You must know by now that the food you eat matters.
But what about its effects on your mental health? Does it really make a difference in the way that you feel?
You may notice certain foods make you feel worse, but sometimes it's not so obvious as the effects can be ongoing or delayed. Certain substances like caffeine, sugar, and alcohol can get you hooked which makes it hard to assess whether they are helping or hurting you in the moment. That sugar high sure feels good in the moment!
However, their effects can be systemic and contribute to less than optimal health conditions.
We now know that food not only affects us on a physical level but also on an emotional and physiological level.
Let's evaluate how coffee, sugar, and alcohol can affect wellbeing and mental health below:
Coffee is a common topic of controversy as it has often been touted for its health benefits but has also been advised against by many people in the health field. It has become such an integral part of our society as people have become more and more dependent on caffeine to get through their day. It is available everywhere at any time and has an addicting aroma and taste. It also boosts energy, which most people lack these days, which is no wonder the majority of Canadians are hooked.
The coffee bean rates as one of the highest antioxidant containing foods, which protects against free radicals, and has defensive actions against many conditions such as cardiovascular disease, dementia, cancer, macular degeneration, and diabetes.
However coffee also has a dark side.
The benefits listed above may be reversed in slow metabolizers, so if you have the gene that processes caffeine slowly, you may not do so well with coffee.
Coffee acts as a central nervous system stimulant which increases cortisol release, directly triggering blood sugar spikes and temporary energy. The rapid elevation and drop of blood sugar worsens stress, increases cravings, and can alter mental focus and mood.
At higher doses and in more sensitive individuals caffeine can induce symptoms such as anxiety, restlessness, nervousness, insomnia, and depression.
The prolonged use of caffeine (especially upwards of 2 cups/day), as well as added stress and poor diet, can lead to adrenal dysfunction and the inability to deal with stressors as well as depleted energy, lethargy, low mood, and mental focus.
For many of us, coffee is a coping mechanism to deal with lifestyle stressors and low energy, which can only exacerbate the issue at hand.
Do you feel wired at night or deal with insomnia? Caffeine affects quality and quantity of sleep which ultimately impacts mental health. This can trigger us to reach for more liquid gold during the day and can keep us up at night and reduce deep sleep. Chronic moderate and high coffee consumption has also been linked to increased rates of depression.
So if you feel stressed, experience chronic anxiety, have a fast-paced lifestyle, or depend on coffee for energy or to just get through your day, you may want to take it down a notch!
Note: a good quality coffee bean is not comparable to the highly processed varieties that are sold in most coffee shops and supermarkets today. The typical North American coffee contains excess sugars, inflammatory dairy products, mold, and toxins.
In order to avoid mold and mycotoxins always choose organic and aim to consume 1-2 cups maximum before noon and paired with a meal to help reduce blood sugar spikes and reduce its negative effects on sleep.
Switch from coffee to green tea (green tea has 40-60mg of caffeine per cup compared to coffee which sits at around 100mg of caffeine per cup). Green tea has lower caffeine levels but also antioxidants and the amino acid l-theanine which promotes a state of relaxation whilst staying focused, no it won't make you fall asleep!
We have all reached for the sugar in times of stress, simply because it does work at elevating our mood, temporarily. Your anxiety loves sugar!
But foods that elevate your blood sugar quickly also bring along a dramatic crash. This crash can cause shakiness, irritability, and make anxiety worse. Not a great solution as a stress coping mechanism now is it?
Sugar can feed pathogenic bacteria in the gut, worsen blood sugar balance, deplete nutrient absorption, promote inflammation, alter hunger and satiety hormones, drive up cortisol, and increase estrogen, which can all result in you feeling pretty crummy, and hence feel inclined to reach for more sugar. It's a vicious cycle.
Over consumption of sugar has also been shown to trigger brain chemical imbalances and lower Brain Derived Neutrophic Factor which are associated with increased rates of depression. Sugar intake is a common response to depression in order to get the temporary sugar high however this only worsens a depressive state. Which is why breaking the cycle is so important in order to achieve balance and improve mental health.
So what can you do? Avoid processed and refined carbs and sugars and instead focus on real carbohydrates like quinoa, rice, squash, sweet potato, and non-starchy vegetables. And balance all of your meals with a source of protein and fat to help modulate the blood sugar response. Check out our top tips for ditching sugar here.
Global alcohol consumption has been increasing over the years and is only expected to continue to rise. What is interesting is that our consumption of alcohol is often linked with our mental health to begin with but as we will discuss alcohol can actually worsen pre-existing mental disorders like anxiety and depression.
Women tend to be more affected by alcohol than men however alcohol, in general, is inflammatory. Alcohol has been shown to cause blood sugar disruptions, suppress the immune system, deplete important nutrients, promote gut damage by increasing endotoxins, and act as a toxin to the brain and liver.
What are the effects of alcohol on the brain?
Alcohol is known as a neurotoxin because it interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, and can affect the way the brain looks and works. It acts as a central nervous system depressant, slowing down different brain centers and thus affecting emotions and the ability to react to situations. Regular drinking changes the chemistry of the brain and can deplete levels of serotonin, which is an important neurotransmitter implicated in depression.
These disruptions can change mood and behavior, and make it harder to think clearly and move with coordination. This explains why small amounts of alcohol can make you feel more social and outgoing but quickly turn into slurred speech, lack of balance, and amplified emotions.
But it's not just excess drinking that is a problem, even moderate consumption has been shown to be problematic over time and increase the risk of neurological issues.
So what can you do? Stick to the occasional drink or two per week or choose kombucha, fresh-squeezed juice, smoothies, water infusions, coconut water, or mocktails instead.
What about red wine? You could argue that red wine has cardioprotective and anti-aging properties due to compounds such as resveratrol, polyphenols, and quercetin. Indeed, these do help fight inflammation and boost immune function, among other benefits.
Yes, red wine has been shown to be the healthiest form of alcohol but this is of course at low to moderate consumption (roughly 2-5 glasses per week).
But alcohol is still a toxin, nevertheless.
In addition, most wines on the market use grapes that have been sprayed with additives, pesticides, herbicides, and toxins. Organic and biodynamic wines are your best options if you do choose to consume wine.
Bottom line? Start paying attention to how foods make you feel on a day to day basis. If you are prone to anxiety, depression, or sleep disorders, avoidance or minimization of coffee, sugar, and alcohol, may be a good idea to improve your mental health.
Laurence Annez is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner and Health Coach, specializing in PCOS and women's hormones. She also holds a degree in Creative Writing and has extensive experience writing on health and wellness topics. Laurence's mission is to inspire and motivate individuals to take control of their own health and reach their ultimate health goals.