Making smarter food choices can help you decrease stress, increase your energy and feel better both physically and emotionally — and help regulate your moods.
Whether you’re dining out, shopping for groceries, or sitting at home on your couch, food temptation is a force to be reckoned with. Images of sweet, decadent desserts, salty snacks and mouth-watering meals are omnipresent in magazines, on TV, and on social media, and quick and easy (but unhealthy) options are available at nearly every store you walk into.
When you’re trying to manage your emotions, it’s easy to turn to food for comfort, but the fix is short-lived and choosing the wrong foods can leas to increased cravings, worsened symptoms, and weight gain.
For 52-year-old Carrie B., of New Haven, Connecticut, who has bipolar II, adding certain anti-inflammatory foods like green leafy vegetables, salmon and nuts to her diet helped her feel satiated and improved her mood. “My brain literally works differently now,” she explains. “I actually do not think and cannot think the same way I used to think.”
Stress leads to cravings
“Anyone with bipolar is dealing with extremes, so there’s also going to be the extremes in eating,” according to Marjorie Nolan Cohn, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Philadelphia and Edgemont, Pennsylvania, who specializes in nutritional psychotherapy and is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
When any person is under stress, cortisol—the stress hormone—and ghrelin—“the hunger hormone”—ramp up and increase appetite, a 2011 review in the journal Obesity Reviews found. When cortisol rises, cravings for carbohydrates and sugar increase, as well.
“For someone with bipolar disorder, their threshold for tolerating stress is so much lower than a neurotypical person’s would be,” according to Amanda Porter, a triple-board certified psychiatric mental health practitioner at the Lindner Center For HOPE in Mason, Ohio.
The brain is also a very powerful force when it comes to giving into food temptations. A pathway in the brain known as the reward circuit is at the heart of what drives us to eat sugar, salt, and high-fat foods and override the hunger signals and satiety cues that tell us to stop eating. That’s why you won’t take another bite of kale if you’re not hungry, but if there’s dessert, there’s always room for more.
Diet can also be a double-edged sword. Eating foods with low nutritional value can precipitate mood shifts and trigger both depression and mania, Porter says.
That was the case for 30-year-old Rudy C. of San Pedro, California, who has bipolar II and previously weighed more than 300 pounds. “I was getting to the point where I was hopeless [and I thought] why even bother trying?” he says.
Yet once he switched to a different medication and circumstances in his life changed, he was able to rely less on processed, frozen meals and fast food and to purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables. He added anti-inflammatory foods like berries, tomatoes and salad, as well as protein sources like yogurt and fiber-rich whole-grain bread to help satisfy his hunger. “There was no late-night eating, there was no waking up feeling like I had to devour three meals at once,” he says.
Studies show certain diets like the Mediterranean or Paleo diet may reduce symptoms of bipolar disorder, according to Roger S. McIntyre, M.D., professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto.
In recent years, there has also been interest in the ketogenic diet that Carrie followed, a low carbohydrate, moderate protein and high-fat plan that causes the body to burn fat instead of carbohydrates.
According to a March 2016 study in the journal European Psychiatry, 40 percent of people with bipolar also have insulin resistance, a precursor to type-2 diabetes. Since the ketogenic diet increases insulin sensitivity in the brain, it may be beneficial for people with bipolar, but there is not enough evidence to make it a formal recommendation, McIntyre says.
Although side effects from one of her medications caused her to gain weight, 52-year-old Carley C. of Barrie, Ontario, says she was determined to lose it and get healthy. She started to do research about nutrition and kept a food log of everything she ate. “I started seeing patterns in what I was eating and how I was feeling,” she says.
If she ate processed cheese or foods with artificial sweeteners, for example, she would spiral downward within 20 minutes and her dark moods would often last for 24 hours.
Carley decided to cut out all processed foods and sugar, and instead add anti-inflammatory foods like salmon, spinach, berries, avocado, nuts, seeds, and olive and coconut oils. Instead of white potatoes or refined flour, she ate complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes and used chickpea flour in recipes.
Carley noticed that by eating these foods, her mood improved, her energy increased and she started to exercise every day. She also lost 75 pounds. “It helps keep your mind stable and then once your mind and your physical energy are up you’re able to be more productive,” she says.
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