The Mood-Food Connection: What Therapists Need to Know

Dr. Saharay Cosio-Martinez
May 2022

Achieve Optimal Health

To achieve optimal health we must focus on both the mind and the body. Therefore, when it comes to effective mental health treatment, there is a need for greater focus on the mind-body connection. When clients seek counseling, assessing for nutrient deficiency may not be the first thing that comes to mind for therapists. However, it should, as pro-inflammatory foods such as refined sugars and flour, as well as trans fats can contribute to chronic inflammation, a key trigger for symptoms of anxiety (Streit, 2021).

More specifically, when looking at the link between anxiety and nutrition, the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid, also known as GABA, plays a vital role. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which is often associated with reducing feelings of anxiety due to its calming effect. When the body has low levels of GABA, symptoms of anxiety such as feeling tense, stress, racing thoughts, worried, overwhelmed, restlessness, fear, and sleeplessness are exacerbated (Health & Wellness, 2021). Some contributing factors to low levels of GABA include genetics, prolonged stress, and inadequate diet/gut health (Health & Wellness, 2021). By doing a more thorough assessment of clients’ nutrition, therapists may be better able to identify fitting treatment approaches and make appropriate referrals (i.e., physicians, nutritionists) where needed.

As therapists, we often champion the importance of self-care in the lives of our clients, but such attention to our own health and well-being is equally important.

Stress is a major factor in the lives of clients and therapists alike, especially during this time of global upheaval due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, many of us may unknowingly have depleted levels of magnesium, a mineral needed for maintaining healthy amounts of GABA in our bodies (Dean, 2017). As therapists, we often champion the importance of self-care in the lives of our clients, but such attention to our own health and well-being is equally important. A simple way we can do so is by managing our own levels of stress and eating foods that will provide the nutrients we need. Additionally, meeting with our own health care providers to check for vitamin deficiencies can do wonders for our wellness, and by proxy, that of our clients.

Here are a few suggestions that can assist you in making sure you are consuming foods that can boost your levels of GABA:

  • Supplements: Lactium, B Complex and Magnesium (Korn, 2017)
  • Nuts: Almonds, cashews, pecans, and Brazil nuts are good sources of magnesium (Dean, 2017).
  • Teas: If you enjoy drinking tea, Kava, Valerian, Hops and Chamomile, are teas shown to decrease symptoms of anxiety (Korn, 2017).
  • Antioxidants: Foods high in antioxidants (such as the ones below) have also been shown to help decrease symptoms of anxiety (Streit, 2021).
  • Beans: dried small red, pinto, black, red kidney
  • Fruits: apples (Gala, Granny Smith, Red Delicious), prunes, sweet cherries, plums, black plums
  • Berries: blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, blueberries
  • Nuts: walnuts, pecans
  • Vegetables: artichokes, kale, spinach, beets, broccoli

Spices with both antioxidant and anti-anxiety properties include turmeric and ginger

In short, by giving greater attention to our bodies and nutritional health, as well as that of our clients, therapists will be better positioned to offer a more comprehensive and collaborative approach to treatment. Keep in mind that small changes are okay, progress not perfection is the goal. So I leave you with this challenge, what small step will you be taking when it comes to your own personal self-care?

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