In my own recovery from depression and anxiety, I have largely relied on good old Lithium and dedicating myself to my work and spiritual practice. This is not to say that that is the route to recovery for us all. Far from it.
There are people that just won’t take psychiatric medication because they don’t like the feeling of dependency. There are people for whom it doesn’t work. There are people who want to transition from it to natural substitutes. And there are people who believe in treating an illness like depression or anxiety in a holistic, mind-body-soul way.
Whichever description fits you, I’m excited to share with you some learnings from a conversation with friend and self taught food-therapist, Pavitra Nanthan.
Let’s cut to the chase here, is food therapy real?
In a word, yes. There is considerable research to establish the connection between the gut and the brain. Think about when you’re about to get on stage to deliver a speech, the performance anxiety you’re facing makes your stomach queasy.
So you could take an anti-anxiety medication that would calm your mind down. Could you also drink a calming tea that could soothe your tummy, and would that relax your mind? The science says yes.
But can food supplements be a substitute for psychiatric medication?
For a person willing to make their body their temple and adjust their lifestyle to the feedback their body is giving them, changing what they eat is absolutely essential to recovery from chronic illness, depression, anxiety and feeling revitalized.
Having said that, it’s not enough to go on an intense detox for 1.5 months and then ride that “borrowed immunity” in an urban setup – your body will slide again and attempting to recover from a serious illness in that environment without pharmaceutical medication will be slow, and tough.
So, for folks on a maintenance dose, i.e. for people that have stabilized on their psychiatric medication, or for people dealing with low grade depression and anxiety, food supplements and mindful eating can go a long way in helping you maintain your progress or manage your illness. But given the extent of enmeshment with stressed out urban life, we cannot say with confidence that it works as a full substitute for psychiatric medication.
What do we mean by listening to the body and making lifestyle changes accordingly?
Well, my friend here had done enough introspection to know that she felt less depressed when she was in nature, and ideally working with the soil, being physically active. Ayurveda felt too structured, pharmaceutical medication was clearly a band-aid solution, neither of them seemed to be treating the cause. So she went on a journey to Sehatvan, an action research space for forest therapy, purely to heal her body.
That was a life-changing experience where she discovered “what the body is capable of doing when you do nothing to it.” Autophagy or self-devouring is a natural response of the body to fasting (such as a 6 day water fast) where deprived of external nutrients, the body begins to feed on toxins built up inside.
She says it’s after this fast that she first felt free of depression in years.
Context in place, let’s talk about nutmeg, cinnamon and turmeric/curcumin.
- Ever heard of poshto? The legendary Bengali dish guarantees a heavy head and good sleep due to the properties of poppy seeds, a natural drug used in ancient India to help people rest and recover. I’m told nutmeg has the same properties and when consumed in tea, increases dopamine levels in the body and gives us a mood boost. Imbalanced flora in the gut is implicated in depression and nutmeg soothes that wonderfully, she says.
- Cinnamon tea has an especially calming effect on Pavitra – at the same time she cautions that every body is different and the key here is to cultivate enough self-awareness to know what our body needs when.
- Turmeric or haldi is a favourite in Indian kitchens, and I’ll always chuckle at Kanan Gill’s bit on how we collectively attribute mysterious, yet total healing powers to it. Pavitra tells me that it does in fact have anti-inflammatory properties, keeping the gut alkaline, which is a good offset for all the acidic processed food we tend to consume, especially during social isolation. Please note that turmeric needs a carrier to be digested – so if you’re off milk, try mixing it with jaggery, or boil water and drink it with some pepper; otherwise you can just mix it in some ghee.
In closing, I am far from an expert on food therapy, but this conversation has shown me that there’s lots to learn here about healthy, sustainable ways to feel better, to feel good.
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