After suffering debilitating bouts of depression, journalist and author Rachel Kelly began to investigate the links between nutrition and mental health. From ingredients that target particular low moods, to the links between diet and resilience, we ask what she has learned
How has depression affected you?
Depression first manifested itself for me nearly 20 years ago. The illness came on very suddenly. I seemed to be coping fine with my busy life as a reporter on The Times, a wife and a mother of two small boys, though I was always someone who worried. Then one night I couldn’t get to sleep.
With the insomnia came some alarming physical symptoms. My heart rate sped up, I felt as if I needed to vomit, my mind was racing round and round with worry – that if I couldn’t sleep I wouldn’t be able to work, or look after the boys, and then I would lose my job, then we wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage, then we would be homeless. I later learned that this kind of catastrophic thinking is characteristic of someone who is suffering from an anxiety-driven depressive episode.
After three nights of not sleeping I ended up in a psychiatric hospital. I was ill for six months. I recovered, only to have a second severe depressive episode six years later. This time I was ill for more than a year. Before then, I was in denial about the illness, but I decided I had to change my life to try and make sure I didn’t have another major episode.
How did that experience prompt you to make changes in your life?
My two depressive episodes have been the defining experiences of my life. Depression is a terrifying illness that robs you of all hope and sense of identity. It also can come with horrible physical symptoms as in my case. But like many illnesses it happens in a context. The good news is that we can change that context and build our resilience and mental health. Being so ill for so long has meant that I’ve had a huge reason to try and change. While what has happened to me has led to a rewarding new life working in the field of mental health and sharing what I’ve learnt, I wouldn’t wish the illness on anyone.
Being so ill for so long has meant that I’ve had a huge reason to try and change
What ways did you find to cope? What works best for you?
I’ve found that to cope I need a toolbox of strategies for both mind and body. For me no one tool is the answer. Over the last ten years, I’ve tried lots of strategies to stay calm and well. All aspects of my life have changed from my work, I now run workshops for mental health charities and at my local prison and am an ambassador for mental health charities Sane, Rethink and Young Minds, to my lifestyle – what I eat, how I exercise – and how I think after years of therapy and embracing mindfulness as well as the healing power of poetry and literature.
Exercise is the best way to shake up the chemicals in my brain and get my endorphins going. Other physical approaches include breathing exercises which I use all the time. Some are about changing and slowing the way you breathe, others are about acceptance. I’ve now written a book, the happy kitchen: good mood food, on the importance of nutrition to our mental health. There is compelling and growing evidence that we are what we eat as well as the fact that how we eat affects our mood. It’s so exciting that we can make a difference in this simple way – and unlike medication the only side effects are good ones.
I also use psychological approaches, and have learnt how to cultivate a more compassionate, positive inner voice and to become less critical. Poetry has helped me here a great deal.
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Why is what we eat so important to our mental health?
Scientists have recently advanced our understanding of the gut and its relationship with the rest of our body in fascinating ways. Our digestive system is responsible for producing a large proportion of our neurotransmitters, the chemicals that communicate information throughout the body and the brain. There are eight main neurotransmitters that affect our happiness, including serotonin and dopamine, as well as sleep-inducing melatonin. In fact as much as 90 per cent of our serotonin is made in our gut.
Cultivating a healthy digestive system has proved an important way to cheer me up. As well as its role in producing these hormones, our gut also supports our immune system and digests the vital minerals and vitamins that affect our mood. Changing my diet and sweeping my kitchen clean of processed foods in favour of ‘real’ food as well as eating ‘happy’ foods such as oily fish, dark chocolate and green leafy vegetables has made me calmer and less anxious. Food has proved to be my medicine.
How have you harnessed the power of nutrition to stay calm and well?
Studies show that a diet marked by processed vegetables, fats, sugars and preservatives may be setting us up for the kind of chronic inflammation that some doctors think may be at the root of low mood, anxiety and depression rather than the ‘chemical imbalance’ theory. This suggested that depression was caused by low levels of serotonin in the brain.
Now some scientists suggest that a more nuanced view is that depression affects the biology of the whole body, not just the brain, and that while serotonin levels are still significant, a more holistic approach that addresses mind and body is needed, and nutrition is a key part of that.
I slowly changed my diet with the help of nutritional therapist Alice Mackintosh. I focused on buying real foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs, unprocessed carbohydrates, nuts, seeds and traditional natural animal fats in moderation rather than processed fats. I also increased the amount of anti-inflammatory probiotics and omega-3s that I eat given the importance of nourishing a healthy microbiome or gut flora. And I followed the recipes that Alice and I developed for my symptoms such as insomnia, low mood and anxiety. The recipes reflect more than 100 nutritional studies. Alice was absolutely crucial in helping me change my diet. She is calm, knowledgeable and hugely experienced. There is so much conflicting nutritional advice out there that I needed expert help.
What signs are there that society is shifting from a medication-based approach to mental health to a lifestyle approach?
I think more of a lifestyle approach to treating mental illness is definitely the way of the future. While medication will always play an important role, lifestyle interventions make medication more effective. And for a proportion of people, medication doesn’t work. We need a new approach.
For me, lifestyle interventions are as much about prevention rather than cure. I always felt very dependent on others but I’ve learned how to eat myself well. It’s made me more confident after a long period without hope.
I’ve learned how to eat myself well. It’s made me more confident after a long period without hope
Can you describe times when good food and thoughtful nutrition have helped you?
It helps me all the time. After all, we eat three times a day! But if for example I’m anxious I might whisk up some of our calming green broth, or if I can’t sleep I will make one of the sleep inducing recipes such as our midnight dip: it contains cottage cheese and banana, both of which contain tryptophan which is the precursor to sleep-inducing melatonin. There are seven chapters in the book with recipes for balanced energy, staying nice and calm, beating the blues, hormonal peace, comfort and sweet dreams.
Which are your favourite recipes from the book and why?
Probably my favourite recipe is our sun dried tomato hummus. It’s one of our ‘feeling fragile’ choices: easy recipes for when you don’t feel up to cooking. It is rich in vitamin B6 and magnesium, both of which have anxiety-relieving effects. It relies on my store cupboard basics: a tiny of sun dried tomatoes, a tin of chickpeas, some tahini and lemon. It’s lovely and calming on some oat cakes. And I love our five minute raw chocolates. Again they are incredibly easy to make, a lovely treat and calming too thanks to the high percentage of dark chocolate with its mood-boosting properties.
Rachel Kelly is an author and journalist and an ambassador for mental health charities Sane and Young Minds. She is the author of The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food, out now
Images: Laura Edwards
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