Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nutrition and Mental Health Part 1

I received a letter recently asking me if I take nutrition into account in treatment of common psychiatric disorders. Well the simple answer is yes and there are several facets here to consider. I will try sort this out and delineate the nuances of diet and supplements as it relates to a healthy mind.

The 1st consideration is that we as human organisms are defined as a biological and physiological system. In maintaining a healthy body through diet and exercise, we also keep our minds healthy. In keeping a healthy mind, we interact in our environment with good judgment, graceful movement and compensation with the world around us. We are less likely to be accident prone, put undue stress on our joints and spine, or take risks that are cause for injury. In past blogs I have continuously referred to this mind-body dualism, but it can not be understated. The health of one is innately tied to the other Therefore practices that promote the health of both body and mind are of the utmost importance.

A good example is the use of omega fats in the diet. Popular health nutrition has pointed recently to the importance of the use of unsaturated fats, with an emphasis put on omega 3's and 6's. Monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, have long been touted in improving cardiac and vascular health. So why are these fats so important in promoting physical and mental health? While referencing several valid overall biochemical reasons, I will highlight their importance in mental health.

Omega 3's contain DHA (decosahexaenoic acid), which is vital in cell replication and structural integrity for the entire body. Brain cells are no exception. Not only are they important in maintaining healthy brain cells, but these fats are highly concentrated in the the synapses, where brain cells communicate with one another. The smooth and consistent firing of neuropathways are profound in their benefit to mood. Cultures that have a high intake of Omega 3's such as Japan have statistically lower rates of depression. A healthy brain is a happy brain. These fats directly effect the structural integrity and functioning of brain and nervous system.

Omega 6's benefits are more indirect. They are significant in maintaining vascular health. So this lowers the risk of stroke and allows for increased circulation. The blood-brain barrier becomes more unrestricted and allows for oxygen and nutrients to pass, nourishing the brain cells.

Another aspect to consider in terms of the viability of these fats is that polyunsaturated fats can not be reproduced in the body. Consumption of plant or animal is the only way to obtain these. As soon as they are processed or taken out of their natural state (e.g. the plant is cultivated, the salmon is killed), they begin to degrade and dissipate. This puts and emphasis on freshness and simplicity in menu planning. Along with fish these healthy fats are found in high concentration in nuts, seeds and legumes.

Another consideration is a balancing the intake of the 3's and 6's in your diet. I believe this is a little overblown by nutritionist because both of these fats are good for you and what the body doesn't need it will metabolize. However, 3's are more difficult to obtain in modern diets, so reading labels or researching content may be beneficial, Additionally, these fats are also found in caloric foods and if you are trying to restrict your intake of all fats for this reason, composing a diet that has a 1:1 ratio of 3's and 6's is what is recommended by most nutritional researchers.

We have often heard to fish referred to as "brain food." This points to the high concentration of omega 3's in these foods. Fish has many other health benefits of course, as it is an excellent lean source of protein. In terms of nutritional supplements, however, please consider flax or hemp seed over fish oil. These supplements contain up to 7 times per weight more of the omega 3 and 6's than salmon oil does.

I will be writing more about specific nutritional treatment of mental disorders in part 2 of this blog module, but i wanted to kick it off by highlighting the importance of healthy fats in our diet, because they probably have the single most impact on the way we think, feel and adapt to the world around us.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Treating Anxiety Part 3: reactive elements and body awareness

In parts 1 and 2 of this series, I examined the nature and course of anxiety as it occurs and techniques to break the escalation of anxiety in the comfort of your home or in a clinical setting. Because anxiety is cumulative, there is some benefit to seeking a reduction at anytime we feel overwhelmed with stress, even after a long day. It gives us an opportunity to "reset" and reverse the mounting pressure that our rigorous activity brought forth and put us in the proper state of mind to truly enjoy our recreational and leisure portion of the day. But addressing stress as it occurs, in the social milieu, presents an even greater challenge. When suddenly confronted with a profound external stressor, we often lose that part of us that is the most grounded and pragmatic. So the question becomes, how can I maintain control when I am at my absolute worse?

In part one, I mentioned taking "stress breaks" throughout the active part of your day, utilizing the lunch or personal time appropriated to you. You have developed some stress reduction techniques at home, but because you lack the privacy and resources to fully implement these techniques in a work, school or community setting, it is beneficial to bring SRT into play by creating "portable" versions of these techniques to implement when you have a few moments or even seconds to yourself in these settings.

Meditation and positive visualization are possible anywhere. The most important element here is being well practiced enough at home to jump quickly into the technique in more formal settings, if even for just a brief period of time. Someone who is well-practiced at home can quickly let their mind "empty out," if for just briefly before regaining focus. And break time is an opportunity to take stress on for an even more extended period of time.

Recently a client with and anxiety disorder had some moderate success with deep breathing and meditation in the clinic setting and home. The panic attacks continued at school, however. These attacks included increased heartbeat and profuse sweating. I told him he needed to take time out during the school day and deep breathe and relax. He stated he thought this impossible because he would become self-conscious, aware that others were observing him taking deep breaths. My rational response was what did he find more embarrassing, him taking deep breaths or his shirt becoming soaking wet from perspiration? In fact, there is nothing embarrassing or impractical about breathing in this manner when sedentary or involved a moderately paced activity. And there is absolutely no benefit to displaying tension to others by taking short breaths and speaking in a pressured tone. People respond positively to those that exude calmness and confidence in any formal setting.

In order to claim this calm and confident persona, we need to examine our everyday physical orientation and movement in the workplace. How you sit at your desk chair and get up from it, for example can set the tone for the way you react to stressful situations. Are the muscles of your neck and spine overly tensed? Or do you sit slouched with your shoulders slumped in a submissive manner? Either one will contribute to anxiety when exposed to a stressful situation. Extreme muscle tension causes bodily discomfort, which in turn makes our mind even more confused and less adept to deal with adversity. Slouching passively is cause for unpreparedness and ambush when we our suddenly challenged. The happy medium is a healthy orientation of your head, neck and spine. Sitting upright, shoulders pronounced but not locked square as if at attention, is the correct stress reducing posture. Your neck should allow your head to be slightly forward, but not tilted downward or fixed upright. You should feel a widening in your lower back, as the orientation of head and neck allow the muscles along your spine to relax.

The movement from office chair to copying machine or from classroom to classroom should be scrutinized also. Anxious people tend to move about in a twisting, herky-jerky fashion. They think in terms of function, quickness and utility as opposed to their physical well being and comfort. Do you pop up out of a chair suddenly and automatically with a focus on your destination or the next task at hand? If so, you are reinforcing stress. You are placing unneeded tension on your joints and spine, and once again experiencing that discomfort that is cause for even more confusion and anxiety.

Take on the task of improving the most fundamental physical ergonomics in your day to day activities. Concede that these debilitating repetitious movements are taken for granted and never scrutinized. Resolve to partake in a deliberate and fluid physical motion. Unlearn the repetitious motor movements of your body that are cause for physical and mental tension. Reinvent your physical orientation and increase your awareness in those places were you experience the most stress. Both mind and body will be that much better for it.

This concludes my clinical insight on the practical treatment of the infliction of stress and the experience of anxiety. Hopefully you have achieved an awareness and knowledge of how anxiety manifests itself, the tools and techniques to keep it at bay and the means to take it on where it is most likely to have it most profound effect, in the places where you struggle everyday for achievement, income and recognition.