June 12, 2020

How Do Dietary Changes Help Emotional & Mental Health Problems?

The relationship between food and emotional or mental imbalance.

Firstly, just to define what I mean by emotional and mental health problems:

Emotional problems – when anxiety, worry or anger become exaggerated and inappropriate we can say there are emotional problems.

Mental problems – when someone’s way of perceiving the world has changed such as when they experience paranoia we can say there are mental problems.

Part of my motivation behind this article is a response to the increase in emotional and mental health problems in young people and others that are concerning. There are many reasons for this increase, for example, our emotional upbringing. When we go through challenging difficulties, such as neglect, sexual abuse or bullying this has an impact on us as we grow up. People also talk about social media, and social factors creating pressures to look and behave in certain ways which I think is definitely a factor.

Another factor is definitely food. In the UK for example we consume a lot of processed food and stimulants and this has a big impact on how people feel and think. Their emotional and mental well-being is affected. And this aspect is what I really want to talk about in this article.

Although there is a strong movement to change food to help us become more physically healthy there is also a need to change food for emotional and mental health and many clients are speaking to me about this.

For the last 40 years I have studied oriental medicine and this means taking a holistic view of ourselves and life. We have emotions, thoughts, a body and a spirit and they are all connected. So if something has an effect on our body it will affect the other aspects of ourselves. If we have strong emotions this has an effect on the body, our mind and our spirit too. Our food and its impact on our physical health must therefore be having an effect on our emotional and mental health too. In this article I want to look at this connection in two ways:


Yin (Upward Energy) and Yang (Downward Energy)

Within Oriental Medicine there are some foods that take our energy down in the body. These foods warm and nourish the lower part of our body and take energy into our belly and the lower three chakras (energy centres). This helps us feel connected with our physical body and the physical world. If we don’t eat enough of these types of foods then our energy is more ‘up’ and we feel less connected, more ‘in our heads’ and can easily feel more deluded. So, certain foods take our energy down and when we have this we have a stronger sense of self and self-confidence with other people and less anxiety. We feel more rooted and more self-assured.

Then, there are other foods that take our energy up and when we eat these types of foods in excess this can weaken your sense of self and of being grounded and connected to the physical world. These foods make our head overactive and we over-think. Many problems come from this, as we can become detached from reality. So, if we eat these foods it brings a lot of energy up into our head.

For example, someone may be upset with something we said and we go away and think “we did something wrong there must be something wrong with me” or “because of this I don’t want to see anyone again”. We can overreact and these thoughts repeat, become magnified and can take us over – overthinking in a way that’s detached from reality.

Of course we need some energy coming up to give us a feeling of joy and to help our creativity and thinking processes, but too much can easily exaggerate anxiety, cause panic attacks and other emotions. So, we want to get a balance with our food.

Yang – Which foods take energy down? A plant based-diet is best for our health. Foods that are great at creating warmth, energy, drive, stamina and connection with our bodies include whole grains, short grain brown rice, wholemeal and sourdough bread, quinoa, root vegetables, beans, pulses and food that have been long-cooked.. When we cook these foods for a long time they become more heavy and Yang. Meat, fish and dairy also create downward energy in the body but I’m not advocating eating much of these at all because they can cause stagnation and depression.

Yin – Which foods take energy up? Green vegetables, moderate amounts of fruit, herbal teas, lightly cooked or raw food have a lightness to them which we need. Coffee, tea, sugary food, bring a lot of energy up and although we think they give us energy, in reality they bring energy up and outwards from deep within the body. After we feel a low, crash or even depression. Alcohol does the same thing, and it’s a depressant. A little bit can make us feel joy and expressive but too much has a depressing effect.

So, if we are drinking and eating a lot of Yin food like these, this will weaken the lower body and lessen our connection with reality. We’ll overthink things and feel anxious. If the body becomes very depleted then people can feel easily overwhelmed, anxious about being in certain situations and just not having the energy to deal with life. It’s very unpleasant and we feel we can’t cope with the world. We may feel insecurity, like we don’t have a place anywhere, we don’t feel we have a place in the world.

Recently, when I was doing a Facebook Live event, I was talking about this and several people told how giving up coffee reduced the amount of anxiety they experienced. They felt more grounded. Anyone who feels anxious and depressed should really give up caffeine and sugar.

So, this is a very simple way to see how food affects your body but I should also mention recreational drugs which create a rush of energy, but where does that energy come from? Overuse of marijuana for example can lead to severe depression and a lot of emotional and mental issues. Drugs knock the stuffing/ki/chi out of us. Then how do we deal with life? With no energy in our body or our brain to work things out and make decisions. This has a big impact on our emotional mental health.

Food And The Internal Organs

This is a very big subject and we go into this relationship between food and the internal organs on our longer courses. Within Oriental Healing there is a physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspect to each organ of the body. For example, the kidneys not only produce urine but also with the adrenal glands, produce energy (ki or chi/prana) and hormones. Our fundamental source of energy in the body in the body is stored in the kidneys. They are a bit like the duracell batteries in the rabbit. So, the stronger the kidneys, the more energy you have and the more you can do in life. You can run, climb and go further. With inferior batteries you’ll flunk out sooner.

Foods that help send energy down to the kidneys are broths, whole grains, sea vegetables, and root vegetables. These nourish the kidneys which like long-cooked foods, mineral rich foods , moderate amounts of salt, and small amounts of animal foods. We feel strong energy, motivated, able to take on new challenges, don’t mind a bit of risk, and courage. When our l kidney energy is weak we feel cold, we have no energy and just want to tuck up under a duvet. We don’t want to go out and feel easily overwhelmed and may we feel anxious deep within our body. With anxiety it’s good to feel what part of the body we feel it in. With some people it’s around the heart, with others the solar plexus or butterflies in the stomach. Often though it’s in the lower chakras or kidney areas. When our kidney energy is low we may fear life and engaging with it. We may even feel that everyone is out to get us. And then fear and anxiety come to dominate our life.

My personal experience with this was when I was in my twenties I climbed the highest mountains in the Brecon Beacons in Wales, Pen Y Fan with a friend. I had no fear of heights at all. Then, after a period of burn-out during my thirties I went up with the same friend and remember I couldn’t go near the edge of the ridge due to fear. At that time I was very depleted and lacked emotional skills. There was no way I was going to get close to the edge – even when crawling in my hands and knees. It was a wakeup call and after that I spent a few years building up my kidney energy returning to the same mountain with my son. It was very windy, and snow too. But I remember again feeling no fear or anxiety – despite the wind trying to blow us over. To me this was a clear indication that fear not only comes from our emotional experience but also from a weakness in our physical bodies. Our physical bodies are our home in this lifetime. It’s our emotional base and where we can feel grounded. A strong body and a healthy balanced body really help us emotionally. This helps us mentally too, for example to have balanced opinions and make balanced decisions. It also helps us to listen to others.

Another organ we can look at briefly is the liver, which physically takes all the food from our intestines including fats and minerals and processes them. If we eat a lot of fat then it creates fat. Some vitamins are stored in the liver, and it creates blood sugar. The liver distributes energy around the body helping us to move and with emotional expression and creativity. If for some reason this movement is not happening then the liver energy becomes blocked which can have certain physical effects such as tension in the body, heachaches, menstrual cramps, feeling emotionally uptight, angry and frustrated. Anger that is easily triggered and inappropriate indicates blocked and excessive energy. We’ve also learnt to suppress emotions because it wasn’t safe to express them or to cry or tell people how we feel. Small children need a lot of emotional support for example hugs and cuddles before they go off again into the world (and then come back many times for more). We need a lot of support for our emotional and mental development. Emotional upbringing is never perfect, but if we did not have a balanced emotional upbringing this affects us.

Too many heavy yang foods like meat, salt, fat, cheese, eggs and chicken can create heat and tension in the liver and small things can then trigger us. Bang! Lots of swearing comes out, this excess energy is coming out of the liver. Anger problems go back to emotional experiences early in life but food can definitely aggravate them a great deal.

The lungs exchange gases, but are also involved with the exchanges we have with other people, socialisation and relationships. If we have weak lung energy we find it difficult to relate to other people, avoid them or feel socially awkward and lonely.

The heart dictates our loving connections with other people. Some foods adversely affect our heart energy and can lead to a lack of love and connection with others as well as a lack of appreciation for ourselves. The stomach and intestines all have different emotional aspects too but the key is that all are helped by eating a balanced wholefood diet with whole grains, vegetables, nuts, pulses, beans, sea vegetables, and maybe a small amount of animal protein seafood and oils. This will bring the body into balance and help with emotional and mental problems. Some people can be dramatically helped by this. So please consider that a change in diet may help you and others to create more emotional stability within.

We run a range of courses to develop an understanding of this kind of thing, including a range of online courses.

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