Is Your Brain Sick?

Namaste Focused on Nutrients

Hey there, it’s your friendly, neighborhood dietitian here. I have had some interesting experiences this week, relevant to nutrition’s role in holistic health. I’d like to share one of them with you.

This week marked the fourth or fifth time I had seen this one particular patient for outpatient nutrition counseling. The first time she came in, arms crossed in reluctance for being there at all, she was down-trodden (to say the least). She tearfully told me this was the most she had ever weighed in her life, and she was disgusted with herself.

This woman is a young mother of FIVE kids (zoinks!) and has a super-supportive husband at home. She simply had fallen off-track with healthy habits after separating from the military. Or, perhaps her habits had never been very healthy, and they simply caught up with her. At any rate, she was there to see me for help.

At visit #1, she admitted she had stopped any form of exercise since it “hadn’t help me lose any weight.” She was eating 0-1 meal(s) a day. She cried throughout the majority of the visit while telling me how depressed she was; I believed her, and it broke my heart.

Keep in mind, weight is merely an indicator of what is going on inside our bodies. We can be overweight and malnourished. Yes, it’s a thing. When our internal machine is not getting the fuel it needs to function, everything gets out of whack.

During the next few visits, the story remained about the same. This young woman was so depressed, she was resorting to near starvation. She was too depressed to do any sort of exercise, and she saw exercise simply as a punishment designed to help you lose weight.

What we continued to focus on from day one is the role of nutrients in human functioning. Our society is taught to count everything and eat as “low calorie” as possible in order to achieve a desirable physique. If that includes near-starvation? Sure! Eating only once a day and calling it “intermittent fasting”? Sure! Will we exhaust all nutrient stores in our body’s tissues and organs? Sure! Although she had come seeking a “diet” from me, I refused; but I offered her another way.

The reality is, this woman was depressed. I don’t know the details behind her military experiences. I don’t know what the first few decades of her nutrition and exercise habits were. What I did know is what her most recent health history looked like, and what her current lifestyle was.

Without eating well (or at all), the brain cannot function optimally. At the very least, our brains need a regular influx of nutrients, such as:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids – salmon, sardines, tuna, trout, herring, chia seeds, etc.
  • Antioxidants (including, but not limited to):
    • Vitamin C – bell peppers, cabbage, kiwis, oranges, Brussels sprouts, etc.
    • Vitamin E – nuts, seeds, spinach, Swiss chard, etc.
  • B-vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6, folate, B12) – 100% whole grains, whole fruit, whole vegetables, milk, meat, etc.
  • Iron – meat, fish, dark greens, etc.
  • Calcium – broccoli, oranges, milk, yogurt, cheese, figs, etc.
  • And many, many others.

Luckily, this woman had begun to see a mental health professional to unpack some of the behavioral aspects of her depression and other factors impacting her mental health. However, no amount of mental health counseling can make up for the absence of proper physiology inside the body. Sure, medications can help, too; but that still isn’t the only solution, nor will medications “fix” anything without proper nutrition and exercise.

Holistic health includes nurturing body, mind, and spirit. Mental health counseling addresses mind and spirit; it cannot independently help depression if the bricks and mortar of the chemical processes that make the brain function are not there. Optimizing nutrition and exercise are critical components of a healthy brain.

Upon arrival to the most recent session we had this week, she arrived practically beaming with joy. She truly seemed like an entirely different human walking into my office. Her life hadn’t changed much; her family is (and always has been) very supportive. Her mental health counseling has continued regularly, as it had for months/years.

What was different?

She had reluctantly taken my advice to focus on developing a more consistent, more robust eating pattern. She was eating at least 3 times a day – morning, midday, and evening. If there were long breaks between meals, she was having a snack. Not only was she actually eating (which was new for her starved body), but she was also intentionally choosing nutrient-rich foods. She had begun exercising as a means of spending quality time with her family, and she was enjoying herself. She wasn’t dieting. She wasn’t counting anything.

Her brain (and body) are healing. Not only is her depression markedly improved, but she has begun to lose weight healthfully. She is enjoying her newfound increasing energy; she is smiling instead of crying. She is gaining some muscle and her clothes are fitting better. She is beginning to live, not just exist.

Remember, our body weight is merely a piece of the puzzle, it is not the whole picture. An undesirable weight (underweight, overweight, whatever) is a signal that our body is not functioning properly. Often, suboptimal nutrition is to blame. “Normal” weight does not guarantee health without proper nutrition.

Bottom line? Nourish your body with real food. Move your body, even if it is just a little bit at at time when you get started. If you take care of your body, you are more likely to have a healthy one. If you are struggling, seek guidance from a registered dietitian nutritionist.

xoxo – Casey

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