As digital nomads, we are facing daily stressors which are work-related, travel-related, relationship-related, and self-related. In my previous article, I talked about the importance of sleep, how sleep is connected to our mental health, and what you can do while traveling to improve your sleep quality.
This article focuses on food and the interrelationship between food and mental health. I am going to explain briefly the relationship between the gut and the brain, and why a good gut function is important in order to avoid, reduce, and minimize mental health issues. I also share with you food to avoid, food to consume instead, and further resources from our team members. I hope that you can establish a healthy relationship with food, but I am not here to tell you which diet plan you should follow. Let's begin.
🍿 You are what you eat
We have two brains in our bodies: the analytical brain in our head and the emotional brain in our gut. Both are connected through the vagus nerve, where neurotransmitters, for example, serotonin, glutamate, or gut hormones, function as mail that is sent back and forth between both (Harvard, 2021). The brain-gut-connection plays a vital role in our sleep, mood, stress, pain, and hunger.
This article focuses on the brain-gut functions that connect the food we intake with our mental health. You probably have heard the saying:
You are what you eat.
Simply put, there is good food, and bad food. Although this planet provides us with nourishing fresh nutritious foods, the way we process food today causes a decrease in the quality of food. And some processed foods can cause major damage to our bodies. However, it is our daily and active choice to decide if we intake good and healthy food, or junk.
🍫 Hormones & stress
You probably have come across the analogy of the fight and flight, and feed and breed stage of a human's body.
Fight & flight or feed & breed
When a human experiences danger, let's say by facing a saber-tooth tiger, the brain gives information to the sympathetic nervous system to get the body ready to adapt the protection mechanism by releasing the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol, which transfer the body into the fight and flight mode. The human is ready to defend (fight) or hide (flight) in order to survive. The body releases energy quickly pumps blood into the vital organs (brain, heart, lungs), and decreases blood transport to non-vital organs (digestion, eliminations, sex-organs). Fight or flight mode in cavemen-times meant famine, starvation, or at least food shortage.
There is good and bad news in this story. The good news is that in today's world, we are not facing saber-tooth tigers on a daily basis. The bad news is that in today's world, our saber-tooth tigers are on social media, news, in jobs, and in our relationships.
We stress our bodies all the time. Or in other words, the body doesn't get the chance to relax.
A relaxed body is in a state of feed and breed. We feel safe, we rest, we sleep, and we heal. Our sympathetic nervous system orders our muscles to repair and build new cells, and tissues, and release growth hormones, for example, melatonin, which we need to sleep, testosterone, progesterone, or DHEA (a hormone we need to grow skin, hair, and tissues, and for our central nervous system). A relaxed body increases digestion and elimination and reverses the damages which are caused when we are in fight-and-flight mode.
When you are in a prolonged state of stress, your body is constantly releasing adrenalin and cortisol because the brain interpreted stress as a survival danger. This causes a change in your metabolism and body weight.
The consequences of stress on our metabolism
When it comes to stress, our bodies today react similarly to cavemen's bodies. Although we discovered different planets, landed on the moon, and travel to the other side of the globe in less than 18 hours, we can not control our appetite caused of stress. When we are under stress, our body does the following:
- The release of the hormone glucagon, which releases glucose from the liver into the bloodstream causes an increase in the blood sugar level.
- A decrease in the hormone insulin, which normally regulates the excess of glucose into the bloodstream.
- High glucose is stored as fat.
- A high amount of unnecessary hormones in the liver like estrogen and cortisol.
- The caveman reflex in us results in high attention to food which causes an increasing appetite.
- Appetite leads to overeating which results in excess storage of food in the body in case of food shortage or famine.
The result of this excursion shows that stress as a mental state causes changes in our metabolism, it increases our appetite and the risk of gaining weight.
🍩 Food to avoid
- Fruit juice: When drinking fruit juice, you drink mostly water with fruit sugar. The best part of the fruit is the fiber, which you don't intake when drinking juice. If you drink orange juice, for example, you want to drink the pulp too, as it contains fiber. Orange juice without pulp is, as mentioned above, mainly water with fruit sugar. Fruit juice will give you a quick energy boost and a quick slump.
- Diet soda: Although diet soda might come without sugar, it comes with a high amount of caffeine which can increase anxiety. Studies show diet soda increases depression.
- White toast: Personally, I think white toast tastes like imagine the taste of toilet paper, it simply has no taste. But it is loaded with sugar which gives you energy spikes that crush down quickly. A better alternative is whole-grain toast.
- Pre-made dressings: Processed dressings and sauces that are promoted as sugar-free often use a sugar substitute called aspartame which is linked to depression and anxiety. The same goes for ketchup, which contains mainly sugar.
- Coffee: Caffeine can mess with your sleep, as it can make you jittery and nervous. This state can increase anxiety and depression.
- Alcohol: As you might read in my article about sleep and mental health, alcohol has a negative impact on your sleep, and can cause an increase in depression and anxiety. On the other hand, depending on the situation, a tiny drink can help you to break your social anxiety which could improve your mental health. Only you know the best dosage.
- Frosting: This sugary add-on comes not just with loads of sugar, but also with trans fats, which are linked to depression. These partially hydrogenated oils are also found in pizza, fright food, cakes, cookies, and crackers.
In summary, when you struggle with depression and/or anxiety, you want to avoid processed food, too salty, too sugary, and too fatty food. A good rule is to buy and eat food that hasn't been changed much. Fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, and those products you would find at a farmers' market. This means, avoiding food in plastic containers, cans, bottles, and any other packaging that has been made in factories.
🧁 Obesity - a quick facts check
Did you know that 39% of the world's population is overweight? And 13% of these are obese? In numbers, more than 650 million people worldwide are obese. And in 2020, more than 39 million children worldwide under the age of 5 were obese. More than 50% of obese children live in Asia (WHO, 2022). Worldwide, obesity causes more than 2.8 million deaths every year.
Obesity has a major impact on our mental health, and it can cause an increase in depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem (WHO Europe, 2022), bipolar disorder, panic disorder, or agoraphobia (Vafiafis, 2021). According to a study by Sarwer and Polonsky (Temple University College of Public Health, Philadelphia, USA), obese people are 5 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-obese people.
Obesity can cause mental health issues, and mental health issues can result in obesity. The interrelation is bidirectional, and often the chicken-and-egg question arises, which problem came first?
🥬 Food that boosts your mental health
- Plants: This includes fresh vegetables, fruits, leaves, greens, seeds, nuts, and legumes. Studies show that plant-based diets might be protective against depression. This doesn't mean you need to go 100% vegan, or 100% vegetarian. It is more the idea to eat the majority of your meals plant-based.
- Coldwater seafood: Scientists suggest including food high in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines. Omega-3 can not be produced by our body and we need to intake it either as food or a supplement. It is important to build a membrane around our cells to protect them. The body needs a high level of omega-3 for retina cells (eye), brain cells, and sperm cells. Omega-3 is also needed for the function of the heart, blood vessels, lungs, immune system, and endocrine system (NIH, 2022).
- Nuts & seeds: Omega-3-rich nuts and seeds include flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts. Nuts contain good fats, protein, amino acid arginine (for blood vessel function), fiber, antioxidants, as well as vitamins (e.g. E, B6, niacin, folate) and minerals (e.g. magnesium, zinc, iron, calcium, copper, selenium, phosphorus, potassium). They contain no cholesterol. Seeds contain protein, healthy fats, and fiber, minerals (e.g. magnesium, potassium, calcium, iron, zinc), and vitamins (B1, B2, B3, E). Nuts and seeds help, for example, to maintain your body weight, reduce heart disease risk, and reduce diabetes risk.
- Healthy fats: Oils are rich in omega-3 too, for example, flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil. Healthy fats, as well as nuts and seeds, contain vitamin D, which is helping in the production of neurotransmitters, especially serotonin. By consuming vitamin D you can reduce depression and anxiety, and instead help your body to produce more serotonin which helps to improve mood (Oxford, 2022).
- Fortified food: If you are not vegan, you can also add omega-3-rich fortified food, such as certain types of eggs, yogurt, soy milk (vegan), or juices. Fortified food can be rich in B vitamins (B6, B12) which are also helping in the production of mood-stabilizing neurotransmitters.
🛒 How to have a healthy diet while traveling
Now that we have discussed how food is connected to mental health, which food to avoid, and which food to consume instead, let's have a look at how we can include a healthy diet in our digital nomad lifestyle.
- Food shopping: Stay in control of what you eat by shopping for your own food. Seak out farmer's markets, local fresh fruit and vegetable markets, or organic shops. Avoid buying the majority of your food in supermarkets, but if you shop in a supermarket, try to avoid packaged foods or keep them to a minimum.
- Meal preparation: Shop your own food, prepare your own meals whenever it is possible and stay in control of what you eat. Don't make yourself dependent on hotel buffets, takeaways, and fast food. There are amazing YouTube channels you can find online that help you to prepare healthy food when you just have one stove and a minibar-sized fridge.
- Restaurants: Try to find healthy options on restaurant menus. Sometimes the vegetarian or vegan options seem healthier than the other main dishes but that of course depends on the restaurant.
- Snacks: Get a trail mix or any other mix of nuts and seeds to snack on between two main meals. You might want to check out dried fruits or carry a banana with you.
- Water: Drink loads of water during the day and stay hydrated. Your body is mainly made of water, so you can guess it is important for all functions, not just for mental health.
To conclude this article, food plays a major role in how we feel. Not just physically by feeling tired, sluggish, refreshed, or heavy, but also mentally. The problem is that we often tend to give attention to things we can see and feel. When we eat fast food and we gain weight, we make a link between bad food and weight gain. But not everyone has a problem with obesity or weight gain.
Food has an impact on our mental health but as it is more subtle, complex, and not easy to connect visually, we tend to pay less attention to the interconnection between food and mental health. Although studies show a significant connection between depression, anxiety, and mood disorder and food.
📚 Book tips
If you are interested in the topic, our team members have gathered a list of resources for you to dive deeper into the topic.
- Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney
- Reasons to stay alive by Matt Haig
- This Is Your Brain In Food by Uma Naidoo
- The Everyday Ayurveda Cookbook by Kate O'Donnel & Cara Brostrom
- Podcast Optimal Living Daily by Justin Malik
💡 More on the topic
- The impact of sleep on mental health
- The impact of exercise on mental health
- How to master productivity as a digital nomad
- 3 productivity myths
- Productivity hacks for digital nomads
💌 Sharing is caring
I know, this sounds like an outdated phrase but if you find value in this article, please share it with someone you know who suffers from mental health issues that could be related to an unhealthy meal plan. The studies I linked in this article might give some insights, and if this article can help someone to improve their food habit while traveling, this article fulfilled its purpose.