Rachel Kelly
Writer, Mental Health Campaigner, Public Speaker

“How brain-friendly food helped me beat brain fog”

Delighted to share a blog by Jo Belfield.

Jo is a former solicitor, photographer and sales executive, who lives with her husband and two sons in Cheshire, England. She was recently diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, severe depression and anxiety. Jo blogs about food and mental health at Mental Lentil (www.lentil.me) and is a Lived Experience Advisor for East Cheshire Mental Health Forum.

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Hemingway once said.

I think in the pre­sent day, faced with a blank page, a lap­top still co­unts. I don't want to bleed though. I have severe de­press­ion, severe an­xiety and re­cent­ly di­ag­nosed bor­derline per­sonal­ity dis­ord­er. This is a ment­al health blog and I could tell you about the trauma that as a young child chan­ged my way of think­ing to the de­gree that my think­ing is dis­or­dered. I could tell you about the suicidal­ity, the dark thoughts, the con­stant fear and the never feel­ing good en­ough that cl­ings to me like a second skin.

But I don't want to talk about the bleed­ing. I want to talk about the re­cove­ry. About what hap­pens when the skin is still knitt­ing togeth­er, a bit red and sore and fragile but fight­ing to keep out in­fec­tion re­gardless. I want to talk about being a wife and a moth­er to two boys who knows what her life should look like but her brain re­fuses to play ball.

I was once a lawy­er, and then after a few years as a full-time mum I ran my own photog­ra­phy studio, a hobby that got out of hand. This was also a sym­ptom of my bor­derline per­sonal­ity dis­ord­er – an un­der­developed sense of self means your pass­ions and in­terests, even be­liefs, can wax and wane, often lead­ing to an un­con­vention­al and un­st­able care­er path.

I am writ­ing still in the midst of re­cove­ry. I may re­cov­er from the de­press­ion and an­xiety which have aris­en as a re­sult of my dis­or­dered think­ing, my re­cove­ry from bor­derline per­sonal­ity dis­ord­er is more li­ke­ly to be re­cove­ry in the sense of learn­ing to man­age my con­di­tion. I need to im­prove my self-awareness and learn to live a ful­fill­ing life to the best of my ab­ilit­ies. It is also li­ke­ly to be about rea­lis­ing my li­mita­tions, a fact that is ad­mitted­ly still a bi­tt­er pill to some­one who was al­ways quite academic, pas­sionate and am­biti­ous.

It was this lack of cog­nitive func­tion­ing that rea­l­ly pus­hed me over the edge. After a ment­al health crisis in Janua­ry 2016 I was re­fer­red to a 6 week co­un­sell­ing co­ur­se and a Well­ness Re­cove­ry Ac­tion Plann­ing (WRAP) co­ur­se, run by my local co­un­cil. The think­ing was that I felt helpless and hopeless, I had been co­p­ing with­out special­ist med­ical care on just anti­dep­ressants. I needed to learn the em­otion­al co­p­ing skills that I was sore­ly lack­ing and build some re­sili­ence.

I needed more than six weeks of co­un­sell­ing and I was re­fer­red to Step Four, for twel­ve to twen­ty weeks of co­un­sell­ing. In the end there was quite a long wait for this, but in the mean­time I at­tended WRAP and it was a re­vela­tion.

On the WRAP course we looked at ways to manage your day to day life with a severe mental health condition. A really important part of the WRAP process is identifying when your mood is low and coming up with strategies to try and elevate your mood. We identified that I liked reading though my cognitive functioning meant I sometimes felt too confused or had too little concentration to manage it, but that baking (mainly bread) also lifted my mood.

It oc­cur­red to me whilst wait­ing for co­un­sell­ing that I could have some sort of en­joy­ment in my life if I could im­prove the cog­nitive func­tion­ing. When I asked my GP what ad­vice he could give me, he said none just that sort­ing the de­press­ion would sort out the mem­o­ry is­sues.

I was gett­ing more and more de­sperate. With the help of my hus­band I star­ted to re­search how to im­prove cog­nitive func­tion­ing on the in­ter­net. I dis­covered the role that nut­rients can make in boost­ing brain per­for­mance. I re­searched what types of foods I should eat to help my brain cog­nitive­ly func­tion. My motiva­tion was pure­ly being able to think rath­er than be­at­ing the de­press­ion. I was co­ok­ing so I might as well cook th­ings that hel­ped me.

There was a big issue though. I rea­lised I needed the nut­rients, but whilst I was man­ag­ing to feed the kids and our­selves with my hus­bands help when I was alone dur­ing the day I was li­v­ing on sandwic­hes or skipp­ing lunches. Too tired to cook or eat on the days when I needed the nut­rients the most. So I star­ted small. With smooth­ies – banana, yogurt, milk and froz­en be­r­ries all put in a jug and blit­zed with a hand blend­er. Quick to make, quick to drink but also I some­how felt bet­t­er, clear­er after drink­ing it. I added oats for some slow re­lease en­er­gy.

Then I dis­covered Over­night Oats – five minutes putt­ing in­gredients in a bowl be­fore bed (using cup measure­ments – less maths so therefore less strain on the brain) meant I had break­fast wait­ing for me when I got up in the morn­ing, too con­fused to func­tion. If I ate that break­fast, my mood and my ab­il­ity to func­tion that morn­ing would soon im­prove so it be­came an es­senti­al part of my routine.

When I started counselling last August the first thing I asked my counsellor for help with was fighting the “brain fog”. She was pleased I had already started looking into what I was eating but went further – three meals a day, no caffeine, no alcohol, no sugar, a strict bedtime and waking schedule and no day time naps. The first two weeks were hell but my desire for clarity of thought was stronger than my desire for any of those things that hitherto I had looked to gain me clarity.

I stuck to that re­gime for eight months, as I felt strong­er add­ing more brain-friendly food to my diet. Soup, one-pan meals, home made seeded spelt bread – main­ly th­ings I could just pop in the oven and for­get about but which when I ate them hel­ped give my brain the re­sour­ces to heal. The act of co­ok­ing li­fted my mood too – and if I was hav­ing a rough day I would go into the kitch­en and cook until I felt bet­t­er. I did begin to feel bet­t­er. Not per­fect. Not neces­sari­ly well. But bet­t­er.

Th­ings still rock me, I don't have total con­trol over my em­o­tions and I have a lot of co­un­sell­ing and work still to come but I am con­vin­ced that keep­ing a close eye on what I am eat­ing and how that might af­fect my ment­al health is key to giv­ing me the chan­ce at the best pos­sible out­come.

My top five foods for helping my cognitive functioning are:

  1. Rolled oats – They are not just for porridge! I love these for slow release energy and they are a great source of thiamin which helps boost our mental energy and concentration levels. Pop some in overnight oats, smoothies and baking for easy ways to get more oats into your diet.
  2. Frozen red and purple berries – Luscious, sweet and a great source of anti-oxidants which can help protect your brain from damage by free-radicals. Fresh is just as good but I keep a box of frozen ones in the freezer for convenience and use them in overnight oats, smoothies and muffins from frozen.
  3. Kale and other green, leafy vegetables – Kale is very high in brain protecting antioxidants. It is also a great source of the brain boosting B vitamins, and vitamin K which is essential for verbal memory – important to me as one of my most frustrating symptoms of my depression is problems with cognitive functioning, especially remembering words. I use kale in stir-fries and fresh spinach in salads. Any left over greens are often turned into soup.
  4. Pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, brown linseed and golden linseed – these are a source of healthy fats but also a great source of Omega 3. I use the seeds in breakfast cereals, fish cakes and home made bread.
  5. Oily fish – This is another source of Omega 3 fatty acids. I love poached and baked salmon, smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels, smoked mackerel pate and jugged kippers!

Jo can be found on her blog at Ment­al Len­til.

You can also fol­low Jo on Twitt­er or on Facebook.