What Foods are Good for My Mental Health & Chronic Illness?

I was reading an industry magazine put out by my association (British Columbia Association of Clinical Counsellors) and this issue was heavily focused on mental health for chronic illness, which I was obviously excited about. In it there was a 1 page article/ad for a book about BRAIN Foods, or which foods are specifically good for mental health. I noticed some overlap with foods that are good for autoimmune disease as well, so I decided to do a little more research and try to figure out which foods would be good for both. While having this knowledge can definitely help my clients, it is also helpful for myself.

Vegan dark chocolate mousse was my birthday dessert in Costa Rica in May 2019.

Before I get into what I’ve found as overlap (not everything does overlap to be clear, there are a lot of foods that came up for one or the other), I want to state that a lot of this depends on what kind of diet you follow. Someone who does AIP vs. Paleo vs. Keto, etc. will all look at this list and find things they can or cannot eat. What I’ve found works for me is to just cut out foods when I notice they don’t make me feel well. So I don’t eat gluten or dairy or meat (except fish) because those are the main things that bother me. However, knowing what can have more benefits from the list of things I do eat is helpful to know. I also want to say, that I am not perfect, nor do I try to be. I went to my brother’s wedding in another city, and while I did try to eat from my go-to list as often as possible, there were times (like at the wedding itself) where I did indulge in dairy, meat and gluten (I surprisingly didn’t hurt too badly after). I personally find it easier to stick to my diet (or rather, way of eating) if I don’t put pressure on myself to be perfect all the time (when I cook for myself I really do stick to it though).

All that being said, here are the overlap mental health and autoimmune foods I found from several lists and articles:

  • Fruits, such as blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, etc. (basically all the berries) – I love berries
  • Vegetables, such as broccoli, kale, and cauliflower – broccoli is often a staple for me
  • Fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines – all of which are high in omega-3s and salmon is my fave
  • Nuts and seeds – sunflower seeds specifically came up on a list and I was like ooh reminds me of playing softball as a kid.
  • Sweet potatoes – literally another staple for me
  • Healthy fats, such as avocados, olive oil and coconut oil – I usually cook with avocado oil and I love avocados
  • Turmeric – my former naturopath recommended turmeric tea, which I find to be a lovely way to have more of it.
  • Green tea – I go through periods where I drink a lot of green tea
  • Dark chocolate – pretty much the only “snack” food on the lists and honestly, I got used to the taste (though I still prefer milk chocolate)
  • Whole grains – again, not something I eat anymore, but it’s definitely a better option than “white bread,” etc.
  • Coffee – I was surprised by this one, and I do love me my morning coffee. I do recommend no coffee after 2pm though as it can drastically affect sleep.

So, while you don’t have to eat everything from this list, it is probably helpful to try to include some of these foods regularly to improve brain functioning, decrease depression (depression is linked to inflammation in the brain much like AI is linked to inflammation in the body), and decrease illness symptoms. It can also be really helpful to practice mindful eating – check out my guided version here.

I love food, so hopefully this also helps you to make the most of it!

Expressive Writing for Health & Mental Health

I love writing (hello, this is a blog after all) and I’ve always found it to be helpful for me in my own life (and health) journeys (that and music). I came across some research on the mental and PHYSICAL health benefits of expressive writing, so I did a bit more digging and damn, we should all be doing more of it! And hopefully, this post will inspire you to do some. Hearing that there are mental health benefits is probably less shocking than that there are physical health benefits to expressive writing, so we’ll start there, but before we get into that, let’s quickly establish what expressive writing is. Expressive writing is simply writing about our deepest thoughts and feelings about an event or situation, without holding back. When people do this, it is often through journaling, and is often free-writing, without too much thinking about it. It can be done on the computer or by hand, really whatever you prefer. The leading pioneer in this research is Pennebaker (too many articles to site them all), but I’ll site some of the other research on the subject (which also references him) at the end of the post.

Buying a journal (or using an online one) can get you in expressive writing mode.

Okay, so the mental health benefits:

  • reduces stress
  • reduces symptoms of depression
  • reduces post-traumatic symptoms
  • improves mood
  • improves focus and concentration – including in people with ADHD
  • improves working memroy
  • improves emotion regulation (which is our ability to control the quality, frequency, intensity and duration of our emotional responses to situations)
  • and it increases our self-awareness
Improve your mood!

If these aren’t good enough reasons to do some expressive writing, then maybe the physical health benefits will convince you:

  • decreases the number of doctor’s visits you’ll have
  • reduces the number of days spent in the hospital
  • reduces the overall number of hospitalizations – i.e., people with cystic fibrosis
  • reduces blood pressure
  • reduces chronic pain – i.e., cancer and chronic pain conditions
  • reduces the severity of inflammatory conditions – i.e., rheumatoid arthritis, lupus (SLE)
  • improves immune functioning – i.e., cancer, HIV
  • improves lung functioning – asthma
  • improves liver functioning
  • improves and speeds up post-operative recovery
  • improves overall physical well-being

And then, if that’s still not enough for you, there are some other general benefits:

  • reduced number of “sick” days from work plus faster return to work if you were layed off
  • increased GPA in university students
  • improved sporting performance in athletes
Even improve sporting performance! Me and some friends after a curling tournament in 2019.

Okay, so how does this all work? I mean, I understand how it can improve some of the mental health problems we may experience, because we’re writing about our thoughts and feelings. But how does it improve our physical health? Well, actually the two are related. Remember that stress has a HUGE impact on our physical health, and the mind and body are connecting, meaning that anxiety and depression can also feed into (and trauma can cause) physical health problems. The processes of expressive writing are as follows:

  • it allows for cognitive processing and restructuring of painful events and situations – cognitive restructuring changes how we perceive emotional stressors (both internal and external)
  • it allows for repeated exposure – which is controlled re-experiencing of events and situations so that they have less influence over our minds and behaviours

Improving our bodies, improves our minds and vice versa. Here’s the podcast episode on it.

How do we engage in expressive writing? According to the experts we need to write about our deepest thoughts and feelings, without holding back, about situations or events or really anything relevant to us at this moment that are painful. This could be anything from having cancer, to spending time in the hospital to going through a traumatic event. When we sit down to write, it should be for 15-20 minutes at time, without stopping, and be done on 4 consecutive days. Just doing that is enough to lead to all the benefits I listed earlier. It’s possible that more consistent writing could have more improvements, but I honestly didn’t find much on that. So, I’m curious, who’s going to try out some of this expressive writing to see if it helps?

Me! Me! I like health & well-being!

I want to remind everyone that in addition to this blog, if you’re looking for more information to improve your health, I have a podcast: Chronically Living and how to make the most of it, which is available on Apple, Spotify and everywhere else you get podcasts, including this web link. I also have a YouTube channel for those of you looking to incorporate more mindfulness as it has a number of benefits for your physical and mental health as well: Kelsey L Harris Meditations.
Until next week, keep making the most of it!

References:

Baikie, K.A., & Wilhelm, . (2018). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11(5), 338-346. https://doi.org/10.1192/apt.11.5.338
Lepore, S-J., Greenberg, M.A., Bruno, A., Smyth, J.M. (2002). Expressive writing and health: Self-regulation of emotion-related experience, physiology and behaviour. In S.J. Lepore & J.M. Smyth (Eds), The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being (p. 99-117). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/10451-005
Stanton, A.L., Danoff-burg, S., & Huggins, M.E. (2002). The first year after breast cancer diagnosis: Hope and coping strategies as predictors of adjustment. Psycho-Oncology, 11(2), 93-102. https://doi.org/10.1002/pon.574

The Power of Words

I know most of us are probably familiar with the phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and I definitely think that is true. Not just because I’m a writer (I love to write everything – this blog, self-help books, fiction novels and short stories, poetry, screenplays/teleplays) but because there is research that shows that writing (and very specifically journaling) is good not only for our mental health, but our physical health as well. This is one reason Chronic Illness Warriors might want to jump on the journaling bandwagon.

Apparently I’ve always been a writer.

So the whole reason I wanted to write about this is because I was re-reading a textbook for my practicum (basic counselling skills, etc) and one of the interesting things that I read was that a researcher named Pennebaker found that people who record “troubling experiences in diaries showed better immune system responses and significantly better health than those who did not.” Now, I’m not saying I think that any kind of writing is going to suddenly magically cure any of us and we’ll just feel 100% better by doing so. The research though is super interesting. I think that most people can acknowledge the mental health is helped by sharing our story – through therapy, support groups, and writing/journaling. I personally find it just good for my mental health to do any kind of writing, including creative writing, whether or not it directly has to do with my struggles (let’s face it, every writer has a character who is more like them). It can feel good to journal because it can allow you to process, be reflective, and just get something off your chest, and it’s particularly effective if you are struggling with your mental health on top of your physical health.

This kind of journaling has many benefits including self-compassion.

In terms of physical health, researchers have found journaling to help with viral infections such as Hepatitis (so yes, potentially even Covid-19 as well). There was also a study that looked at gratitude journaling by those with heart failure, and found that morbidity was decreased and inflammation was reduced in the majority of patients. Now obviously more research always needs to be done but it is an interesting and promising start. How exactly does it all work? Well, that’s not 100% clear but journaling can lessen overall stress (for those reasons I stated for mental health) and stress and immune functioning are related, so it kind of makes sense that like some other mindfulness activities, journaling (or perhaps other forms of writing) can be helpful. I’m all about the “even if I just feel better today” (or for a few hours) attitude. Why not help ourselves in the present moment? All we really have is this moment, because the next one doesn’t exist yet, and the last one has passed. In this moment, if journaling helps me feel better and potentially helps my body and mind function better, than maybe that’s a good reason to make today the day you start a journal.

I think this tattoo of mine really sums up how important I think writing is (because why else would I have tattooed it on my body!)

Have a good week and keep on making the most of it!