Honoré de Balzac
Tell me where you eat, what you eat, and at what time you eat, and I will tell you who you are.
After suffering from depressive episodes in her early thirties, Rachel Kelly has since dedicated her work to breaking the stigma and the silence surrounding mental health. Inspired by her burgeoning relationship with food, she co-authored ‘The Happy Kitchen’ with chef Alice Mackintosh as a gentle guide to how changing your diet can help to uplift your mood.
Grounding their research on the brain-gut connection, their advice is guided by basic biology and the effects of particular foods on our brains, nerves and digestion- which in turn affects our mood. By learning about the role of nutrition in supporting our psychological health, we can start to tailor our diets to nourish and support our mental health. Speaking with Charlotte Fox Weber, the resident psychotherapist at The School of Life, and Rachel Kelly, we discuss how and what we eat affects how we feel.
THE BRAIN- GUT CONNECTION
Our stomachs and our brains are linked by our vagus nerve. We send messages from our stomachs to our brains as well as vice versa.
The gut plays a vital role in our physical and psychological health. Research into the way our brain and gut are linked has led to a paradigm shift in neuroscience that encourages a wholistic approach to healthcare and wellness.
Often referred to as the ‘second brain’, our gut shares many of the same structural and chemical parallels with our grey matter. Through its own neural network (the enteric nervous system) the gut communicates with the brain, helping to regulate inflammation, immunity and serotonin levels. The gut produces a large amount of our neurotransmitters, the chemicals that communicate information throughout the body. Interestingly, the 90% of the serotonin and 50% of the dopamine in the body is found in the gut. Therefore, maintaining a healthy gut is essential to the regulation of sleep, mood, appetite and other vital systems.
By planning our meals and creating a routine, the rest of our life will fall into regular patterns. Eating regular meals helps to maintain blood sugar levels, which is essential for maintaining a good mood. When our blood sugar levels dip our body switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing stress hormones that heighten anxiety levels. Simple habits like meal planning and preparing lunch for the next day also serve as a reminder that we are taking control.
I think meals are the obvious full stops in the day. They are the perfect way to create a structure. When I manage to follow my routines, I find I sleep and eat better and my mood improves.
Ancestral man ate around 150 ingredients each week, modern man eats around 20.
As nutrient deficiencies in the modern diet are becoming a rising problem, the need for variety has become more of a priority. As food works better combined than in isolation, we should take this as an opportunity to experiment, and invite different flavours into our kitchen. For this reason, Rachel and Alice avoid shortlisting ‘superfoods’ and take a ‘whole approach to food’ that involves all the food groups.
Actively engaging with our meals and seeking out variation can also help to reinforce a positive relationship with food. Eating well is as much about what is on your plate as what’s in your mind. Observing the exchange between food and feeling, our eating habits hold a mirror up to our state of mind. When you are feeling fragile, the last thing you want to do is prepare a lavish meal. Instead Rachel recommends preparing easy dishes that stimulate the appetite. Bitter and peppery flavoured foods like rocket, grapefruit and basil are great appetite and nutrition boosters.
THE Pleasure Principle
Cooking can be a deeply therapeutic practice that exemplifies the ‘food as medicine’ adage. By taking the time to mindfully prepare our meals, the act of food preparation can serve as an opportunity for creative curiosity, fresh thinking and spontaneity. By slowing down and taking a mindful approach to cooking we can nurture our relationship with food and come to find that a happier kitchen can calm our mood as much as the food itself.
Reassured by its rituals, Rachel discusses how cooking is an extension of her meditation routine. ‘Tasks like shelling peas help me stay calm and grounded. Literally, I have to stand still. This has helped me stop rushing and to enjoy the moment. Previously I was always worried about the future or regretting the past. The requirement to concentrate, to follow a recipe, and to enjoy the sensual preparation of food in the here and now have all proved a wonderful way to relax – and to get to know my children as we now cook together.’