In the last couple of weeks I have had 2 different people come in that I hadn’t seen for awhile and in whom I sensed a recognizable shift. The first thing I noticed with each of them was a gentle radiance around their body, the coloring in their faces was different, not the skin itself, but there was just more color, more light around them. They both also appeared calm, contained. I discovered that both of these women had been undergoing a cleansing diet under the supervision of their Naturopathic doctors. They had both cut out meat and fish and many other foods for a short period of time. One was using special supplements and smoothies to aid the cleanse process. Both were meant to add back foods slowly to test the effect on their systems but one has already decided to remain vegetarian because, 3 weeks into the cleanse and after years of a heavy meat diet recommended by a different health practitioner, she felt so much better. I had the sense that the dietary change was positively augmenting their therapeutic work.
I have been a practicing psychotherapist for 20 years and helping people for many more. In this time there have been trends where discussing the body and working with “physical” health is integrated in to the therapy in various ways. But in all this time I believe we have not been bold enough in how we address the obvious connection between the care of the body and how this affects the greater chemical make-up of the brain, of our mood and psyche. Eating habits and lifestyle choices are very personal, and our training does not include anatomy and physiology yet I think we have been much too lax in confronting these aspects of client’s lives in order to effect deep, long-lasting change. Some of this comes from the fact that there are so many different opinions about what is a healthy diet, and much of these opinions are controlled by corporate money and politics which makes speaking out potentially dangerous. And there is a tendency among all health professionals to compartmentalize a person’s health, not treating the person as a whole entity where every cell affects the well-being of the others. But we can no longer afford to go with the status flow and allow our clients, and the entire nation, to continue on a spiral of declining health trends. Because health impacts our field of mental and emotional well-being so directly, we must begin to take a clearer stance on food issues. As a Master Herbalist in training and someone who has pays close attention to diet and nutrition I am becoming especially sensitive to issues of basic physical health in my clients and am seeking ways to gently insert this into our work together. Yet I am mindful to be careful to not portray my own dietary bias while still educating clients without fear or judgment.
I am not suggesting that psychotherapists should be prescribing diets or supplements to their clients; but there are some basic physical health topics that should be communicated to clients when it is reflected in their psychological state, which may be a lot more often than we think. Here are some basic premises:
-Diet affects health.
-Exercise affects health, our bodies are made for movement.
-Our health is constantly undermined by our environment which is becoming progressively more toxic; and also by decades of poor food manufacturing practices that result in a dearth of nutrients in our food.
-Chemicals used in food, water and cosmetic products can be harmful to our health, undermining the immune system and emotional well-being
-Health is also greatly impacted by non-nutritional foods common to our culture.
-Sugar is unnecessarily added to far too many packages on the grocer’s shelves.
-Caffeine also compromises the body, especially the nervous system.
-Many basic nutrients affect depression levels and play a role in other mental health disorders.
And of course what we have known and worked with for years is that food and other substances are often used by clients to modulate emotional issues which causes and exacerbates many mental health situations.
Here are some well documented nutritional facts found easily on the web: Depression and inadequate diet are intrinsic. Calcium and magnesium levels play a role in depression, as do polyunsaturated fats, antioxidant vitamins and Vitamin D, folate and B-12. Complex carbohydrates increase serotonin which can decrease depressive symptoms and calm an anxious mind. Of course it is important for a client to have a proper assessment of how diet may be affecting their particular health issue as just implementing one nutritive intervention may not take the whole system into consideration. But providers must be willing to approach the subject and gather information about a client’s food hygiene.
So what does a therapist do? Firstly I believe it is incumbent upon us to be good role models and to be proactive about our own health and well-being. Secondly, don’t be afraid to address dietary issues and to bring it up again and again and again in sessions. “Have you thought any more about starting an exercise regime?” “What might happen if you cut down on sugar as an experiment for a month (or week) or two?” “You know we understand that fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grains provide for essential nutritional needs which can improve mental health, do you eat many fresh foods?” Be willing to follow these comments up and help clients to seek help when necessary. Consult with health care providers; provide a list of holistic practitioners that clients can work with; provide reputable articles that have information on diet for mental health disorders, the internet is full of them! Follow up, follow up follow up. Educate yourself in order to educate clients. Be willing to talk to them about the subject. Recently when I asked a client about her diet she said “Wouldn’t it just be easier to go on medication? I know wellbutrin works well for me.” I let her know that if she felt antidepressants were in order we could certainly talk about a referral to a prescribing doctor, but I also wanted her to know that her lifestyle may also be playing a role in her symptoms and if we were to work on all angles we might be able to effect more complete long-term change and her feeling better a lot faster.
I would encourage clients to seek out mental health practitioners that have some knowledge of integrated medicine and nutritional health. Be willing to explore the subject of diet and health in your therapy. Read articles on-line regarding diet and your symptoms, make sure they include scientific references. These small steps can play an essential role in regaining health and wellbeing for the long run.
by Aylee Welch, LICSW