The ‘mood foods’ listed in this article offer creative ways of assisting us manage our moods more effectively. While our mental health conditions affect each of us in different ways, this article is based on a broad consensus of opinion from local HK and international nutritionists, psychiatrists and homeopathic practitioners.
WHAT NOT TO EAT
Just as important as knowing what to eat is knowing what not to eat. There are obvious unhealthy foods that exacerbate bipolarity and obstruct general health for all of us. Processed foods that are high in salt, refined sugar and contain zero nutrients are clearly not doing any of us any favors, whether we have a chronic mood disorder, or not. Whether we’re cooking for ourselves, or a loved one, it’s important to know there are certain foods that are toxic to mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder and should be avoided, not just during the extremes our condition imposes on us, but always, in everyday life.
The importance of self-managing mood swings with medications and healthy lifestyle habits may appear to be common sense. But did you know that certain foods and dietary supplements are believed play an equally vital role in helping – or hindering – our moods and condition?
According to the majority of experts, it’s particularly important that we avoid the traditional “Western” diet that’s rich in red meats, saturated fats, trans fats and simple carbohydrates (refined sugar). These foods are toxic to us. They play havoc with our moods and with our medications ability to work. This eating style is also linked to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, chronic inflammation and heart disease.
WHAT TO EAT
As well as understanding which foods are effectively toxic to us, did you know there are surprising ‘mood super-foods’ that are calming (mellowing mania) and mood enhancing (lifting depression)? As people with mood disorders, it’s especially important that we eat protective, nutrient dense foods, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, lean poultry meats, cold-water fish, eggs, low-fat dairy, soy products, nuts and seeds. These foods provide the levels of nutrients necessary for us to maintain good health and stabilize our mood swings. They also protect us from the other common diseases we are particularly susceptible to developing.
But it’s not just depressed/ bipolar types who can benefit from maintaining a mood stabilizing diet. The UK Mental Health Foundation claims scientific studies have clearly linked poor diets, consisting of high quantities of refined sugar and an absence of essential fats, vitamins and minerals, to attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), depression, Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. There’s also growing evidence linking poor diet to antisocial behavior.
Research clearly shows the number of people affected by mood disorders is rising sharply. A study by Evanne Constantine emphasized the clear link between nutritional intake and bipolar disorder. The research maintained a careful diet, taking vitamins (specifically Omega 3, Magnesium and Vitamin B), reducing caffeine and eliminating refined sugar, saturated fats and trans fats from our diets minimized both the intensity and frequency of our mood swings.
The Mediterranean diet, rich in Omega 3 fish and olive oil, has been proved to be far healthier for us than the typical ‘Western’ (British/ American) diet. The Hong Kong Chinese diet is also rich in nutrients and a far healthier option.
MOOD DISORDERS & OBESITY
Some of us are quick to dump the blame for weight gain on our meds, antidepressant medication especially. But whilst it’s true that antidepressant medication can cause weight gain in some of us, this side-effect is far from being universal (a lot of people experience the opposite effect) and in most cases, it’s usually our diet that’s to blame. As people with mood disorders, we especially need to avoid the refined sugar found in sodas, cakes and puddings. These foods are loaded with calories and have no nutritional value.
MOOD DISORDERS & EXERCISE
Physical exercise is at least as helpful to us as antidepressants. Yet during episodes of depression, it’s especially hard for us to find the motivation to exercise, especially if it means having to leave the comfort/ chaos of our homes. As a result, many of us are likely to lead a much more sedentary lifestyle than is good for us. This obviously that has a negative impact on both our body-weight AND our minds.
The truth is it’s even MORE important for us to exercise in depressed cycles. We need to get outside in the sunshine to boost our Vitamin D levels and pump feel- good endorphins to our bipolar minds. And we don’t need to be a member of an expensive gym. According to the UK Mental Health Foundation, the best form of exercise we can do is walking! Swimming and cycling are also good choices.
MOOD DISORDERS & SUGAR
As people with bipolar disorder, we need to know that refined sugar is one of the most toxic foods we could eat. We need to cut it out of our diets altogether if we’re to have any chance of beating our symptoms and controlling our moods. Even if it doesn’t clog our arteries or give us diabetes, refined sugar kills our brain’s ability to regulate our moods successfully. It gives us a temporary high, followed swiftly by a crashing low. It’s the most bipolar food there is! So for people like us with chronic mood disorders, we need to think of refined (processed) sugar as Bipolar Enemy No. 1.
Sugar causes a rapid rise of adrenaline, which exacerbates mania and depression symptoms in all of us and leads to hyperactivity, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating. In fact, sugar is so bad for us, many experts are claiming that if we develop bipolar disorder late in life, we should be looking back at our diet and wondering ‘did I do this to myself?’ Refined sugar intake also predicts schizophrenia, depression and physical illnesses, such as heart disease, chronic inflammation and diabetes. It increases our insulin levels, which can also lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, weight gain and premature aging.
Remember starch is just another form of sugar. We should be careful to remove starchy food like potatoes from our diet. Remember that sweet potatoes – ironically – contain less starch and are better for us than regular potatoes. (If you must eat fries, fry sweet potato in olive oil with a light sprinkling of raw sea salt!)
And if you really want a sweet treat, reach for fruit! Fruit contains high quantities of sugar, but it’s all natural sugar, which is better absorbed by our bipolar brains.
CAN FRUIT KILL YOU?!
Anything eaten to excess could potentially kill us – although I have yet to read in the obituaries of some poor soul who fatally overdosed on fruit! Fruit is actually one of the healthiest snacks we can eat. Some fruits, such as bananas and watermelon, do contain high quantities of sugar, but it’s natural sugar, and we need natural sugar to balance our moods, especially when we’re feeling depressed. So the next time you’re in the depressed cycle of bipolarity, reach for a banana (not a Mars Bar). In manic times, reach for low-sugar fruits that are high in anti-oxidants, like berries and plums.
MOOD DISORDERS & HEART DISEASE
Remember, if we choose to eliminate foods that are toxic to our bipolar brains from our diet, we’ll be doing more than just keeping our bipolar mood swings in check. We’ll also be improving our heart health. This is important because as bipolar people, we are far more at risk of developing heart and vascular disease than our non-bipolar friends.
Rationality dictates that bipolar mania puts a strain on our hearts. In times of mania, my heart is particularly fond of beating to the sound of its own drum. My resulting irregular heartbeat sometimes corrects itself. Other times, I have to go to hospital so medics can stop my heart and reset it on a healthy (regular) rhythm. Although there’s no concrete evidence that my irregular heartbeat is caused by bipolar mania, it never happens when I’m feeling depressed, or experiencing relatively stabile mood periods!
The spectacularly strong medication we take to function ‘normally’ can be a contributing factor to heart disease, especially if we additionally abuse our bodies by self-medicating on alcohol, recreational drugs like cocaine and cigarettes. We bipolar types are not usually known for our restraint! We have a far greater chance of becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol because of the way our bipolar brains are wired.
Research has found that those of us with mood disorders are more likely to be:
Unlikely to eat at least 3 servings of fruit and veg daily
More likely to only eat one meal per day
Less likely to cook or shop for healthy foods
Less likely to take adequate exercise
More likely to become addicted to smoking, drugs and alcohol
Sound like you? Less than three years ago I ticked almost every box! To combat developing heart disease, the American Heart Association also recommends eating FISH a MINIMUM of three times a week.
Good choices include:
IS FISH BRAIN FOOD?
If you’ve got a mood disorder, YES! Freshwater fish is one of the healthiest foods we can eat to combat mood swings and so I consider it a ‘bipolar super-food’. Fish also combats our increased risk of developing heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends taking 1.5 to 2.8 grams of fish oil per day as supplements.
Deficiencies of essential fats and antioxidant vitamins found in freshwater fish are also thought to be a contributory factor in schizophrenia. Research also shows that rates of clinical depression are higher in countries with low intakes of fish.
Fish has also been shown to improve brain function, protect against age-associated cognitive decline and encourage focus and clarity.
However, it’s important to remember that frying fish in saturated fat-filled batter destroys nutrients and even contributes to ‘brain drain’ for people like us with chronic mood disorders. One recent UK study found that a diet high in saturated fat actually caused damage to neurons that control energy and appetite in mice. So what’s it doing to us??
MOOD DISORDERS & SALT (SODIUM)
As people with mood disorders, we often find ourselves craving salty food – and yet we’re repeatedly told that salt is bad for us. Here’s the paradox: many lithium-based medications strip our body’s natural sodium levels. We therefore need to compensate for our sodium deficiency by restoring healthy sodium levels. Part of the reason we crave and eat so much processed food is due to its skyrocketing levels of refined salt. We are also ten times more likely to put salt on food that doesn’t really need it. Even when we think we’re snacking on sweet food to give ourselves a quick mental boost, check the wrapper to see the salt content in our favorite sweet treats. Remember salty junk food offers our minds no nutrients and can trigger a massive mood crash.
Lithium is a mood stabilizer frequently used to even out the highs and lows in bipolar disorder and in treating schizophrenia. It may be used alone or in combination with antidepressants. Sodium stabilizes lithium levels in our bodies, so too little salt in our diets can impact negatively on our medication’s effect, increasing our chances of side effects like water retention, mental confusion and kidney problems. The difficulty is that too much salt in our diets can also cause us problems, preventing lithium and other meds from working properly. So we need to boost our salt levels in a natural, healthy way.
MOOD DISORDERS & OMEGA 3
As bipolar/ clinically depressed people, we also have an Omega 3 deficiency. To combat this, we need to take supplements and eat as much oily fish as possible. The perfect bipolar-friendly food when we are craving salty food and also need to boost our Omega 3 levels is naturally salty, oily fish. Try mackerel, kippers, herring or anchovy. The fresher you buy it the better it tastes!
If we can manage to eat oily fish every day, in supplements, as a snack, for breakfast, lunch or dinner, we will be doing more than stabilizing our moods. We will also be improving our vision, skin and hair nutrition! Healthy omega-6 fats like gamma linoleic acid (GLA), found in evening primrose, black currant seed and borage oil also help counteract chronic inflammation. Eating a diet rich in Omega 3 also helps us to combat depression. Who knew eating fish makes us happy!
High fiber green vegetables
Nuts and Seeds
Figs and Raisins
FOODS TO AVOID
Sweetened Breakfast Cereals
Condensed and Evaporated Milk
“Fruit” Cordial Drinks, Soft Drinks in general
Sweets and Refined Sugar in general
Jellies, Jams and Preserves (Honey is not included in this list)
White bread, Overly Processed Brown Bread (make your own!)
Ice cream and Sorbets
Crisps, chips, pretzels, and all corn/ potato-based “snack” foods in general
Cookies, Muffins, Cakes, Pies
All Fast Food (Dur!)
Now for the really bad news: People like us who are on anti-psychotics, mood stabilizers and/or antidepressants should try to avoid caffeine, or at least drastically reduce our caffeine consumption. Experts claim caffeine is one of the most under-appreciated triggers for bipolar mood swings. Caffeine causes dehydration (in itself, one of the biggest known triggers there is for mood swings). It also negatively impacts the ability of our meds to work effectively by increasing our need to pee, stripping our body’s already depleted sodium levels (especially if we’re taking lithium). We need to cut out all sodas – whether they’re caffeinated or not, full of refined sugar or laden with harmful ‘diet’ soda additives.
For those of us who aren’t on lithium and would rather cut off our own ears with a penknife than sacrifice our morning coffee fix, we should at least minimize our intake to no more than two small cups in the morning and be certain to avoid all favored coffees (including my favorite caramel macchiato). Flavored coffees contain an excessive quantity of refined sugar and additives. Also, avoid ordering espressos – unless you actually enjoy insomnia. We should always carry a bottle of still mineral water around with us to ensure we don’t get dehydrated.
To a lesser extent, tea also contains caffeine, so if we drink a lot of tea (especially builders tea heaped with lashings of refined sugar) we’re also feeding our bipolar mood swings. We should only drink skimmed or semi-skimmed milk. Herbal tea is healthiest for us. Green tea contains caffeine but is still a bipolar super-food, due to the high levels of anti-oxidants in green tea leaves. Despite this, the nutritional value of a green tea latte from Starbucks is negligible!
MOOD DISORDERS & CHOCOLATE
Chocoholics should remember chocolate contains caffeine and so should be limited to an occasional treat. Always choose a dark chocolate. Milk chocolate contains high quantities of added processed sugar. We should also avoid flavored chocolate and chocolate with fondant fillings (excess refined sugar). Best we recycle packets of After-Eights and the yummy orange fondant filled chocolates that are my favorites (sob).
MOOD DISORDERS & PSEUDOEPHEDRINE (COUGH AND COLD MEDICINE)
Pseudoephedrine, found in some cough and cold medications, has stimulant properties similar to caffeine and can also trigger our bipolar mood swings. (Is there anything we can take that doesn’t?) I’ve certainly experienced chronic insomnia as a result of taking certain cough syrups and medications before going to bed. It’s important we check the ingredients on the packaging ourselves and don’t just rely on the gormless pharmacist who sold us the pills over the counter.
MOOD DISORDERS & MAO INHIBITORS
MAOIs are sometimes used to treat depression and can be prescribed to people with bipolar II. They combine with Tyramine to cause diarrhea, headaches, unusually high or low blood pressure. The amount of tyramine in food increases with age, so those of us taking MAOIs in our antidepressants should avoid aged cheeses and wine. (Prozac and Zoloft do not contain MAOIs.)
MOOD DISORDERS & FOOD PRESERVATIVES/ ADDITIVES
What we are eating now is very different from what our recent ancestors ate. Food production and manufacturing techniques, coupled with changing lifestyles and access to cheap processed foods, means our intake of fresh, nutritious, local organic produce is much lower. At the same time, our intake of fat, sugar, alcohol and additives is much, much higher. Over the past sixty years there has been a 34% decline in UK vegetable consumption with only 13% of men and 15% of women now eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day (the recommended amount). People in the UK are also eating 59% less fish than they did sixty years ago, decreasing their consumption of bipolar-busting essential omega-3 fatty acids, which could also account for the rise in bipolarity.
It has also been estimated that the average person in the UK and other industrialized countries will eat FIVE KILOS of additives each year. For bipolar people like us, eating an excess of food preservatives and additives can have a very negative impact on our medication and our minds. Many additives, preservatives and food colorants have been proved to cause behavioral changes, including violent mood swings, and experts believe this accounts for the rise in antisocial behavior. As bipolar people, it’s vital for us to buck unhealthy trends in eating habits if we’re to have any chance of controlling our mood swings. Remember, a clean and healthy body means a clean and healthy mind.
To combat unhealthy food trends, we need to make a consistent effort to make meals from scratch using raw ingredients to avoid consuming additives that impact on the effectiveness of our meds and exacerbate our mood swings. They’re already extreme enough, right? Scientists still know very little about the long-term damage to our brains caused by additives and food preservatives. Making our own food is the only way we can be sure of what it is we’re actually eating! Homemade food also tastes a lot better!
MOOD DISORDERS & ALCOHOL
Alcohol is not good for us. What a revelation! It also negatively impacts our chances of getting a good night’s sleep. (Brilliant! Bet you’re glad you spent good money on this book now!) Even if we’ve made a good effort to cut processed sugar from our food, alcohol is full of sugar. (The Bipolar Express actually runs on refined sugar.) Unfortunately, there is no way for us to have our cake and eat it, either literally or metaphorically. We drink alcohol because it gives us a quick boost, apparently lifting (deferring) our depression and chilling out the maniac inside us. But the effects of alcohol are fleeting and temporary. The inevitable mood crash that follows alcohol consumption can only be removed by…yes, you guessed it…more alcohol! The maniac inside us is screaming “more, MORE, MORE!!!” As bipolar people, we are also a lot more likely to become dependent on alcohol. Or cigarettes. Or sex. Recreational drugs swiftly become vocational drugs for us, thanks to our notorious addictive personalities. So if we’re regularly consuming alcohol, we are setting fire our mood swings, not controlling the blaze.
Only you know if you’re abusing alcohol or not. For the purposes of this book, I’m going to assume that you’re not an alcoholic (someone who needs alcohol to function ‘normally’). I’m also assuming you enjoy the occasional alcoholic bevvy the same as someone who is, say, not bipolar, or indeed a raging alcoholic. But first I should warn you that everything I have learned while researching this depressing book is that alcohol and bipolar do not make a good cocktail. Partly, this is due to the strength of the medications we take to combat our disorder. If we’re taking a kaleidoscope of medications every day, we need to consult our killjoy shrinks on whether it’s even safe for us to sniff the barman’s apron. My friends can have a terribly hard time removing my nose from the barman’s groin.
But I’m going to throw caution to the wind and say that for most of us, it’s acceptable and also liberating to have the odd drink. Look for low-alcohol (low- sugar) wine and beer when you find yourself inexplicably drawn to the booze aisle in the supermarket. If you’re planning on dinking full-alcohol wine, dilute it with water or buy zero-sugar soda water to create your own Spritza. Your wine will last you a lot longer (cheaper therefore) and you won’t get so dehydrated, or crave (and probably consume) the salty fatty food that usually has the slow dance with alcohol consumption. Brown ale is apparently the best choice of alcoholic beverage for us bipolar types to consume (ewwww – just my luck).
The thing to remember is with practice and determination we can retrain our taste buds to find cat piss refreshing and just a little bit woo-ha. While I’m yet to serve my guests cat piss at a party, I have succeeded in getting them plastered on sparkling pear juice, as long as I’ve served it in a champagne flute. Which only goes to show that when it comes to alcohol, “We Are What We Think We Are”.
MOOD BAR SNACKS
Okay, so snacking is the devil’s food. It exacerbates our mood swings and confuses our metabolism. But I reckon it’s ridiculously unrealistic for us to assume that we’ll never again get hungry and eat a snack, especially when our best mates are torturing us munching chunky chips at the same table! Enter a bar or pub and the choice of bar snacks is usually restricted to nuts that have been cremated in salt, fatty crisps/ potato chips, greasy nachos and lush golden fries (starchy fatty bipolar no-no’s I’m afraid).
Nuts are a bipolar super-food and a brilliant, healthy source of protein for nuts like us. Buy unsalted or, to satisfy salt cravings, lightly salted with sea salt. Unfortunately, nuts that have been cremated in mounds of processed salt do more harm than good, potentially preventing lithium and other mood stabilizing, anti-psychotic and antidepressant medications from working effectively.
So if you know you’re going to a bar with friends, especially if you know you’ll be easily corrupted into having an alcoholic drink, my advice is to bring your own bar snacks! Go Japanese: Wasabi dried peas are as nutritious as nuts (sans salt) but zero fat if you’re bipolar or just watching your weight.
MOOD DISORDERS, SATURATED FATS & RANCID TRANS FATS
We urgently need to stop consuming saturated fats and trans fats in our diets if we want to minimize our mood swings and combat depression. Saturated fats and trans fats are equally toxic to our bipolar brains as refined, processed sugar. We should only ever eat lean protein and low-fat dairy products. Fat in our food negatively alters the way our bodies absorb our medication and can cause us to develop the myriad physical illnesses we are especially at risk of developing. In particular, saturated fats and trans fats in our food lead to chronic inflammation, as well as having a profoundly depressive impact on our mental state. We must therefore make a consistent effort to cut all fried, fatty foods from our diets.
MOOD DISORDERS & CHRONIC INFLAMMATION
Rancid or oxidized omega-fats (trans fats) are especially toxic as they cause us chronic inflammation. A diet rich in omega-3 fats, on the other hand, reduces chronic inflammation. There is also a strong connection between refined sugar and chronic inflammation, which disrupts the normal functioning of our immune systems and wreaks havoc on our bipolar brains. Chronic inflammation is also associated with heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and cancer. So consuming saturated fats, trans fats and processed sugar really does set off an avalanche of negative health effects – both on our minds and on our bodies. Research has also proven a strong link between high sugar consumption and schizophrenia.
TOP TIPS FOR BEATING DEPRESSION:
Eliminate all refined sugar and starches from our diets
Meditate or do yoga, go for a walk, cycle or swim
Eat healthy wholefoods to best support our mental health
Supplement our diet with healthy, Omega-3 fats like krill oil
Get outside in the sunshine to have healthy vitamin D levels
HEALTHY EATING ON A BUDGET
A healthy diet can be expensive. Fish, fruit and vegetables can be particularly pricey. But by cutting down on snacks, takeaways and alcohol, we can save money to buy healthier foods. Here are some tips on making your money go further:
Only buy what you know you’ll eat to reduce waste.
Shop at market stalls (cheaper), not just supermarkets.
Split purchases of food with friends (buying in bulk is often cheaper) or cook lots of portions of food and freeze your healthy food in one-meal packages for when you’re feeling too manic or depressed to cook.
Remember frozen fruit and veg is often cheaper and just as nutritious (with no wastage).
Fresh fruit and veg are cheaper when in season.
Beans, lentils and soy mince are cheaper than meat and just as nutritious.
MOOD FRIENDLY STAPLE FOODS
As bipolar people, we need to eat more wholegrain cereals, nuts, beans, lentils, fruit and vegetables. Wholegrain cereals, pulses, fruit and vegetables are more filling and, because the sugar in these foods is absorbed more slowly, don’t cause mood swings. These foods are more nutritious as they contain thiamin
(B1), (a vitamin associated with good control of mood) and folate and zinc (supplements of these nutrients have been shown to improve the mood of people with depression in a small number of studies).
BREAD – choose wholemeal, granary or rye breads, pumpernickel, wholemeal pitta, wholemeal chapattis, oatcakes
CEREALS – choose high fibre, low sugar, use honey as sweetener on porridge or home made granola
RICE AND PASTA – choose basmati and brown rice, wholemeal pasta
POTATOES – avoid all starchy spuds. Eat sweet potatoes and yams
MOOD DISORDERS & OPTIMAL VEG AND FRUIT QUANTITIES
As bipolar people, we should aim to eat at least seven portions of fruit and veg a day. For example, we should consume 1 glass of squeezed orange juice or 1⁄2 a grapefruit for breakfast, a banana or apple after lunch, or for a mid morning snack (if we must), salad for lunch and include at least two types of vegetable (one portion is roughly equivalent to two serving spoons) and a piece of fresh or baked fruit for our evening meal. Green vegetables should always be steamed or lightly boiled, never overcooked or we will lose most of the vitamin content.
MOOD DISORDERS & THE IMPORTANCE OF A HIGH PROTEIN DIET
We should include protein at every meal to ensure a continuous supply of the amino acid tryptophan to our brains, which positively influences our moods. Remember protein does not just mean meat. Eggs and soy products are equally good for us. We should make sure to include at least 2 portions of different fruits and/or vegetables and a protein food at each meal. Lean poultry meat and fish are best, as they are good sources of vitamin B12, another nutrient that seems to be associated with balancing moods.
If we are vegetarian, or have a limited budget, we should include fortified soy or a yeast extract, like Marmite, to increase our intake of B12.
Fish, especially oily fish, should be a vital component of our diets. Omega 3 oil supplements also reduce our bipolar symptoms when we are taking antidepressant medications.
MY TOP TIPS FOR A HEALTHY MOOD-FRIENDLY DIET
Include more Omega3-rich oily fish from sustainable fish stocks- try to include 2-4 portions a week (but no more than 2 portions if you are pregnant or breastfeeding). If buying tinned fish, choose varieties in water, brine or tomato sauce, rather than in sunflower oil (this is high in omega 6)
If frying food (stir fries,not English breakfasts!), use olive or grape seed oil
Choose a monounsaturated margarine for spreading.Avoid marge or low fat spreads containing rancid omega 6 polyunsaturated or hydrogenated trans fats (trans fats are damaging to our brains and our arteries). Avoid all processed foods like pies,sausage rolls,crisps and cakes- these are obviously high in saturated fats and trans fats
Take an Omega 3 supplement (choose one that is purified, contains no vitamin A and has a high eicosapenanoic acid (EPA) content)
If you are vegetarian,also try a flaxseed supplement
Nutritional supplements are always good for us, especially if our diet is poor, and should include:
A complete one -a- day multivitamin/mineral preparation containing the full recommended daily intake of each vitamin and mineral. These products are safe, as they don’t contain excessive amounts of any single nutrient. (However, we should avoid taking other supplements containing these nutrients, particular vitamin A as it is toxic to us in high doses)
If your doctor prescribes vitamins or minerals for you, be sure to tell him/ her about any products you are already taking
If you take a multivitamin supplement, avoid liver and other offal products like pate, as these are also high in vitamin A