So here’s the thing about your mental health and nutrition. There are certain things that we are accustomed to eating that basically undo or limit all of the potential good coming from our nutritional changes. Bread, in all of it’s modern day, pastry-perfect forms, is one of those things.
As a child, I remember learning about Whole Grains being a major staple in the food pyramid. As it happens, God did not design our bodies to digest whole grains. In fact, because of the phytic acid they contain, they can actually be toxic to our bodies since we do not have the enzyme necessary to break down phytic acid. This toxin (also called an anti-nutrient) inhibits the body’s ability to properly absorb calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, silica, zinc and some amino acids. If your body can’t access all of the goodness you’re giving it, you will continue to feel sick and experience the symptoms you’re looking to cure. Phytic acid is found in all plant seeds, nuts, legumes and grains, but for the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to focus on wheat specifically.
Now, I’m not saying give up bread. I can’t imagine a happy life without it. But I do believe two adjustments need to be made to the Standard American Diet (SAD) to help us regain true health and use nutrition supportively. The first is to eat our grains in smaller portions with less frequency. There are absolutely health benefits to grains, but in our SAD way of eating, it’s not uncommon for a person to consume multiple servings of grains at every meal and snack (thanks, old food pyramid). This is just too much for our bodies, especially given the overly processed and preservative-filled condition of the bread and grain products filling our grocery stores. The second is to eat grains that are prepared in a way that will not cause damage to our intestines, impair nutrient absorption, or cause inflammation and blood sugar problems.
There are three ways of preparing bread that will make the grains nicer to your digestive system and even enhance the nutritional quality. Both preparation methods have their roots in traditional food prep: fermenting the bread dough (as in sourdough) and soaking or sprouting the wheat before grinding. In ancient cultures (like Biblical times), this is how people made their bread. The fermented bread was the kind that would rise (the fermentation is also referred to as natural leavening). Sprouting or soaking grains before grinding them for use in baking allowed the phytic acid release, making the grains easier for our body to digest. The slower digestion means a more even affect on your blood sugar. It also makes more nutrients available (like vitamin C) due to the new, living state of the grain. So rather than buy the convenient “whole grain bread” at the store, look for breads made from sprouted grains. I like Ezekiel Bread. If you live in an area with traditional bakeries, you might have some luck buying real sourdough or true Italian focaccia bread, made from a starter (fermented bread).
You can also make your own bread, if that’s the kind of thing you enjoy. I recently tried this recipe for homemade fermented bread, and my whole family is thrilled with the results! If you’re intimidated to give this a try, I completely understand. I am not a baker by nature; I’m much more of a “wing it” kind of person in the kitchen, which means I lack the necessary precision to be really good at baking, especially breads. But even this impatient chef managed to rock this bread recipe! If I can do it, so can you. Additionally, there are many recipes online for bread made with sprouted grain flours (which are easily available on Amazon). I just ordered sprouted spelt and sprouted wheat flours to try this recipe next!
What about gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in some grains (wheat, barley, rye, sometimes oats). It’s been established that people dealing with mood disorders (Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder), anxiety, schizophrenia, ADHD, eating disorders, autism spectrum disorders and even OCD often have a sensitivity to gluten. This is another reason that decreasing the amount of these grains/breads in your diet (if not eliminating them completely) would be wise. Fermented and sprouted grain bread contains less gluten and may be acceptable to incorporate in your diet, even if you do have a sensitivity to gluten. If you think a gluten sensitivity might be a part of your mental health problems, try an elimination diet for at least one month, but up to three months, as it can take 12 weeks for the inflammation caused by gluten to heal. There are blood tests you can ask for, but they tend to be expensive. An elimination diet will take time and effort, but it will save your pocket book and give you the same results. This can be an especially important question to answer in children who are exhibiting behavior problems at school and home; your child’s nutrition is absolutely critical in helping them manage their emotions and behavior.
To start a gluten elimination diet, eat a high-protein menu for 7 full days, incorporating lots of leafy green vegetables, healthy fats and root vegetables like sweet potatoes, parsnips and carrots to help curb the cravings for carbohydrates. Gluten is found in a lot of things, so be careful to research your labels and gluten free food options. Drink a lot of water during this time, and avoid grain alcohol and beer. After at least 4 weeks without gluten, you may want to try slowly adding specific products back in to your diet. I’d personally wait the full 3 months before I started adding anything back, just to be sure, but 4 weeks is a good amount of time.
Regardless of whether or not you have a gluten sensitivity, decreasing the amount of blood sugar spiking carbohydrates in your diet and switching over to nutrient-rich grains in your breads will benefit your body. Over time, you’ll most likely notice an improvement in mood, focus, memory, and reductions in pain and stress. Keep pressing on! You’re healing from the inside out!
ResourcesKorn, L. E. (2016). Nutrition essentials for mental health: A complete guide to the food-mood connection. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.