There’s a saying that asking people to change their diet is like asking them to change their religion. What we eat and how we eat might be our most personal choices.
What if I told you that changing your diet has the potential to help with anxiety, depression, stress, and even panicky feelings. Diet, in fact, is the most neglected aspect of mental health. Identifying specific foods and herbs that work for your body and mind is key to sustaining a balanced mood and upbeat attitude, even in the face of stress.
- There is no one right diet for everyone. Some people are natural carnivores, some are natural veg- etarians, and some can be in between. Consider the Inuit of the northern climes, whose bodies and minds have evolved with a diet that is high in fat, moderate in protein, and contains only a few carbohydrates. By contrast, the original peoples of Mexico, Africa, or India benefited from tropical, warm regions that had an abundance of fruits, legumes, and lean animal proteins to fuel their mind-body engines. Nature provides herbs and foods that emerge where we live according to the conditions of climate and soil and the gifts of the winds and birds. As a rule, nature provides more animal fat and protein in colder climates and more carbohy- drates in warmer climates.
- Explore your ancestral history. We are all a mixture of many ancestors who migrated from other countries, yet we still carry the specific genetic blue- print of our great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers whose bodies evolved in certain locales eating natural foods and herbs. Study the various regions of your ancestors and the foods and plants endemic to those locales to learn more about foods and herbal medicines that will nourish you. Combine these personal discoveries with intuition about how your brain-body reacts to ancestral foods and herbs.
- Identify what kind of engine you have. Our internal engines drive our mood, energy, and ability to sleep deeply. What kind of engine do you have? Some of us are like Volkswagens, steady and sturdy; we use any type of fuel and function well. Others of us are more sensitive, like a Jaguar, and need high-octane fuel. Does your engine need a lot of protein and fat, or mostly carbs with less fat, good-quality plants, and a touch of animal proteins like eggs in order to hum?
- Feed your mitochondria. Mitochondria are passed along to us by our mothers. These are the little engines inside our cells that are essential to mental health and physical energy. Foods like avocados, chocolate, raw nuts, and herbs like cinnamon, yarrow, gin- seng, and astragalus all support mitochondria and should be top on your list of new culinary and herbal taste adventures.
Make this yummy, mitochondria-boosting pudding a day in advance.
CHOCOLATE AVOCADO PUDDING
1 cup coconut cream (or coconut milk)
2 ripe avocados, peeled, flesh removed from the pit
½ cup sugar-free cocoa powder
10 to 20 drops of liquid stevia or 2 tablespoons of raw dark agave
2 tablespoons of strong astragalus root tea (optional)
1 teaspoon glucomannan powder
1⁄8 cup water
½ cup toasted almond slivers
In a blender, add the coconut cream, avocado, cocoa powder, and stevia and blend until combined. In a small bowl, add the glucomannan powder and water and whisk until dissolved. Then add the mixture to the blender and blend for another 20 seconds. Pour the mixture into glass cups and place in the fridge to chill. Top with toasted almond slivers before serving.
FEED YOUR SPIRIT
The following herbs and foods nourish your brain and body and can help you find balance.
CANNABIS is beneficial for post-traumatic stress (PTS), depression, anxiety, migraines, and pain. The neurologist Ethan Russo suggests that endocannabinoid deficiency syndrome accounts for a variety of symptoms including PTSD, fibromyalgia, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, and eating disorders. Choose a strain that is rich in CBD and terpenes and a bit lower in THC to avoid any unwanted psychoactive effects.
CHOCOLATE is a medicine, mood booster, and the elixir of love. It is one of the great gifts Mexico has given the world. Chocolate (without sugar, of course) is rich in antioxidants and minerals for heart and brain health. It makes a good substitute for an afternoon coffee as it provides energy without overstimulating. Chocolate is rich in much-needed magnesium to keep us in a calm, alert frame of mind.
COFFEE is a drug, not a beverage, so use it as a drug—consciously! Coffee in small doses is a mild antidepressant that enhances mood and aids focus, attention, and productivity. In larger amounts, it can contribute to anxiety and heart palpitations. Women metabolize coffee more slowly than men, so they should drink coffee earlier in the day.
CAPOMO (Brosimum alicastrum), also called breadnut, is a small seed from a tall tree that grows along the east and west coasts of Mexico and Central America. It has a long tradition of use among women (and other female animals) to enhance the flow of milk (in herbal medicine, this is called a galactagogue). It is a mood booster and rich in amino acids and minerals but without any caffeine.
KAVA is my go-to anti-anxiety herb. A member of the pepper family, kava is both medicinal and sacred. It contains chemicals called kavalactones, which are responsible for most of kava’s pharmacological effects. Kava increases antianxiety chemicals in the gut and brain to reduce fear and anxiety. Kava is a muscle relaxant; it enhances cognitive performance; and it reduces the anxiety that comes with menopause. Kava is available in extract or capsules. Doses range from 100 to 400 milligrams (60 percent kavalactone per capsule) up to three times daily. Most people can start with one 200 milligram capsule (60 percent kavalactone). Kava can also be stimulating for some people and may not be appropriate as a sleep aid.
A Vegetarian in a Carnivore's Body?
Many human animals have a carnivore engine and need animal proteins to thrive. We then can feel conflicted between our heart and our brain and the needs of our engine. What are some physical and emotional signs that our engine isn’t getting the right fuel?
Depression, anxiety, foggy thinking, and low energy are significant signs that while you may want to be a vegetarian or vegan, your animal body-brain is rebelling. Animal proteins, in particular, are abundant in mood-boosting amino acids and also acidify the blood. Blood has a natural neutral pH. While we hear a lot about it being too acidic, the blood of biological carnivores can also become a bit too alkaline without animal proteins, creating anxiety, depression, and even panic attacks. To test out whether this may be contributing to your symptoms of fatigue, anxiety, and depression, try these herbal recipes.
BRAIN BOOST SALAD DRESSING
Add a clove of fresh garlic and a pinch of dill to 1 cup of apple cider vinegar, ¼ cup of hemp seed oil, and ¼ cup of virgin olive oil.
Shake well, store in the fridge, and smother your veggies with it each day.
ANTI-ANXIETY HERBAL BATH SOAK
In a large mixing bowl, add four tablespoons each of dried lavender and peppermint, and then pour in 1 quart of apple cider vinegar. Mix well and strain, and then store the liquid in a glass quart jar in the fridge until you need it.
When you’re ready for your foot or whole body soak, add 1 cup of the vinegar to a hot bath. The aroma of the peppermint will dissolve a headache and brighten your mood. The lavender will soothe the stress away as the vinegar is absorbed and brightens your mood.
You can do these baths any time of day, but consider doing the vinegar bath early in the day to feel energized. To aid sleep at night, use only the lavender in a foot or bath soak to which you add a cup of Epsom salts.
Note: There is evidence topical lavender oil disrupts children’s endocrine systems. If you’re preparing this bath for someone under 18, omit the lavender and use the other herbs instead.
If you feel better after eating the salad dressing and doing this soak daily for seven days, it’s a sign that you can use more vinegar and also that you may benefit from adding some animal proteins to your diet. Start slowly with bone broths to which you add turmeric and ginger root, along with a few strands of the antidepressant herb saffron.
If you discover that your engine will run more smoothly by adding animal proteins (even if your heart isn’t in it), add a ritual of thanks as part of your daily routine. Most indigenous peoples of the world practice a ritual of gratitude to animals who give their lives as food.
The Three Sisters of Sleep
Hops, valerian, and passionflower help you get to sleep and stay asleep. These three sisters work together. They are gentle nervines that provide a safe alternative to benzodiazepines. They are also safe for the treatment of stress and anxiety in children.
Hops are the ingredients that turn beer into a sedating muscle relaxant. Hops are anti-anxiety, stimulate appetite, and aid deep sleep. Hops contain estrogen precursors when fresh, which makes them helpful for peri-menopause and menopause. Monitor the use of hops for their estrogenic effect in hormone dependent cancers.
Passionflower leaves, which also relieve menstrual pain, can be used as a tea or capsule. Take 200 to 400 milligrams as a nervine during the day and up to 600 milligrams to sleep.
Cats love the nasty smell of valerian, which is why it is called hierba de los gatos in Mexico. Valerian incense has long been used among European herbalists to protect against evil spirits and as an aphrodisiac. It aids sleep, reduces anxiety, and relaxes tense muscles.
EAT THE BRAINBOW WAY
The Brainbow diet is rich in all the colors of the rainbow and feeds the brain. Research suggests that inflammation underlies depression; to counteract depression, we need to minimize inflammation. We can do this by integrating a diet rich in colorful foods, spices, and herbs into our daily practice. Don’t count vitamin content—just choose foods from all the colors available. All the Brainbow foods represent different nutrients that quench the inflammatory fires and nourish our neurons so they can communicate better.
Choose fruits, vegetables, and spices rich in anthocyanins (red, blue, and purple berries); betalains (beets, chard, rhubarb); carotenoids (carrots, sweet potatoes); and chlorophylls (dark leafy greens).
ANTI-INFLAMMATORY GINGER ROOT SMOOTHIE
Fresh ginger root is a potent anti-inflammatory and antidepres- sant that suppresses prostaglandin synthesis through inhibition of key inflammatory enzymes. Enjoy a delicious Ayurvedic recipe by adding to a blender 6 ounces of fresh orange juice,
1 lime, a tablespoon of dark green olive oil, and a thumb-size piece of fresh ginger root. This smoothie soothes the liver and reduces anger and depression.
Originally from Tunisia, this dish is rich in multiple mood-boost- ing and anti-inflammatory spices, yet it is quick and straight- forward to prepare. As you simmer these diverse spices, take a moment to inhale them and let them penetrate your smell receptors, noting how your mood improves
4 tbsp virgin cold-pressed olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper
2 cans (14.5-ounce) of chopped tomatoes
4 Roma tomatoes, diced
2 tsp ground smoked paprika
2 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp caraway seeds
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of ground cayenne pepper (optional)
4 to 6 free-range organic eggs
Feta cheese crumbled (optional)
Fresh cilantro or parsley, chopped
In a deep sauté pan over medium heat, add the olive oil and sauté the onion, garlic, and bell pepper. When the onions are translucent, add all the tomatoes, stir, and then add all the spices and let simmer on low heat for 30 minutes. Make small indentations in the sauce for each egg, and then gently pour an egg into each one. Sprinkle with feta cheese (optional), cover, and cook for 5 minutes on low or until the eggs are fully cooked. When you are ready to serve, add 1 or 2 eggs to a plate with plenty of sauce and top with fresh chopped cilantro or parsley.