Introduction: Lost Art of Mental Wellness
A Canary in a Coal Mine
An illness is an illness is an illness, right? It sounds straightforward. If you’re in pain, feeling sick, or lost some sort of bodily function, you are ill. That’s not very controversial. Yet, when it comes to mental illness, it’s different, isn’t it? We don't think about mental illness in the same way we think about physical illness. We tend to regard mental and emotional pain as if they aren't part of an actual illness. We think of mental and emotional pain as something different. As we are experiencing depressed moods, anxious thoughts, or distractibility, we don't say to ourselves, "Let me go see a doctor about this."
Instead, we think acknowledging these symptoms as a real illness would be an overreaction. We might feel we’re complaining, or just being weak. Then our mental illness symptoms persist untreated. They continue to haunt us, possibly forever. These symptoms persist, and we begin to feel like we’re doing something wrong. We may ask ourselves, "How come I can't handle as much as I used to?" or "How come I don't feel as good as I used to?" or “What’s wrong with me?” We might feel broken somehow. We may even feel that we are being lazy, inept, or just plain scared. But what if mental illness is actually very similar to physical illness?
You may be surprised to learn that depression, anxiety, ADHD, and even severe mental illnesses do sometimes originate in the body. Imbalances in the gut,1-4 excess inflammation,5-9 blood sugar regulation issues,10-11 and nutrient deficiencies,12-13 along with other imbalances in the body, have been shown to contribute to the development of mental illness. Mental illness can be very physical.
What's more, some research identifies depressed moods, anxiety, or mental and emotional stress as risk factors for chronic physical illnesses.14-16 So it’s true, an illness is an illness, whether mental or physical. Mental illness is very real. It's all really real.
Although everyone carries some degree of genetic predisposition (potential risk that is passed down in families) for mental illness, life challenges and traumas definitely play a role. In the development of mental illness, work, school, and home life stressors are major factors, as is how we make meaning out of our experiences in life.
If we feel and act like we’re always right and never wrong, we drive everyone around us crazy. That’s probably not good for our relationships. Loneliness, lack of support, and general life dissatisfaction would tend to follow, none of which are not good for our mental wellness. If we encounter challenges and consistently feel like we’ve failed, then we may begin to harbor out-of-proportion fears, a sense of inadequacy, or self-hatred. In this case, we are surely headed in the direction of depression and anxiety. The way we process our experiences in life, whether it be positively or negatively, is massively impactful on our mental health.
As scientific research into mental health progresses, so evolves our understanding of how nutrition, physiology, and psychology all combine to influence our mental health. It seems as if each individual experiencing mental illness has encountered a perfect storm of toxic factors. It's usually a combination of life stress, suboptimal physical health, and some degree of toxic thinking.
Every year, new research reveals more about the risk factors that contribute to mental illness. Some of these environmental factors are invisible but pervasive (social media). Some are edible and seemingly unavoidable (processed/junk food). Some of these factors live in our mental landscape (imposter syndrome) and eventually poison our bodies. Others factors reside in our bodies (inflammation, gut dysbiosis, blood sugar imbalances, food sensitivities, and more) and make their way into our brains. For each of us, the collection of stressors that pushes us towards mental illness will be different.
Unfortunately, once we find ourselves experiencing mental illness, figuring out which life stressors or factors caused us to begin to feel this way can be really difficult. When it’s you, it’s not so easy to quickly identify the contributing factors. It's bewildering to be struck with dark moods, pangs of anxiety, and incapacitating brain fog. Armed with this new research, however, we can now look at the development of each individual's mental illness symptoms in a more informed way. With clarity, there’s hope. Gaining awareness of what factors conspired to make us ill offers us a way out.
If there was a perfect expression to describe the sneaky way in which mental illness can creep up on us, it would be the old line, “it's a canary in the coal mine.” This metaphor originates from the coal miner tradition of bringing caged canaries down into the dark and dusky mines. When lethal gases like carbon monoxide were unearthed, the coal miners wouldn't be able to see or smell the danger. So focused on earning a living, they’d keep digging away without realizing that they were surrounded by a lethal gases. Yet, if they glanced over and saw the canary keeled over in its cage, they knew they were in danger and they needed to escape.
If you're working hard towards a better life for yourself and your family today, this probably sounds familiar. Many of us are digging away day in and day out, trying to build a better life for ourselves, as well as our families. Today, our canaries are the mental illness symptoms that pop up and capture our attention. Yet, unlike the way it went for coal miners, it is not so clear to us what these warning signs are trying to tell us. Instead of getting the message that we need to get away from whatever toxic situation or thought pattern is causing us pain, we just keep digging away in hopes that maybe we can keep doing the same thing and the pain will just go away. Worse, we sometimes get the crazy idea that the only way to make the pain go away is to just keep digging... harder, faster, deeper.
There are such tight margins in our lives nowadays. We work hard to earn a living and make money. But spending it is incredibly easy. So we have to go back and work some more. Without awareness, the cycle continues. We can do a lot in a day, but most of it feels like busywork that never really helps us get ahead. We wish we had more time for ourselves, but spending time with ourselves seems almost foreign. When we do get 10 minutes to ourselves, it can be a real challenge to actually relax. There’s often a pull to distract ourselves with something. It's like we’ve forgotten how to stop, bring the tension level down a few notches, and just sit with ourselves.
Life is busy, and even when it isn’t, our brains remain just as busy. Our supply of time, money, energy, and patience are always in a state of drought. In some ways, life seemed easier before, or at least more straightforward. In the old days, when the coal miners glanced across and saw the canary keeled over, they knew they needed to get out, and they did, immediately. Getting out was the only way to stay alive.
What if a similar, but less dramatic, scenario exists for us today? Stress and pressure surround us all the time. These elements of modern-day life are persistent, and like carbon monoxide, they are toxic. All of these little, and not-so-little, toxic stressors and pressures add up and we eventually become ill. Escaping from our toxic stressors is the only way to survive long enough to dig another day.
Here's the problem with those modern-day life toxins we face on a daily basis. We don’t have canaries to warn us of these modern-day life dangers. Nor do we often give ourselves permission to get away when we start to feel unwell. Again, our perceptions are different when it comes to physical injuries. We perceive those injuries with full clarity. If you sprain your ankle while running, the next day your ankle will be red, swollen, and painful. Your ankle will scream to you, “Don’t run on me! I need time to heal.” In this example, the pain is the canary; it’s the signal to lay off.
No one runs on a sprained ankle. But what happens when the injury does not reside in the body? What happens when the pain can only be felt or experienced in our mind? In that sense, it’s like everyone is mentally running on sprained ankles nowadays. Many of us (myself included) find ourselves leaning into the pain and suffering, with the idea that if we can just hang in there until we can arrive at our goal, it will all be okay.
We tell ourselves to keep pushing through just until we cross some arbitrary finish line... just until the end of the year, just until I get that promotion, just until I can afford to buy a home, just until I can fit into those jeans that my dryer keeps shrinking on me. You can probably think of your own "just until" thoughts that run circles in your mind every day. More often than not, our diligence pays off and we do cross that finish line. We do accomplish our goals, at least some of them.
Unfortunately, this routine can be a trap. We’re so used to the grind, that if we do manage to accomplish our goals, we often forego the celebration and just find a new goal or finish line. Our minds instinctively cling to the idea that a challenge, once achieved, will deliver us that sense of ease or peace that we’re aching for. But once we do achieve that goal, it's like we can't taste the victory. Unsatisfied, we move on to the next challenge.
As you may have experienced, this belief that accomplishing goals will result in a sense of peace and happiness doesn’t often play out as imagined. It's our own personal mythology. In a way, we make progress, but in another way, we end up losing so much more than we gain. We lose our sanity, our peace, our mental and physical health.
That's the trade-off. Suffer now, gain later. Dig deep today, enjoy tomorrow. This is a central reason why we perceive mental illness in a different way than we perceive physical illness. The things we do to push us towards a brighter future can easily be the same things that eat away at our internal reserves of energy and resilience. It makes sense to lay off a sprained ankle. Yet, somehow, when it comes to mental and emotional pain, we can feel like it’s better to just push on through.
Further, for some of us, the way we perceive emotional pain and mental suffering is that we just don’t acknowledge it at all. This strategy, conscious or not, is to push it down. It’s the old 'stuff it' technique. When our feelings are denied, ignored, or somehow rationalized away, we can make it through another day. Acknowledging it would then mean we are weak, or a whiner, or about to have a major freak out. Complain too much, and there’s a risk you may be a burden on others... which to some of us is the worst thing imaginable.
Our repression game is strong. That vomit-inducing anxiety? Must be a stomach bug. That constant distracted fogginess? I’m just tired. That sadness hollowing out your gut? Ugh, never mind that, let me just go back to scrolling. We know it’s there. It's real and it’s bothersome. We just don't know what to do about it, so pretending it’s not real seems like a solid way to go.
Due to this tendency to repress, we can easily find ourselves weighed down by symptoms of mental illness without being able to put words to the feelings. It’s amazing how hard it sometimes is to explain to someone else the shape and feel of this thing we suffer through each day. It’s like having a beloved pet with no name. Just think how hard it would be to baby talk your new puppy if you couldn’t say their name with added, nonsensical syllables as you’re loving up on them. How can you get across to the puppy how you feel about it without the baby talk?
This is why, for many, just getting a diagnosis or name for their problem is such a relief in itself. You may know deep down that you are depressed or anxious but explaining it out loud is mystifyingly hard. When a clinician offers you an official diagnosis or technical term for the problem, you feel such relief. There’s relief in knowing that it has a name, that it’s real.
Mental illness often starts small and grows into something big. When it’s big, it’s also bewildering. Let's breakdown the timeline of its cancerous growth.
Some mental illnesses, ADHD for example, seem to strike at an early age without the help of life stressors. They can feel more genetic in nature. In these cases, there often was no classic life stressor or trauma. However, some environmental factors could help bring it to the surface – things like nutrient deficiencies, altered gut bacteria, and environmental toxins. Other mental illness seems to be clearly related to a past trauma, or life stressor, or environmental toxicity. This is the nature versus nurture debate.
Either way, it’s important for us to start thinking about the environment we live in. We’re surrounded by toxins, both physical and psychological. We can ask ourselves, “Is it me that’s disordered or is it my environment?” In fact, this is how researchers are beginning to frame their understanding of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Some in the field are trying to turn our attention away from the individual experiencing the PTSD symptoms and more towards the environment that pushed the individual to the point of experiencing PTSD symptoms.
Beyond the collection of environmental toxins, which we will cover later on in this book, there are those situational stressors that we intuitively know are bad for us. These are the abuses, hurts, disappointments, conflicts, and struggles that mentally weigh on us. Here's a quick rundown of how these psychological stressors may get us. Some situation or interaction occurs and we get hurt. Whatever it is, it’s powerful enough to gain access to our daily thoughts, and it won’t leave. It's sticky. We’re left feeling unsettled. This hurt playing on repeat in our mind is fertile ground for fear, anger, and sadness to flourish.
Without resolution to the situation, these uncomfortable feelings begin to grow. These hurts then color our future experiences with a certain shade of fear, anger, sadness, and self-doubt. A common storyline then emerges in our minds. Every experience seems to fit neatly into this exact storyline. The stories that follow sound like, “oh here I go again... why is this always happening to me... I’m so dumb... everyone hates me...” For some, these internal reflections can sound even worse. What began as hurt morphs into conscious thoughts and beliefs.
Once our thoughts join the party, things can go downhill quickly. Our feelings of anger, sadness, and hurt are often born irrational. These feelings also tend to be strong, and so have a way of making our thoughts continue on with the irrational. We go with those thoughts and believe them with 100% certainty. We slide down this slippery slope because our feelings are so powerful.
So here we are, stressing out, not thinking straight, maybe a touch delusional from all the intense fear, anger, and sadness. The stressed-out thoughts are constantly playing in the background, as it wears on our mind and our body. It saps our energy and steals our joy in life. The mental pain and suffering metastasize in our mind and spreads to our bodies. After a period of time living this way, we’re so beaten down by negative thoughts that we, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, stop taking good care of ourselves. This lack of self-care can recycle all that stress and hurt in our bodies and shoot it back up to our brains.
If you are feeling down, constantly worried, or lacking energy, could it be that you are mindlessly digging away in a cave full of carbon monoxide? Could it also be that you’ve ingested so much environmental toxicity that your brain is reeling? For many of us, the answer is both/and.
Your brain needs to be healthy and functioning at its best to be your partner in combatting negative thinking. Keeping fears in check and remaining clear-headed overall requires a brain that is not weighed down by all the toxicity described above. As we will see in the following chapters, breakdowns in brain functions can contribute to disturbed moods, anxiety, and all other forms of mental and emotional pain and suffering. A healthy, functional, well-fed brain cannot stop these feelings altogether. Rather, a healthy, functional, well-fed brain offers you the strength to mount a good defense against these dark feelings from taking over.
Mental illness symptoms are the canaries in the coal mine. We can learn to heed their warning. To stay mentally and emotionally healthy (as best we can), we need to feed our brains the nutrients that strengthen it, and protect it from the flood of environmental toxins that weaken it. We then have to do our part to put negative thoughts in check on a daily basis.
Like your ankle, your brain can send you warning signals. It can try to alert you in an effort to prevent you from reaching the brink. In this way, pain and suffering may be of use to us.
First, your brain may scream out to you with thoughts like, “I’m overwhelmed! I need a break! Don’t keep using and abusing me like this!” When it comes to sprained ankles we typically listen. When it comes to our brains and mental health, we’re more likely to ignore the cries for help. If you ignore those initial warning signals, then your brain may up the ante in order to protect you from yourself.
What happens at that point where you can no longer stuff it and push through? A dense fog rolls in. Instead of isolated dark moments, the suffering may feel more constant. Your brain may be saying, "You didn't listen...but I won't be ignored, so take a seat." Ironically, this fog may be rolling in just in time to save you.
To be clear, the argument here is not that mental illness is good for us, or even our fault. Rather, it’s just that life is hard. Our modern-day environment makes it that much harder. Defending our mental wellness against an onslaught of psychological and physical toxins in the environment can be an uphill battle. It’s not so easy to avoid smog, junk food, screen time, interpersonal conflict, images of perfect people with perfect lives doing things perfectly, and the reflections of our own blessed imperfections. Feeling mentally unwell may be the consequences of living in a mentally, emotionally, and physically toxic modern world. Taking action to defend ourselves from all forms of toxicity is our responsibility... as well as our opportunity.
Let’s consider what it would mean if all of this were indeed true...for you. What if your emotions are signals being sent to you from you? What if these signals are trying to let you know that you are physically, nutritionally, mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually not okay? As an example, if you are anemic due to not having enough iron, then you’re very likely to be exhausted (and possibly depressed or anxious). The exhaustion is a symptom. It is also our signal to go out there and get more iron. Perhaps it works the same way for our mental and emotional distress.
What if sadness, isolation, panic, excessive worrying, and worse, are all just signals from the brain that we are not well? What if it is something in our food or environment that is messing around with our chemistry and causing us to react in certain ways? What if it’s something related to our relationships, or our self-image that is producing our distress? What if ignoring these signals just makes it worse? What if it’s screaming out, trying to get us to stop and pay closer attention to what's going on in our environment or in our thoughts? What if our brains are trying to warn us so that we can start making some changes?
Who or what is to blame is not the most important piece. What’s more important is that we get better only when we see things clearly. We need to foster an awareness of what’s happening. Putting in effort to try and connect the dots is more likely to lead us to the solution. Once we know the “why”, the “how” comes naturally.
Many of us, no doubt me included, at times choose not to listen. We like to dig deep, cut corners (in relation to our own well-being). We put our heads down and keep slogging forward. Some of us may not have a choice. With ever-present responsibilities & pressures, it can be a requirement, not a choice, to push on through. But, it’s a lot harder to see the “why” when our heads are down.
Ever heard the expressions, “a thorn in my side," or "I feel like my head is in a vice"? The sentiment behind these analogies is that something external is causing pain for a person, but the source of that pain is not readily apparent. Imagine if you could not see the thorn or had no idea your head was lodged in a vice. The pain would be baffling. You’d feel it without any idea where it is coming from.
Unfortunately, this is a common scenario for people experiencing the pain of mental illness. The suffering is deafening and constant. The cause is somewhat of a mystery. Like the vice, it may be clearly visible to others, but we just can't see it. Either way, when we’re hit with mental illness symptoms, finding the solution is never easy or quick. Once we glance down and spot the thorn in our side, or grab a hand mirror and get a good look at the vice book-ending our head, life, along with our perspective, immediately changes. Suddenly, we get a brand-new opportunity to fix the issue.
So how do we spot the problem? We have to listen to our thoughts and feelings, as well as our own body! When we become more fully aware of our own canaries and what they are trying to tell us, we’re given the opportunity to change our environment and our thinking for the better. Taking this first step to address the problem can usher in relief and allow you to recover.
But how do we take that first step exactly? Where do we begin? There are some obvious, common life stressors that can push us toward this state of overwhelm...financial pressures, relationship conflicts, a crappy boss. All clearly toxic, none easily addressed. Aside from the obvious ones, there are various life stressors that are unique to each of us. They belong to us, and may only be known by us. Not living up to the expectations we set for ourselves is a big one, as are issues with our identity and self-image. Many people struggle with unresolved past traumas. Our own personal reasons for our negative self-assessments will be specific to each of us, but this is the early work that needs doing. It’s the investigative phase.
Eating Candy for Dinner
Harboring negativity is a universal feature of being human. Always has been. Now more than ever, there is a lot in the environment that can give us feedback on how we are not measuring up against our own idealized self-concept. That is a lot of opportunity to feel bad. Modern-day life, with its uber-competitive social media-sphere, is our own high-tech version of the dusty, carbon monoxide-filled coal mine. Remember, carbon monoxide is odorless. The invasion occurs without warning. The harm infiltrates without our awareness. All we know is that suddenly we don’t feel well.
Modern-day life has brought us many creature comforts. It also facilitated ingenuity, communication, and worldwide problem-solving. However, modern-day life is in many ways an enemy of mental health. There is a lot of added pressure these days - on top of the already difficult task of just being human. We are under constant threat of memes, mirrors, and measuring tapes. There seems to be added pressure in just standing and presenting yourself in front of others. How's my hair line? How's my waistline? How much do these shoes reflect how much money I make? How can I get through today without letting on that I'm kinda messy inside? How can I say what I want to say without coming off as offensive?
Beyond the seemingly crushing social challenges of modern-day life, there is a collection of common environmental toxins (courtesy of modern-day life) that are everywhere and really harmful to our bodies and brains. These toxins are familiar, but their effects on our mental health are not commonly known or understood. Examples include processed foods that are exceptionally calorie-dense yet woefully nutrient deficient, absence of natural sunlight during our 9 to 5, spine altering body positioning (in cars, desks, couches), a barrage of assaults to quality sleep (light, electronics, entertainment, late night meals, all sorts of addiction), and relationships that are both hyperconnected & disconnected at the very same time. All of the above are perpetrated by modern-day life.
My hope for this book is to help bring awareness of the downsides of our convenient and comfortable, yet toxic modern-day lives. I want to shine a light on these insidious and pervasive environmental factors that impair our brains and irritate our minds. Currently, they are hiding in plain sight, but wreaking havoc on our insides. Like miners in a cloud of carbon monoxide, we aren’t readily aware of the toxicity of these environmental factors. Yet, we are surrounded by them. With greater awareness, we can gain some distance from toxicity and hopefully feel better – or at least more at peace.
The Mental Wellness Diet (TMWD) was put together with research from various fields, including mental health research, nutritional science, and even some anthropology. The overarching principles are simple. We evolved on a certain kind of planet (green landscapes, clean air and water, only unprocessed whole foods, tight knit tribal communities, etc.), but we now find ourselves in a very different place with new and nearly invisible stressors. At the same time, the nutrients that helped our brains grow into supercomputers, are now generally missing in our typical Western diet. We cannot go back to living as hunters and gatherers. If somehow, we could readopt those positive and healing environmental factors, we might be able to recapture our mental wellness.
By taking advantage of the research we do have, we can use common sense and start making small tweaks here and there to improve our mental health. TMWD is about taking the best from the old and finding a way to make it fit in amongst the new. In opposition to the toxic environmental factors that promote mental illness, there is a collection of environmental factors that support and help optimize our mental health. These environmental factors are things like sunlight, sleep, nutrient dense food, movement, and connection with others. These mental health promoting inputs are still available to us in modern-day life, if we make space for them.
A major theme in this book is awareness. It’s the idea that we can pick out these environmental factors, both positive and negative, by looking back to traditional practices of our ancestors. This theme of awareness shapes the guidance provided in the rest of the book. To be sure, scientific research is included in the text to verify that these recommendations are indeed restorative for our bodies and brains.
Once we gain a better grasp on what is good for us and what is clearly not, our next challenge is to put these behaviors and choices into daily practice so we can feel and function better. We also must pick out the pressures to be something other than what we naturally, inherently, simply are. The pressure to be some version of ourself, the version that we are supposed to be, is toxic. It pushes in the opposite direction of mental wellness. Consider for a moment who you might feel that you are supposed to be in this modern-day life. We need to decide to unburden ourselves of this pressure and step into being who we genuinely are on the inside. Truthfully, it’s scary, but a lot more fun.
The theory is that improving our relationship with our environment will help reduce the intensity of our mental illness symptoms overall. This includes setting better boundaries with environmental toxins and investing more quality time with those parts of the environment that do good things for us – exercise, sleep, sunlight, good food, play, supportive and accepting social connections. Hopefully, for future generations, we can incorporate these practices in our efforts not just to reduce mental illness symptoms, but effectively prevent them. By going back to the basics, and learning about what kind of environment in which we evolved, we can find a path toward greater mental wellness.