Thy Food Shall Be Thy Medicine
Anyone who has worked with people with addictions and particularly challenging mental health issues, such as eating disorders – if he or she is being honest – will tell you that frustration is a familiar companion on the journey to recovery…or relapse, as the case may often be. This frustration arises when you and your client have adequately delved into the life experiences that brought him to your door; you’ve gleaned insight and suggested healthier, more adaptive coping mechanisms, behaviors, (fill in the blank). And then you get to the point where there is still a piece of the puzzle missing. Your client is well-versed in the lingo, often having been through several stints in rehab and having spent years on someone’s couch rehashing the same traumas or negative beliefs. But he still doesn’t feel good. And this not-good feeling is typically what drives him to drink, use, binge, purge, restrict…and the shame cycle begins anew.
But the missing link is most likely right under our noses. Literally. Take a look at the food on your client’s plate and you can learn a lot about why he can’t get from point A (head knowledge) to point B (heart knowledge/personal belief/action), such that real change happens and is sustained. This link between nutrition – or lack, thereof – and mental health and wellbeing is not necessarily a new one, but somewhere along the line where traditional mental health and addictions training is concerned, its importance dropped off and isn’t adequately addressed (if addressed at all) in most training programs.
Let’s look at a couple examples where this might come into play. An 18-year-old recovering bulimic still struggles with anxiety and irritation, snapping at her parents and feeling jittery, unable to slow down both mentally and emotionally (increasing the likelihood of impulsive behavior – bingeing and purging, substance abuse, casual sex). After addressing all the typical mental-health factors that could come into play and ruling them out, I suggested a major reduction or elimination of caffeine and refined sugars. She comes back two weeks later and reports feeling significantly less anxious and irritable; her parents concur.
Example two: The recovering alcoholic who keeps a daily cocktail of caffeine and nicotine coursing through his veins, and keeps white pasta and bagels on regular rotation in his diet. Not surprisingly, his alcohol cravings are through the roof, and it’s a major challenge every day to not use. In this case, the sugar from the white flour products acts in his body the exact same way alcohol does. And the caffeine is blocking the production of natural serotonin; and he may be on an SSRI to keep that precious serotonin hanging out in the synapses. It boils down to nutritional sabotage.
In her book, The Mood Cure, Julia Ross* talks about the chemical action of sugar and alcohol in an alcoholic’s body: “Alcohol acts just like sugar biochemically, only more so. It contains more calories per gram, and it gets into your bloodstream faster. For people whose blood sugar levels tend to be low [of which research states that 95% of alcoholics are hypoglycemic], this can be irresistible.” This is why those bagels should be verboten to a recovering alcoholic. As Ross says, “You might as well pick up a beer!”
But the nutrition piece is not all about sugar. Ross – a licensed MFT who has practiced for more than 30 years and run Recovery Systems, a clinic in Mill Valley, California, specializing in nutritional therapy for detox, among other mental health issues – reports that anyone suffering from mood issues, such as depression, anxiety, irritability, excessive worry, the inability to concentrate, lethargy, constant, unmanageable stress shares the same issue: a depletion of key amino acids in the brain. When these stores are full, they effectively manage your emotions so you can feel pretty good about life in general. But when one or more of these tanks dips low, your moods suffer, often leading to significant behavioral and mental health issues.
While the mechanisms controlling our brain chemicals are quite complex, the solution is simple: Restore those tanks with the proper food and supplements; avoid certain foods that further deplete them; and engage in healthy lifestyle choices. Doing so, you can ensure a mostly healthy and happy existence. These days, the mind-body connection is no longer the exclusive territory of shaman and “woo-woo” therapists – major science continues to confirm its validity and importance in effectively treating a person for any emotional and physical issue.
Ross reports phenomenal results in typically difficult-to-impossible populations with what she has dubbed nutritional therapy or nutritherapy. Her success stems from a protein-rich diet that provides these essential amino acids to each of the four “mood engines” in your brain responsible for mood-related neurotransmitters: serotonin, GABA, catecholamines and endorphins. This protein, in combination with a healthy range of vitamins and minerals and the right kinds of fats, begins to restore what your brain lacks. And while this deficit may result from several factors – from biological predisposition to prolonged life stressors to poor diet or drug and alcohol abuse – it can all be corrected with the proper nutrients.
In addition to adhering to a “good-mood food diet”, Ross espouses the use of amino acid supplements to steadily refill these empty tanks. All-natural and easily tolerated by most (exceptions exist and are competently addressed in her book), the amino acids would seem to be this elusive missing puzzle piece. While working with nutritionists, doctors and psychiatrists, Ross and her team developed a protocol that they have effectively used for nearly 20 years to great success. When treating alcohol and drug addiction – a field in which relapse rates generally hover around 90% – Ross’s clinic boasts a success rate of about 80-90%, with clients remaining clean and craving-free years later. And, once the tanks have been refilled, typically a six-to-twelve-month process, most clients can stop using them.
Other factors can be at play when basic nutritherapy – diet and supplements – do not work. Checking for adrenal and thyroid issues – as well as something as many as 40% of addicts suffer from, pyroluria, a genetic condition that “blocks the absorption of key nutrients to the brain” – is an essential piece to comprehensively treating your client. Also, many people suffer from parasites, which prevent nutrients from reaching their intended targets, or imbalanced sex hormones. Testing for each of these items helps a clinician effectively hone in on the roadblock to her client’s complete recovery.
Ross recommends “good-mood foods” such as animal proteins; healthy fats (omega-3s and appropriate saturated fats); vegetables, especially the magical dark, leafy greens; “good-mood carbs” – fruits, veggies, legumes and grains, which help achieve the healthy acid/alkaline pH balance essential to good health. Some common-sense recommendations include eating regularly and enough, as well as considering your genetic heritage as a key to understanding what foods your body will function best eating. Also, eating organic and range-fed meat and dairy products as often as possible will help keep a body free of harmful toxins.
Conversely, the “bad-mood foods” are just about everywhere in the typical American diet. Topping the list are refined sugars and white-flour starches. The chemical effects of these two – often in combination with each other – are particularly hazardous to our bodies. Both have been stripped of any original nutrients and refined to cocaine-like potency, in terms of its effects on our neurotransmitters, which are kicked into overdrive and lead to the blood-sugar spike-and-crash cycle that sends us foraging for the next sugar or drug/alcohol fix. Also leading the bad-mood surge is wheat, along with rye, oats and barley. While not everyone is negatively affected by them, the gluten present in each can quietly wreak havoc in the form of digestive issues, depression and diabetes. Bad-mood fats include vegetable oils, such as corn, soy, canola, safflower, sunflower, peanut and sesame oils, to name a few. And we all know the dangers of trans fats – steer clear. Soy rounds out the list due to its hormone-disrupting properties. Some fake foods, such as artificial sweeteners, colors and chemical additives should be a no-brainer in terms of what to avoid, and yet they are regularly consumed on a consistent basis.
Taking a look at the whole person is truly necessary to root out all the factors contributing to his or her emotional and behavioral troubles. Working with complementary clinicians, including psychiatrists, acupuncturists and holistic nutritionists or health counselors, can ensure competent and complete care of our clients, and a relapse-free future.
*Ross, Julia, The Mood Cure, 2002.
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About the Author
Meredith Watkins, M.A. is a CA licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with years of experience working with women, teenagers, couples and families. She has worked in many settings, including an outpatient psychiatric clinic and a residential eating disorder treatment center. She is currently in private practice in Carlsbad, CA, specializing in individual therapy, Christian therapy, parenting, relationship, and women’s issues. Ultimately, her desire is to equip her clients with the tools they need to manage their own feelings and issues more effectively, creating space for joy and fulfilment in their relationships and lives. Learn more at www.meredithwatkins.net.