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  • Bacon Every Day? How Your Diet Could Trigger Depression and Other Mental Health Problems

    There's a direct link between your brain and your gut
    by Lei Dimarucut-Sison .
Bacon Every Day? How Your Diet Could Trigger Depression and Other Mental Health Problems
PHOTO BY @torwai/iStock, Unsplash
  • When we talk about “health,” the first thing that comes to mind is the physical well-being of a person (and often we equate being fat, or being skinny with the state of one’s “health”). However, as defined by Wikipedia, health is “a state of physical, mental and social well-being in which disease and infirmity are absent.” There is more than just one facet of health, and a problem with any of them poses a problem.

    These days, we hear people mention “mental health” a lot, or topics that are closely-related to it: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, eating problems, sleep problems, and suicidal thoughts. Whether people fully comprehend the depth and scope of these issues or not is unclear. But when these cease to become mere news headlines and actually happen to your child’s classmate, or someone you’ve known since childhood, you don’t need statistics to tell you how prevalent they have become.

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    Cheshire Que, RND, RN, RDN, a registered dietitian-nutritionist in the Philippines and in the U.S., talked about the physical / physiological aspect of mental health at the recently-held Mental Health Awareness forum organized by Jeunesse Anion.

    There are several factors that affect mental health; some we can’t control — like genes — but there are also some that we can control. 

    “Depression or mental illness is complicated, it’s multi-faceted. But we can do something to help us be strong physically and mentally, so that we can combat trials in life and not spiral down to depression,” she said. 

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    The gut-brain axis

    “Gut” refers to your stomach and intestines. So what does the gut have to do with your brain and mental health?

    “Did you know that the brain cells that we have, we also have them in our gut?” says Cheshire.

    In fact, there are over 100 million neurons lining our stomach and intestines. These are nerve cells that transmit information to our brain

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    “If we do not take care of our gut, if we don’t eat the right food that will feed the good bacteria, we will have inflammation in our gut. 

    “And if you don’t eat well, or you abuse your lifestyle, such as when you don’t sleep at the right time or do not get adequate quality sleep, you decrease the amount of that good bacteria, and it destroys your gut lining. 

    “That’s when toxins enter your bloodstream, into your brain. And that is how it affects your mood,” Cheshire explained.

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    Foods that worsen mental illness

    “When you have mental illness, your gut is already inflamed. Your body — your brain — is inflamed,” says Cheshire. When it comes to her patients, she says the first thing she does is to remove the triggers, or the food that will cause further inflammation in the gut, from the patient’s diet. These are:

    1. Sugar

    Too much sugar in our diet could “mess with the neurotransmitters that help keep our moods stable,” according to an article from Huffpost.

    2. Dairy 

    It stimulates the body to produce the IGF1 factor, a growth hormone, which you don’t need when you’re an adult. It causes the body to develop tumors, says Cheshire.

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    3. Soy 

    It has been linked to breast cancer, endometrial cancer, and kidney failure. 

    4. Gluten 

    Present in bread, cake, pastries, gluten “provides no essential nutrients,” and triggers an immune reaction in people who have celiac disease.

    “We remove the triggers for about 21 days because that’s about the period of time needed for elimination diet, for the gut to heal somehow. 

    A ‘leaky gut’ is responsible for giving you brain fog and headache, and dampens your mood.

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    Foods that are good for your mental health 

    1. Fresh produce

    Fruits and vegetables (you can take them as a smoothie) reduce inflammation. Green, leafy vegetables are a good source of calcium, too.

    2. Functional foods

    These are foods that give other benefits beyond the calories. A position paper published in The Journal of Nutrition defines functional foods as “whole, fortified, enriched or enhanced foods that provide health benefits beyond the provision of essential nutrients (e.g., vitamins and minerals).”

    An example of functional foods is honey. It is a probiotic, which help feed the good bacteria we have in our gut. Oats, which are high in fiber, are also functional and beneficial to gut health.

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    3. Supplements

    Because our daily diet cannot provide all our nutritional needs, food supplements help fill in the gaps.

    “When I do a metabolic profile test among my patients, 100 percent of the time, it turns out the patient has nutrient deficiencies, like a lack in vitamin B, B12. You cannot efficiently utilize vitamin B12 if you do not have good bacteria in your tummy,” says Cheshire.

    Eat beef, lean pork, chicken, and fish. Not the processed ones because these destroy the good bacteria.

    “If we are dealing with a mental health disorder we really have to eliminate [processed foods]. Those who don't have this kind of illness, you can once in a while treat yourself.”

    A sensible diet is key to managing the symptoms of mental illness. And because it can be very challenging to stick to one, Cheshire offers these practical tips to “defeat temptation”.

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    How to avoid unhealthy food

    1. Recognize your patterns.

    “If you already know that you can eat an entire loaf of bread in one sitting when you have your period (an actual case), and it’s almost that time of the month, then please don’t buy bread,” points out Cheshire.

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    2. Allow yourself a treat or two once in a while. 

    “I like chocolates, so I buy the bite-sized ones. I will take one or two pieces to eat, and keep the rest in a container that is not clear [transparent] because, out of sight, out of mind.”

    3. Delay gratification.

    “I know there’s a cake in the fridge that I can eat anytime I want. Just delay [acting on it] for 10 minutes. And then when you get busy with something else, you might just totally forget about it.”

    4. Re-focus your attention. 

    Pray. Ask for strength.

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    “We need help, and sometimes help will not come from just one person. It’s multifactorial,” says Cheshire. 

    “When we talk about functional medicine, we do not just target a cure for the disease; we target the root cause of the disease. What is making you sad? Is it the food you’re eating? The food you are not eating?”

    Mental health is complex, and solutions, at the moment, are scarce. For now, a re-evaluation of our family’s diet may be the first step to addressing it, because, as with anything, it all begins at home.

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