Anxiety. Depression. Loneliness and isolation. If you’ve ever brought these topics up with your primary care physician, chances are s/he was quick to recommend a medication that would fix you right up. But is medication the way to deal with loneliness?
We’ve known for some time that chemical imbalances can cause emotional disorders; rebalancing our chemistry can lead to stunning results. What we haven’t examined much is why the imbalance occurs in the first place. Medications only mask the symptoms of emotional disorders—they don’t treat the underlying cause.
The human body is an intricate machine, and one of its daily miracles is converting food into the nutrients that become the energy we use and the building blocks that are us—we quite literally are what we eat. It stands to reason, then, that if we fuel ourselves properly, we can keep ourselves healthy and even cure ourselves of many illnesses naturally. But what does “properly” even mean?
It may seem counterintuitive that in an age of plentiful and relatively inexpensive food we can actually be malnourished. The fact of the matter is that a high percentage of Americans and, increasingly, citizens of the first and developing worlds are energetically overfed (we get too many calories) and nutritionally underfed (we don’t get enough nutrients).
How to cope with loneliness: an integrative nutrition view
Emotional disorders can be fueled by nutritional deficiencies—either from inadequate nutrition or improper absorption of nutrients. If it’s a simpler matter of not ingesting enough nutrients, the diet can potentially address this issue; however; if your body is not absorbing nutrients properly, a long-term plan is to heal your digestive tract (your “gut”).
As a health coach, I don’t diagnose, treat or prescribe, but I can make recommendations on supporting your health journey with whole foods. If you are battling chronic and/or severe depression, it is in your best interest to seek professional help and perhaps to take medication. And whether you are dealing with deep feelings of depression or only occasionally feel a bit “blue” or lonely, there are some changes you can make to your diet to potentially reduce the frequency and the duration of them.
And in addition to the food you put in your mouth, integrative nutrition health coaches also encourage you to look at what else nourishes or toxifies you.
Combating loneliness: What are you eating?
First and foremost, let’s take a look at the food you are eating. To most people, food journaling means counting grams of fat, protein, and carbohydrates—the macronutrients that give us energy.
But how are those calories packaged? Are they coming to you in the form of whole, nutrient dense foods, which contain a lot of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that actually help your body utilize the calories most efficiently?
There is a school of thought that whole foods properly prepared not only provide plentiful micronutrients—they contain them in balance with macronutrients and other substances that help us absorb them most effectively: cooking a dark green leafy vegetable with a moderate amount of beneficial fat or soaking a whole grain prior to cooking increases the body’s ability to absorb the nutrients in the food and to regulate its physical and emotional processes better: in some cases, switching to a whole foods diet is enough to help people stop feeling lonely and depressed.
Tip #1: Eat whole foods (vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, and—depending on your dietary preferences—animal products) that you prepare at home.
What whole foods to focus on?
The field of food energetics teaches us that every food contains an innate form of energy: it can be expanding or contracting. Most people describe loneliness and isolation as a contraction of their world: feeling lonely and depressed can be like watching the world shrink down to one very solitary individual. It makes sense that putting food with the opposite energy into their body would have a curative effect.
What foods are expansive? First and foremost, the foods most lacking in the Standard American Diet (yes, that acronym really is SAD): dark green leafy vegetables, which grow above ground, reaching out and up toward the light, an apt metaphor for the opposite of loneliness. Dark green leafies are associated with the upper half of the body, with the energetic centers that connect us to others (heart) and with the universe (top of the head). A diet high in dark green leafy vegetables can lighten our mood and relieve depression; one too high in them can make us feel ungrounded and “spacy.” The opposite of dark green leafies are root vegetables, which grow below the earth and are related to the lower half of the body, our “roots” in the earth, which when balanced can make us feel grounded and centered and when overdeveloped can make us feel slow and tied down, stuck in place.
Given how amazing Nature is, it shouldn’t surprise us that greens contain a wealth of nutrients known to be beneficial for emotional disorders: they contain dietary fiber, minerals such as iron, calcium, potassium, and magnesium and vitamins, including K, C, E, and many of the B vitamins, including folate and are (for a plant) rich in omega 3 fats. Truly a nutrient-dense food!
In addition, cooking methods matter when it comes to food energetics: steaming and boiling are expanding forms of energy, while roasting and braising are contracting.
Tip #2: Eat at least 1 portion of steamed or lightly boiled dark green leafy vegetables every single day.
Omega 3 fats reduce inflammation and affect brain functions such as mood and memory, and since our body cannot produce these compounds, we must take them in through food. The SAD contains too few omega 3 fats and too many omega 6 fats, which can cause inflammation and many other symptoms. Omega 6 fats are found in vegetable oils and the majority of packaged, processed foods.
Ever hear that fish is brain food? It turns out that fish—particularly wild caught cold water species such as salmon, tuna, and halibut—is very high in omega 3 fats.
Vegetarian/vegan? You can get a high concentration of omega 3 fats by eating flax seeds and walnuts.
Tip #3: Eat foods high in omega 3 fats, such as fish, flax seeds, and walnuts, at least a few times a week if not daily.
There has been a lot of discussion among alternative/holistic practitioners recently about gut dysbiosis, the theory that the beneficial bacteria in our digestive tracts can be overwhelmed by harmful bacteria and/or large doses of antibiotics. It seems that we need the beneficial bacteria not only to help us digest and absorb the nutrients we ingest but also to manage our immune systems.
Emotional disorders are apparently also linked to our gut health, as an imbalance in gut flora can cause “leaky gut,” which allows bacteria and yeast that normally get contained and excreted to enter the bloodstream and wreak havoc in the body. The cure is to rebalance the ratio of beneficial to harmful bacteria, which can be done largely through diet and lifestyle choices.
It’s a topic that’s beyond the scope of a simple blog post, and there are several excellent resources on the topic, beginning with the Sonnenburg’s The Good Gut.
Tip #4: Suspect that you have gut issues? Read up on the topic, and begin by introducing fermented foods and bone broths into your diet.
What else nourishes you?
There are “primary foods” that also nourish or toxify us, and we ignore them at our peril. Toxic relationships, unfulfilling work, deficient physical activity, lack of a spiritual practice, insufficient sleep, technology overdose…these can incline us toward loneliness.
Living on a healthy diet of primary foods is entirely possible: it starts with relentless self-care.
Tip #5: Consider doing the deeper work of treating a deficiency of Vitamin L—Love, particularly love of self. Look for a good therapist or health coach who can help you grow in self-love and learn the difference between being alone and being lonely.