By Dr. Mehri Moore, M.D.
At THIRA Health, much of what we do is guided by our commitment to holistic healing. When it comes to treating serious conditions like anxiety and depression, the best, most sustainable recoveries are achieved by fostering the wellbeing of the entire self, not just the mind. This is why many of our programs include components like yoga, art therapy, and, perhaps most importantly, communal meals.
Though the clinical research community has yet to establish an undeniable direct link between eating certain foods and disorders like anxiety and depression, there is ample scientific evidence drawing connections between diet and what the average person might call “mood”
The Importance of Eating Well
Considering that the human body – including the brain, of course – is little more than a collection of biochemical systems, it shouldn’t be surprising that the quality of “fuel” that you provide to your body has an impact on how well you are able to function – physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Your ideal wellness-boosting diet will vary slightly depending on your own unique body chemistry, but there are plenty of general guidelines that are equally applicable to just about everyone. Eating carbohydrates, for instance, increases serotonin, a chemical that tends to have a calming effect on your mind. Protein-rich foods, on the other hand, increase chemicals like tyrosine and dopamine, both of which raise your level of alertness. Depending on your current state and the state in which you aim to be, adjusting the kinds of foods you eat can be a noninvasive way to change – and ideally improve – the way you feel.
In fact, according to the Harvard Health Blog, a number of studies “have compared ‘traditional’ diets, like the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet, to a typical ‘Western’ diet and have shown that the risk of depression is 25% to 35% lower in those who eat a traditional diet.” This, these studies have found, is because these traditional diets are high in fruits, vegetables, unprocessed grains, seafood, and fermented foods, and contain minimal dairy, refined sugars, and processed foods.
Again, it’s important to reiterate that the jury remains out as to the direct link between diet and mental disorders, and if you are struggling with moderate or severe anxiety or depression, you should always consult a mental health professional instead of trying to self-medicate, even through “natural” means such as diet. That being said, the research in the field of nutritional psychiatry is very encouraging, as it confirms that eating well is a critical piece of a comprehensive treatment plan.
Building Relationships through Communal Meals
As great as the biochemical benefits of a good diet are, the social benefits inherent to the preparation and consumption of food as a community are incredibly valuable as well. In addition to providing our patients with nutritional education, we also encourage participants in our Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) to cook and eat meals together whenever they’re here.
Indeed, food has played a major role in humankind’s development of interpersonal skills and communal bonds throughout history. When we were hunters and gatherers, we maintained very small, very mobile social groups – usually consisting only of extended family relations – that were focused first and foremost on finding the next meal. Food wasn’t always easy to come by, and an individual’s relationships with others were always colored by whether someone was a partner in food procurement or an adversary in it.
The agricultural revolution radically redefined our relationship to food, but it didn’t displace food from its central position in our lives. As we became increasingly interested in the production and storage of food, we developed new social skills in order to be able to manage a complex society organized around the ownership and protection of crops. Thus, nearly every social relationship – those within and among families, those within and among communities, those within and among societies – continued to pivot on food.
For the better-off among us, access to food has, thankfully, become much greater and involves much less effort than has historically been required. That being said, by sheer biological necessity, food will never cease to play a central role in each one of our lives. At THIRA Health, our primary goal is to keep the social element of food and food consumption alive by creating rituals of togetherness in a healthy, supportive environment.
This means involving each one of our patients in every meal. From menu planning to cooking to serving to having discussions over the final product, we encourage our patients to embrace the communal nature of food and do everything in our power to foster the natural sociality of meal times. Combined with the numerous biochemical benefits of healthy eating – and the various other components of the PHP – social eating helps our patients achieve durable recoveries and, sometimes, forge empowering, lifelong relationships with other women along the way.