I was recently approached by a peer working in “the business” who asked “how do nutrition and hormones play a vital role in behavioral and mental health?” And his question leads to a topic I often cover with clients in my practice ….
Nutrition, Hormones and Healthier Living
By Kurt LaRose
Here is a video by the folks at MOJO, looking at the most power packed foods that are “readily available.” This 6 minute video, along with a bit of exercise, could get most mental health therapists – well – fired!
Nutrition and hormones are somewhat tricky as us humans go about finding ways to live healthier and happier lives. Tricky does not mean complicated. Once it’s all kind of broken down a bit into how it works it begins to make sense. And it gets simpler too. Slow and easy might be the most effective tool in dealing with nutritional influences and hormonal shifts. Here’s why …
First, a look at nutrition
Nutrition is, in my view, simple. Garbage in, garbage out. But a change from garbage in, is NOT as simple as just deleting it. In fact an instantaneous delete is likely to fail.
From anything added to “food”, even as the additives are less expensive, label reading is the prompt for “real.” Something as simple as putting a processed starch into the body may insidiously create chaos in digestion. How? Food is broken down into glucose first, then starch, then fat and then waste. When we begin with processed and manufactured starch does the body take it back to glucose, then to starch again, then onto fat and waste? Subtle as it may be it looks like diabetes in the making. And if not the rise and fall of energy, rapid here could feel both cool and buzz like … an addiction or bipolar cycle it could be!
Before it is all simplified to garbage in, garbage out – socioeconomics have to be considered, along with cultural trends and history. Food costs go up in all natural eating, so illness and poverty will correlate as well. If chips and bread cost .99 cents and avocados and fruits cost $1.50 – and your on a tight (or worse a prohibitive) budget – you’ll buy what you can afford.
Change it all now — or not! It is common in the marketing of weight loss (which really is not what nutritional health is about) to tell folks to change everything and to do so quickly. Radical diet changes will fail – because the enzymes that process the daily intake (junk food or healthy does not matter in a homeostasis processing for enzymes so equipped) are a part of body’s evolutionary maximization. As a very well working system of enzymes is in place, strong to respond to routine intake, it cannot just be instantaneously “starved.” Starved? If you stop eating your usual diet all of the sudden your stomach has enzymes for the OLD diet and NONE for the NEW diet. What happens? The weaker enzymes are over powered by the stronger ones – and will power has NOTHING to do with most food relapses.
So how does a person make changes?
To starve a thriving enzymatic digestive system (even if it is done for a healthier lifestyle or weight loss or body building, etc.) will cause the not yet operating enzymes (discussed in the prior paragraph) to be over powered by the stronger working ones. So moving from doughnuts to lettuce must be gradual as the digestive system realigns itself. You can increase “this” as you decrease “that” and usually pairing and subbing junky junk for equally high in healthier ingredients (often it’s carbs and fats) will help. Veggie oil can be used up while adding olive oil to it. Bread can be used up while increasing oatmeal or flourless “breads.” Multi ingredient crackers can be used up while moving to genuine (2 ingredient) water crackers (unbleached flour and water). Salt can be while increasing lemon and cider vinegar and olives. These are some food supplanting ideas – but notice the using up and blending as body realigns those important enzymes.
Smart snacking, as this video summarizes in just a few seconds, is about “getting the most bang for your buck.” Notice here these folks smartly (uhh, it’s Johns Hopkins BTW) include a mix of fruits, veggies, nut butters, and even dairy as a way to snack for better living!
And if you’re ready for a bit more of the healthier stuff, besides the videos above – here are some red flags, what to do’s and ways to transition in a weekly meal plan and meal prepping strategy …
This nutritional blog I wrote is short and easy read in making changes with foods. It can be fun too! Meal prep can also be a “relationship” of sorts. People interact with food and often “relate” to nutrition. Oh, if you click the blog link, no worries, at the end the link will bring you right back to here (or this page will stay open in another tab)! Speaking of “relationships” to food did you know that nutritional stuff and holistic kinds of things can all be great ideas for a mental health get away retreat?
Now onto hormones.
How can hormones affect day to day and even life span changes? In the lifespan so much is explained by hormonal shifts. Not “hormonal” in a male and female cycling sense (yes, both men and women cycle in hormones) but in the way that they shift in everyday aging progressions, from in utero to birth, adolescence, midlife and into senescence!
And as far as hormones impacted by food, they are sped up, slowed down and even balanced in nutrition. Yet the normative shifts for him and her is telling about the psychological changes, once believed to be abnormalities claimed by a “sickly” obsessed culture, as normal in some developmental theory. You see as his aging progresses his testosterone peaks and then drops. It begins really with a hormonal splash in utero – true for her too, it’s just that the splash is of other hormones!
After middle age his progesterone and estrogen begin to increase and peak in older years. The same is true for her: progesterone and estrogen peak and then after middle age they drop – and – her testosterone increases into aging. Role reversal, both environmentally and biologically created, happens. He becomes more sensitive, affectionate, centered in connectivity and she becomes more callous, sexually assertive and rogue like. And in evolution this too is beneficial. You see what culture has called “senile” or “batty” and maybe even “pre-dementia personality changes” may simply be the hormonal shift! And then there’s genetics … this too is covered in sessions, particularly in looking at happiness and heritable personalities, heritable illnesses and disease AND heritable emotional states!
Exercise, Age and Motivation Matter Too
And how about motivation? Doesn’t a person have to be motivated (and therefore healthy) enough to make changes? Well, yes. And, there a biological equivalent to motivation – it’s not ONLY a psychological ‘thing’ to find if it’s missing. Most folks think of dopamine as a pleasure thing … but it’s not. Here in an Instagram post I write about exercise, aging, self nurturing and where it is that motivation comes from:
View this post on Instagram
I think being 52 years old and running three and a half miles in just under 29 minutes is okay… an 8.50 mile isn’t bad in one mile and it’s pretty okay too at near 3.5 miles. No it’s not the half marathon I ran a few years back or the near 16 miles just prior … but it is exercise! Exercise, nutrition, fluid intake, self nurturing, time with loved ones, decent sleep … these are all key parts of mental health. Motivation? It’s not a psychological phenomenon to search for … it’s dopamine. Do you know what activates dopamine (aka: motivation)? Exercise! If you’re missing motivation, besides a symptom of mental illness, besides a symptom of unhappiness, besides “just not feeling like it” check to see if you are also not missing exercise time. It clears inflammation, reduces self medication behavior AND produces motivation! #mentalhealth
Here’s a look at a hormone that is associated to trust and care (as the genome project labeled it in 2009). The trust and care hormone is what I like to call the biological equivalent to love:
Need something more “touchy – feely” in looking at love? Here’s a neat little tidbit that looks at love in a way that a culture might construe it Try this less sciency view …
Bringing it all together
So getting started in healthier living is really all that it takes. There is no such a thing as “all in” or “all out.” At best this way of thinking is a double bind in perfection – leading to failure. More simply –just GET STARTED. One small thing that you add (you don’t even really have to being with stopping anything just as you get started – just add something). According to a Ted Talks speaker (easily searched on the web) even 7 seconds of physical exertion can change what happens to your body. And if that’s some kind of exercise, if it’s an increase in movement, it likely will increase dopamine “AKA: motivation.” And arguably, people ‘need’ motivation to start anything and everything.
Tweaking your diet is as simple as getting started too. The idea of “throw it all out” is true in marketing, but it is not likely going to work in a gut of enzymes that has maximized its capacity to process what you already eat. Starting slow here, feeds those stronger enzymes (for the unhealthy dietary intake) and builds those healthier ones (while adding in more of the ‘good for you stuff’) such that an enzymatic shift can occur. Heck, who knows – after a few months of this kind or gradual changes, your brain, mind, and body might suddenly say “yummeeee” to the salmon or the salad or the beets and “ewe, yuck” to the doughnuts.
Sugars and processed starches affect body in a very unique way. It’s why people seem to “love” them. Will you ever stop loving the sugars, the processed starches and the flavor enhancing additives? Yes and No. They will become less and less favorable as you pay attention to your body and its response to what you ingest. Inputs and outputs matter. The processed stuff is correlated to tons of illness and inflammation. Inflammation is a player in many biological illnesses but also in mental illness. The brain and body will always hit a high high and a low low with simple white and processed carbs and starches. It’s an addictive thing and literally it can activate an opioid response in the brain – yeah, that is the biological equivalence of “pleasure” (and yes, it has a purpose — to help with literal pain). So – there’s really not a cure for sugar (and a sugar like) high and a processed carb crash (similar to the buzz of booze ). Eat more of the healthy stuff, and as you do, you’ll likely see a reducing of the junk. Gradually, which means there’e not an instant fix here – your belly will shift.
Biological and psychological equivalence is increasingly a thing. Dopamine and motivation. Oxytocin and love. Opioids and pleasure. Serotonin and excessive thoughts. And if these are happening in the brain, then they are happening too, in the belly!
Know that most of what you’re dealing with is explainable and if not, help is near. When none of this seems to be fitting or working, an expert* of some kind (or specialty) can help you work through the issues at hand. Beliefs can also be ‘tweaked’ with hypnosis, as can addictive behaviors in eating, pleasure seeking and obsessive thoughts!
Be well. Live well. Love often. And if you need some support, reach out!
Interested in more articles by LaRose?
For a scan of more “stuff” the articles and the history of TalkifUwant is crammed into one place.
*A note about expertise: LaRose is not a nutritionist, or a dietitian and nor is LaRose an expert in hormones, neurological processes or in conditions that only a medical doctor can diagnose and treat. Dietary changes and exercise changes should be coordinated with experts who are licensed and credentialed in the areas of nutrition, diet, personal training and medical conditions. LaRose is an expert in clinical social work and in mental health and behavioral health services, and as such LaRose works in the person in environment paradigm, he is eclectic and can diagnose and treat mental illness in the talk therapy approaches. Overall health, including mental health, increasingly requires providers to incorporate educational information that can improve mental health; increasingly mental health is becoming more and more studied as a biological process as opposed to a mystical or theoretical one. Before starting a dietary or exercise program you should (and need to) consult your medical doctor. Your MD can test for hormonal indicators and medical conditions that might restrict what you can and cannot eat as well as what might limit how much or how little you might exercise. The information here is provided as a summary of possible areas to improve and it is provided for informational purposes only.