vegetable fats, sugar, preservatives and a host of other chemicals may make us more prone to low mood. The jury is still out as the exact causes of depression, but some doctors are now questioning the ‘chemical imbalance’ theory that we are depressed largely because of low serotonin levels. A more nuanced explanation stresses the social, psychological, and biological aspects of the illness. In particular some research suggests that we are more vulnerable to mental illness if we suffer from low levels of chronic inflammation throughout our bodies. A diet rich in anti-inflammatory omega 3s or healthy fats found in oily fish, walnuts, hemp seeds and broccoli has been shown to reduce inflammation and improve mood.
I slowly swept my kitchen clean, eliminating processed foods and focusing on ‘real foods’ instead. These included fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs, unprocessed carbohydrates, fish, and nuts and seeds. I also eat animal fats from meat and dairy in moderation rather than processed or manufactured fats, as well as plenty of B vitamins for calm and the aforementioned omega-3s fats, which are also important given that our brains are made up of 60 per cent fat. I learnt what to eat and when – a handful of our Vitamin B Marmite Roasted Pumpkin Seeds if I’m feeling low, or some of our Calming Green Broth if I’m anxious – the ingredients are rich in calming magnesium.
I also increased the amount of probiotics and fermented foods I ate as I learnt about the links between staying calm and a healthy microbiome, otherwise known as gut flora. A modest portion of creamy yoghurt so thick it stands up in the bowl suits me well. Women given yoghurt containing probiotics were found to have a calmer response to certain stimuli, according to a 2013 study reported in Gastroenterology.
Our gut is now being thought of as our “second brain”. The enteric nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system embedded in our gut, contains as many neurotransmitters as our brain. There are eight neurotransmitters that affect our happiness, including serotonin and dopamine, sleep inducing melatonin, and oxytocin. In fact, as much as 90 per cent of serotonin is made in our gut and around 50 per cent of dopamine.
Today, scientists are discovering that there may be links between gut microbiota and anxiety-related behaviours as well as many other illnesses. Given the inseparability of good mental and good physical health, looking after our digestive systems should be a priority for all of us.
I feel lucky to have worked with Alice for the past five years and have written The Happy Kitchen as I’m keen to share what I’ve learnt. Given the ever rising number of people who are suffering from anxiety and depression, I feel it is vital that we take responsibility for our own mental health as much as we can. Mental health needs to be taken with the same seriousness as our physical health. Embracing a holistic approach with nutrition at its heart has led to a happy kitchen for me. I hope it will make your kitchen happier too.
The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food available on Amazon here