As per the fascinating talk given by Dr. Leslie Korn at the 2016 Psychotherapy Networker Symposium, “Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health,” poor nutrition tends to be involved in mental illness or poor health. Dr. Korn is both a mental health counselor and a certified nutritional therapy practitioner.
This post will provide you with key learnings from Korn’s presentation, as well as some simple steps that you may wish to consider taking to jumpstart your self-care routine for this coming year. Please see the graphic below for a quick summary!
To better understand the value of the food we give our bodies, Korn provides a car metaphor. Our bodies, like cars, need the right type of fuel in order to run properly. With the wrong fuel, our cars and bodies may work for several years but over time, they will wear down.
Before delving into some nutritional self-care principles, Korn raises four important considerations for those of you who are contemplating giving nutritional psychoeducation to your clients: ethics/scope of practice, drug and food interactions, the meaning of food and a food/mood diary:
Ethics/Scope of Practice – As mental health professionals, we want to make sure that we are practicing within our scope of practice. To do so, check out:
- Your discipline’s scope of practice (for example: NASW’s scope of practice for clinical social work)
- Your state’s laws governing nutritional practice: http://www.nutritionadvocacy.org/laws-state
- The different levels of competency (primary, collaborative and referrals) – At the beginning, you may wish to collaborate and/or make referrals to nutritional experts, but over time, you may wish to build your own knowledge/expertise in this area.
- Understanding the Role of Drug and Food Interactions. We want to know how various drugs and supplements interact with one another, and the food you eat.
- For example: coffee is a drug (not a beverage) and not everyone interacts well with the dopamine.
- Different medications deplete certain nutrients.
- Helpful resource: Herb, Nutrient, and Drug Interactions: Clinical Implications and Therapeutic Strategies by Mitchell Stargrove et al.
Exploring the Meaning of Food
- How is (and was) food eaten at home?
- What are (and were) mealtimes like?
- How is (and was) food prepared at home?
- Consider eating as an act self-care and nourishment and become more mindful (putting your fork/spoon down between bites is a good first step)
Keeping a Mood/Food Diary for 3 Days
- Note foods eaten at different times of day/night
- Observe mood/energy level/fatigue felt when eating
- Dr. Korn’s book provides a checklist of how to interpret/guide
As a result of our having individual needs and preferences, there is no one diet that is right for everyone. In addition, many people don’t see a connection between nutrition and mental health.
Start becoming more mindful about eating and getting in touch with how different foods make you feel. This process will help you figure out what’s the best diet for you.
Below are some of Korn’s guidelines that are likely to help you experience improvements in your overall mood, immune function and energy levels. (For a quick recap, please see the graphic at the end of post.)
7 Nutritional Tips to Greater Mental Health and Wellbeing
1. Drink More Water
Are you suffering from headaches and/or feeling tired? In all likelihood, you’re probably not drinking enough water.
Korn recommends that we drink 30 to 50% of our body weight in ounces of water. In other words, a 200 lb. individual would benefit from drinking 100 ounces of water.
2. Eat Your Basics
While there is no one diet that is right for everyone, most people would benefit eating from the following foods/categories:
- Proteins – With regard to dairy, Korn recommends eating goat/sheep vs. cow products. She states that unless your ancestors came from Northern Europe, you are unlikely to be able to genetically digest cow’s dairy milk.
In addition, contrary to eggs being bad for your heart/cholesterol (as was believed in the past), they are excellent food for your brain, memory and mood stabilization. She advises eating between 1-3 eggs per day.
- Fats – Saturated fats as in nuts are important for cognitive function and managing chronic pain.
- Root Vegetables – These provide important support to the brain and are a helpful transition food from starchy and/or sweet foods.
- Fresh Greens – Try to have a mixture of fresh and raw vegetables in all colors of the rainbow to ensure that you are getting all the nutrients that you need.
Note that eating kale, cauliflower or broccoli in excess may depress thyroid function and cause depression.
- Fruit – Try substituting your sweets with fruit.
- Grains –Some people do fine with these; some do not. For example, 50% of people with schizophrenia are allergic to gluten, and individuals with arthritis or RA will experience a lot of stiffness that further disrupts the natural function of organs.
3. Avoid Inflammatory Foods
Where there is depression, there is inflammation. We begin with the experience of high stress. This condition often leads to the use of medication and the eating of high inflammatory foods (a diet high in sugar/refined carbohydrates) which cause further inflammation and may ultimately lead to depression.
Interrupt the cycle wherever possible with alternatives and restoration. Try making a list of positive changes that are doable, such as drinking more water, and using more olive oil.
4. Eat Fermented Foods
Korn suggests thinking of our intestine and colon as a garden and our fiber (prebiotic) as preparation for our garden in which we plant our probiotics (good bacteria) to grow our brain transmitters and keep us feeling happy.
She recommends that anyone with anxiety go on probiotics daily in one form or another. Probiotics help lower the stress response by regulating GABA, the relaxation neurotransmitter. You can get probiotics naturally from foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and miso. Every culture has its own probiotic.
Re soy, Korn points out that it is only a good food if it is fermented as it is in miso.
It is best to avoid soy milk or burgers. Unfermented soy protein in large amounts may depress thyroid function and pancreatic enzymes which are a risk factor for cancer and thyroid problems. Also stay clear of soy isolates in packaged foods because they cause chronic gas and digestive problems.
5. Use Healthier Substitutions
Identify and eliminate addictive foods one at a time (using healthy alternatives will make this easier).
A few substitutions worth considering:
- Fruits and sweet potatoes for breads or sweets
- Molasses, honey or maple syrup for cane sugar
- Later, stevia for the above mentioned sugar substitutes
- Smoothies with stevia instead of sugar or artificial sweeteners
- Freshly made unsweetened cocoa with stevia instead of sweetened cocoa
Korn advises against aspartame, and other food additives because of research linking them with various neurological and behavioral disorders.
6. Try Easy Food Prep
Purchasing and using a crockpot can be a big time saver. This purchase enables you to easily throw vegetables and meat/chicken in the pot in the evening and have a meal cook overnight.
In general, Korn advises preparing your food over 1-2 days (probably over the weekend when you have the most time) and then you can split it up into containers to eat during the week.
Aside from the crockpot idea of cooking meat or chicken with veggies, she suggests preparing a dozen hard boiled eggs, roasting some sweet potatoes and preparing a salad as some easy food prep ahead ideas. Soaking dried fruits and nuts and making bone broths are some additional healthy ideas.
Work with your clients to find out what are their obstacles to preparing their own healthy meals. Motivational interviewing may be helpful in this regard.
7. Test Vitamin D Level
As per Korn, 90% of people residing in the United States are likely to be deficient in their vitamin D and this puts us at risk for cancer, depression, suicidality, poor immune function and pain.
Therefore, it pays to get your Vitamin D level tested. Most people would benefit from a supplement of 1000 or 2000 units of Vitamin D.
Lastly, Korn provided the below simple protocol that she believes everyone may follow, for which there are no contraindications.
Korn’s Rx for Overall Health
- Eat every 2-3 hours proteins and fats with some complex carbohydrates
- Bioglycozyme forte (from Biotics Research)
- Glucose Tolerance Factor – Chromium/B6/Fiber (Allergy Research)
- Amino Acid Quik Sorb (Biotics Research)
Your food intake impacts your mood and mood swings follow swings in your blood sugar. By eating every 2 to 3 hours, you will be stabilizing your blood sugar and minimizing any mood swings induced by changes in your blood sugar.
The recommended supplements fill in important nutrient areas that we may all benefit from strengthening to obtain greater overall health.
To learn more about ways that you may further boost your brain and overall functioning, and help your clients, you may wish to check out Korn’s book: Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health: A Complete Guide to the Food-Mood Connection.
* Korn states that there are no contraindications; however, to be 100% safe, it is best to run these recommended supplements by your doctor, particularly if you are on any prescription medications.
Korn, L. (2016, March 18). Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health. 2016 Networker Symposium Session# 7160-227.