Rachel Kelly
Writer, Mental Health Campaigner, Public Speaker

“What is a typical day’s food intake for you?” : the gut-brain connection

Delighted to share a blog by Dr Karen Faisandier of The Integrative Practice Ltd.

Karen is a born and bred New Zealander, Director of an integrative psychology practice, and the Wellington Lead Member of the Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand. She is a conventionally trained clinical psychologist specialised in addiction, attachment, and sexuality.

In 2015, her interest in nutrition in health care led her into the study of nutritional and environmental medicine and its application to psychology. She is passionate about forging an integrated and ancestral approach to adult psychological assessment and therapy. This involves the combination of traditional, nutritional, nutraceutical, and ancestrally oriented lifestyle interventions, so as to assist people to understand, prevent, and recover from psychological distress.

“What is a typical day’s food intake for you?” This is one question I wasn’t taught to focus on in my clinical psychology training, unless perhaps I was screening for an eating disorder, which would then generally focus on calories rather than food quality. But this pertinent question has become a core component of any assessment I do.

In my private prac­tice, based in vib­rant Wel­lington city, New Zealand, I see adult clients, who general­ly come to me for vari­ous cog­nitive/­memo­ry con­cerns, en­er­gy/fatigue pro­blems, stress, an­xiety, panic at­tacks, low mood, or mood sw­ings.

I’m no long­er sur­prised to hear when a per­son ex­perienc­ing any one of these con­cerns starts their day with sugar-spiking toast or cere­al. Or that they skip break­fast and head straight for back-to-back co­ffees be­fore grabb­ing a muf­fin at morn­ing tea. It’s not a shock if lunch is white pro­ces­sed car­bohyd­rates purchased on the run. Snacks in-between meals may be non-existent, or more sugar, and di­nn­er is li­ke­ly to be the most sub­stan­ti­al meal but may also be white car­bohyd­rate heavy with a scat­ter­ing of tokenis­tic veget­ables, and in my clien­tele, is vegetarian or vegan 1/3 of the time.

There is usual­ly a not­able ab­s­ence of pro­tein (es­pecial­ly from well treated an­im­al pro­ducts), qual­ity fats, season­al variety, and nut­rient de­ns­ity. Of fas­cina­tion to me is that in many cases my clients will con­sid­er that they are eat­ing a health­ful diet. General­ly, no links bet­ween their diet and ment­al health will have been made.

Of co­ur­se, this lack of con­nec­tion bet­ween food and mood is not their fault – how does an­yone learn what their body needs to thrive these days? Or that food matt­ers to ment­al health? Our food educa­tion is most­ly what we learnt in our fami­ly, ad­vertis­ing, or the in­ter­net. When peo­ple turn to ad­verts or the in­ter­net there is con­fus­ion about if cer­tain foods are health­ful or harm­ful – meat con­sump­tion is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of this, with contra­dic­to­ry re­search and op­pos­ing view­points based on eth­ical views and be­liefs.

There is a gener­al dis­con­nec­tion from our food sup­p­ly and how this im­pacts on our health, as well as the ex­pec­ta­tions we place on our physiology to with­stand “fast-food” in the fast-paced and dis­con­nected society we have created.

I have made it my core business to understand and promote the importance of nutrition within psychological assessment and therapy. The field of nutritional psychology is in its infancy and at one level is highly complex, as it integrates nutrition science and nutritional biochemistry, physiology, microbiome research, hormonal and immune systems, ancestral knowledge, and traditional psychological theories.

Howev­er, in re­la­tion to the pract­ical steps in­vol­ved for some­one’s wellbe­ing there can be a simplic­ity to it – at least as a start­ing point.The simplic­ity is that there is so much room for rapid im­prove­ment, through basic tweaks to what some­one is eat­ing – this has to be on an in­dividualised basis be­cause every­one is dif­ferent. You can lit­eral­ly chan­ge your gut through each bite you take, and you eat for tomor­row’s ment­al health today.

Broad recommendations from my clinical practice:

  • Start the day well – quality protein and fat set up blood sugar stability. This can prevent dips throughout the day where you become “hangry,” anxious, brain-fogged, or flat in mood and energy.
  • Hyrdrate with filtered water – chronic dehydration has a myriad of adverse effects.
  • If you don’t eat animal products/meat, you need to be mindful of testing certain deficiencies like Iron, Zinc and B12, and that your protein intake may be suboptimal. These are all vital to optimal mental health functioning. You’re likely to require supplementation.
  • Look at any meal you eat as an opportunity to maximise your nutritional intake – add nuts, seeds, olive oil, butter, apple cider vinegar, fermented vegetables.
  • Listen to your body – start to notice the impact different foods have for you and what your body is asking for. When you eat, slow down, breathe well, – chew and don’t inhale food, eat with good company, and rest and repair after eating because you can’t digest or absorb food well if you are feeling stressed.
  • If these basics haven’t made an impact on your wellbeing, you may require more comprehensive analysis of how food is impacting. Elimination and re-introduction challenges under the guidance of someone with expertise in this would be recommended. Using this approach, you’d cut out caffeine, alcohol, processed foods, gluten, dairy, and refined sugar for a month, and then experiment with what effect this has on your mental health when re-introduced (one at a time).
  • Making change can be hard until it becomes an established habit – get support, go easy on yourself, if it hasn’t gone well today start again tomorrow and connect with likeminded supportive people.