How to Eat for Better Mental Health with Mary Sheila Gonnella

mental health

Did you realize that it’s possible to eat for better mental health?

At all the times, but especially during the pandemic, a lot of us are feeling anxious or depressed. And there’s so many things we can do to support our mental health that aren’t your typical take meds or even see a therapist. Although of course those can be great things to do, they aren’t the only tools we have. And one of those tools that most people don’t consider to be related to mental health is food.

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So I’m interviewing my go-to nutrition expert, Mary Sheila Gonnella, aka the Queen of All Things Nutrition. Mary Sheila is the owner of Occidental Nutrition in Occidental, California, and not only does she know her stuff, but her food is so delicious. Every time I get one of her newsletters I make the recipe she suggests and it makes my tastebuds and my being so, so happy.

Mary Sheila it’s great to have you on, as ever. Thanks for being here today. How does what we eat affect our mood and mental health?

Yeah, well, honestly, one of the things I love to say about food is that food is information. And it is information that is going to interact with our biochemistry, once it goes in. You can take that all the way from the macros of our proteins, carbs and fats, and then all the way to our micronutrients, which is all the vitamins and minerals and polyphenols. All those sort of big, long words that we’ve been seeing more that we know we get from food that are sometimes in supplement form. They’re the little tiny things that can pack a big punch when it comes to the foods that we’re eating.

For example, if let’s say I eat something that’s got a bunch of sugar. And we know that sugar can create inflammation in the body. Now we could hear the fact that, Oh, that causes inflammation. But what does that really mean? How is that interacting in our body? Well, inflammation, if it’s there, it’s going to circulate throughout the whole body. And you know, most of the food that we eat goes into the digestive tract and then once it’s absorbed and assimilated, it travels through our bloodstream. And our bloodstream goes everywhere.

One of the places it does go is into the brain. Beause of course the brain needs the nourishment from the food we’re eating and the oxygen from our respiration and our red blood cells. So that inflammation could go into the brain and inflammation in the brain is also a big contributor to depression and or anxiety. So that sugar is going to set off a cascade that could affect our mental health in an inflammatory/depressive anxious way. Or stressful way to the body.

Where the same thing is if I eat something that has a lot of maybe polyphenols and different things that are very protective to the plant in its whole food form. Those little micro nutrients are going to interact with our microbiome in the gut and with some of our other parts of the body. And those might have a positive effect.

So absolutely what we eat, how we eat, when we eat impacts our brain. Like it’s kind of the whole picture, is going to interact with our mental health in a really big way. Because of the fact that it’s going to circulate throughout the entire body.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s hearing you talk about eating sugar inflaming the brain, and the link between that and anxiety and depression and thinking, uh oh. Because it’s something that we reach for. You know, I think about my mom, bless her heart. She called me and she was like, “Honey, I bought two pints of Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy because they were on sale. Will you please come pick one of these up?”

Wait, is it really called chocolate therapy?

It’s really called chocolate therapy. Which just kind of goes to show you there’s this link like on the individual level, but also in the culture of, if you’re sad, make yourself happy. Have a cookie, have a brownie, what have you. And that can actually be just perpetuating and continuing the very problem that you’re seeking to solve.
And also you were talking about the microbiome. How, you know, the chemicals and the fiber and the polyphenols and whatnot can support the bacterial population in our gut. And I learned recently that those little friendly gut bugs  are making our neurotransmitters. They’re making our serotonin, right? Is that true?

Yes. So it is true. And the health of the microbiome will determine  our ability to make those things. So one of the things that I do in my practice when I work with people, is I do something called amino acid therapy. And that is basically using amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins, to actually support. They’re like the building blocks of our neurotransmitters. So you can take them to help create healthy levels of neurotransmitters, which will help us to feel good.

So we’ve got our inhibitory nerve neurotransmitters, which is serotonin and GABA. Which help us to calm, relax, feel just more at ease, satisfied. Even just self-esteem is a word I like to use with that. And then we have our neurotransmitters that are a little more excitatory. They can help to give us energy and focus. And so serotonin, right, is we think of it as making in the brain. We actually make 99% of it in the gut. And 1% in the brain. Which is kind of mind blowing. And yes, a healthy microbiome, a healthy gut, is really going to determine the levels that we have in the body. Which is kind of an amazing way to think about that.

Right. It is. And it’s cool to think that if we give ourselves the things that we and our bacterial population need, then we can have the neurotransmitters that we need. Then our mental health is in a better place. And then we aren’t necessarily going to feel like we need the sugar, which… it’s either a downward spiral or an upward spiral. I think that this is really cool and really exciting.
So I would love to start to make it practical. So when you’re noticing that either you or your clients are reporting feeling anxious or stressed or depressed, what kinds of foods do you tell them to eat? Or what do you prepare for yourself? And, you know, you mentioned that it’s not just what you eat, but it’s also when you eat. So feel free to add all those details in too.

Yeah. So, you know, one of the things that can happen when we are stressed, and it is prolonged.  Like the beginning of a stressful event might raise our blood pressure because we are kind of in that fight or flight stage. But if it becomes chronic, which, you know, hello, it’s feeling chronic at this point for most of us. The signaling is not working as well. We become a little more resistant to some of the chemicals that will raise our blood pressure. And when we become resistant, that means we’re going to start urinating out more minerals instead of holding on to things.

So chronic long-term stress oftentimes will affect the adrenal glands and will make people have low blood pressure. And feel a little more tired, and feel more dehydrated. Feel like water goes right through them and crave salt. So there’s this idea that, okay, I’m not eating sugar, or, Oh, I don’t really crave sugar. But maybe you’re eating chips and crackers and things like that are still going to turn into sugar instantly in the body. But they’re just coming in a salty form. There is a true need for healthy salts. What we also want to include with those salts is we want to keep our salt intake when we are eating something kind of salty, low carb.

Some really wonderful snacks and foods that are going to support and kind of boost blood pressure and blood flow and get things kind of moving is going to be things like maybe olives. And you know, maybe even seaweed, if you like seaweed. Or broth, or miso, or nuts and seeds. In the afternoon is sort of when our defenses become low. We start craving either the cookies we “bought for the kids” or the chips. Or whatever’s  in the fridge, in the cupboard. What if we took out a little plate and through, you know, three to five, olives and handful of nuts and seeds. Maybe even some little ferments, like some pickles to really directly feed the microbiome. And maybe some other kind of proteins like smoked salmon or whatever, or some other vegetables.

You can have this savory little snack that is not only going to be filling and nourishing because it’s not just a bunch of carbs, but there’s fats and proteins and fiber. But that salt content it’s going to kind of help boost the energy in the body, because we’re going to be getting electrolytes. And electrolytes are what we will lose a lot of if we’re urinating a little bit more. But they’re also like the spark plug of all of our ends of enzymatic and chemical reactions in the body. So they really assist us in energy production.

So we might feel a little more energized after a snack like that than we would, if we had that bag of chips or that those few cookies. So I just love kind of thinking savory, maybe salty too, right. And proteins and fats to be included there.

Fantastic. That sounds like a really yummy afternoon snack. I can’t wait to try it this afternoon. I have some olives that I bought that actually have a little bit of, um, maybe like provolone, some kind of a salty cheese inside there.
So I’m going to try those this afternoon. So that’s great for, that’s not anything you need to put together, right? You don’t have to cook it. You just have to have the things on hand. So you have to have the nuts, the olives, maybe some red pepper strips. My kids love that roasted seaweed and it’s actually quite tasty. If you haven’t tried it, give it a go. It’s so full of micronutrients. It’s like a wonderful thing to have on hand, especially when you are craving something kind of salty and a little bit crunchy.
I always love your recipes. Like you get me in the kitchen and I’m making something that I haven’t made before. And I’m always delighted with how tasty it is. Do you have like a really simple recipe you could share with us? That we can maybe think of it as our like happy food?

So if I want to keep it really simple and let you tap into your own recipe repertoire right? Rather than you have to make something of mine. I bet we all have like a stew kind of comfort food. That is something that we can whip out. Right?

So if you’re a vegetarian, maybe you make a mean chili. Or some kind of bean dish, or maybe even like a tempeh kind of something, right? That’s just wet, and savory, and delicious. If you are more of an omnivore, maybe you’ve got like a beautiful beef stew. Or a chicken stew where the meat, the protein is braised. It just means it’s kind of falling off the bone and the flavor is all melded together. It’s the kind of thing where it’s even better the next day. Because everything just merges together. And it maybe just feels so comforting, and so nourishing.

That is really what I would say is probably the best. Like, if you can make the best kind of healthiest comfort food recipe that you know of, that you have. Maybe it was passed down through your generations. That to me is the best way to nourish. Because the thing is,  you’re nourishing on an emotional level. Like maybe it did get passed down from a family member or a friend. And you’re like, Oh, I have memories of eating this with them here or there. Or when I was little, we used to eat it with these little, whatever, you know. Whatever was like the little side with it. And you can do that too.

So it’s going to feed you emotionally, which is so important, right? Because that’s a part of our connection to food. Sometimes that emotional connection to food can be not a great one and not a healthy one. And sometimes it can be a really loving nourishing one. But it’s also going to give you that really substantial protein that is going to just really help settle you and ground you. And that is what protein does.

So kind of taking it full circle and talking about the neurotransmitters is literally when you eat protein. So here’s just one way to imagine it. When you eat protein, imagine protein, amino acids, which is what protein is made up of, it’s like a pearl necklace. And what we’re going to do to that pearl necklace during digestion is we’re going to break it down to single individual pearls. Once they’re single individual pearls, they’re going to leave the digestive tract and they’re going to go to the liver. Your liver is your factory. That factory is going to then take each amino acid individually and bring them back together in new formations that are us.

And one of the formations that they’re going to create are our neurotransmitters. And those neurotransmitters then are going to once they’re made. So let’s say, they say, I’m making the serotonin, I’m making the GABA, I’m making endorphins, I’m making, you know, catecholamines. Whatever they’re making, they’re going to then say, okay, great, we’ve got one main. Now we’re going to put it on the assembly line and send it back through the bloodstream. It’s going to travel to the bloodstream. It’s going to be able to cross the blood-brain barrier. And guess what? It’s going to help us to feel better.

So we have to have those building blocks. So I just want to say, like, instead of giving a specific recipe that maybe is complicated, like pull out your comfort stew and just do it.

Amen. All right. I’m making red lentil soup for dinner tonight, then. Thank you for the inspiration So for folks who want to know more or want to connect with you, where can they find you?

I am at Occidental Nutrition. That’s my website; Occidental is the little town that I live in in the Northern California Redwood mountains. And I also have a YouTube channel. So you can cook with me. I do a lot of cooking in my kitchen there. So that’s also called Occidental Nutrition. So  those are great ways to find me.

Daily Tiny Assignment

I loved Sheila’s recommendation to first of all, have a nice savory mid-afternoon snack instead of reaching for the cookies or the chips. Which I admit I have been reaching for lately. And to put together yourself a little kind of antipasto plate with and nuts and maybe some red pepper strips. So just take a minute and think about what kinds of stuff could you pull together from your fridge to reach for this afternoon. One that is gonna support your mental health rather than contribute to perhaps a source of mental health dysregulation, like inflammation or not feeding your microbiome.

And as I’ve mentioned, Mary Sheila inspired me to make the red lentil soup that my family has been eating ever since my daughter was a baby and some friends brought it over. It’s one of my favorite recipes. Everybody likes it. I’ve even got some homemade stock in the fridge that’s waiting for me to make some soup. So if you’re interested in getting that recipe, reach out to me, go to Use the Contact Kate form and say, Hey, Kate, send me that red lentil soup recipe. I’m telling you it is so good and super easy too. All right, take care. And I’ll talk to you tomorrow.


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