In the last 100 years there have been dramatic changes in how we grow food and what we eat. These changes have fundamentally altered the planet’s landscape as we have blanketed much of our agricultural lands with monocultures of just a few varieties of crops. And what we are finding is that much of the food that we eat has far less phytonutrients than it did in our ancestor’s time. For example, ancient potatoes from South America have 28 more anti-inflammatory anthocyanins than the modern Russet. Some traditional apples have 100 more phytonutrients than the modern Golden Delicious. Those lack of nutrients and protective phytochemicals are not only leading to increased rates of physical illness, they are also leading us to an epidemic of anxiety and depression.
In the last 20 years, rates of mental illness disability have soared. From 1987 to 2007, the rate for adults has soared 250 percent. And for children the increase is even more shocking as their disability rate has climbed 35 times in that same time period. Between 1994 and 2003, children treated for bipolar rose 40 fold.
What is causing this massive rise in mental illness? There are likely a number of factors, including increased diagnosis and increased stress from a modern lifestyle; but dietary factors must also be taken into account. Increasingly scientists are noticing a relationship between digestive health and mental health. Dysbiosis, or a poor balance of intestinal bacteria in the gut “microbiome”, is now being implicated in mental health disorders.
Recent scientific studies in which adult mice were fed antibiotics that disrupted the microbiome led the mice to be more cautious and anxious. When the antibiotics were stopped, the mice acted normally again. In another study done by neuroscientist John Cryan, mice were fed a broth infused with a common bacterium Lactobacillus rhamnosus and found that the mice started to appear “more chilled out and relaxed.”
it is increasingly clear that some of our modern foods that lack proper phytonutrients are also damaging good bacterial balance and leading to mood problems. Essentially, modern agriculture has weeded out essential nutrients that our ancestors ate in abundance when they consumed wild food and game, and we are paying the price with our physical and mental health.
Reembracing the Wild
Not only has our modern food system weeded and processed out needed phytonutrients, it has also eliminated many of the important flavors that were part of our ancestor’s diet. Most traditional whole foods retain a palate of flavors that include bitter, astringent, sour and pungent. But outside of a few exceptions, we have tried to breed crops that accentuate a sweeter flavor while reducing strong tastes. But those flavors are deeply important to our physical and mental health as they influence our metabolism and the functioning of our organs. Bitter flavors often strengthen liver function as they promote bile production. Astringent flavors help tone internal organ tissue and dry excessive secretions. Pungent flavors help stimulate circulation and remove phlegm.
In our rush to produce the tastiest crops, we have stripped our foods of their traditional medicinal value and their important flavors. We also have stopped foraging for highly nutritious weeds to supplement our diet.
6 ways to Rewild
It is becoming increasingly clear that we cannot just medicate or think our way out of much of the distress we are experiencing in the modern world. Its key to embrace ways of living of our ancestors that integrated wild foods, medicinal plants and crops that retain their flavors and nutritional value. Here are some ways how:
1- Eat dandelion leaves. Yes they grow everywhere and they are tremendously nutritious. Their bitter taste is key to their healing power. Bitter flavors often improve hepatic metabolism and help you to digest food better. They have high levels of vitamin A, K, potassium, calcium, iron and magnesium, high levels of antioxidants and help to fight cancer. Stop mowing them down and allow them to take over patches of your backyard. The best time to pick them is in the early Spring. Introduce them into salads and smoothies, but make sure you aren’t using any chemical pesticides or weedkiller in your backyard that will end up on the leaves.
2- Gather Nettles. Yes the stinging nettle is one of the most nutritious wild foods out there. Gather them in the Spring (Here’s how) or purchase them from good herbal companies (like here.) They contain a powerhouse of vitamins A, B, C, E and K, as well as a high amount of iron, magnesium and copper. They are high in proteins and chlorophyl and will make you feel bright and zingy if you drink a couple cups of nettle tea every day.
3- Buy pasture raised meat. Pasture raised meat is meat from animals that have been raised in open ranges and primarily eat natural grasses and feed rather than the processed antibiotic laden corn feed commonly given to industrially raised animals. These animals have high levels of anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fats and have a much higher level of nutrients.
4- Hunt. Yes hunt. I know that this is not likely for many people, but if you want to get the best meat available, meat from animals thathave primarily grazed on wild plants is the most nutritious meat available. The industrially raised animals we consume these days are high in inflammatory omega 6 fats that are making us sicker and crazier. If you don’t want to do it, make friends with someone who hunts.
5- Add plenty of fresh herbs to your meals. This one is easy. Grow a pot of Mediterranean herbs outside your back door such asthyme, parsley, oregano and chives. Throw these nutritionally dense herbs into your cook pot at every meal. You will add great nutritional value while also helping your body to digest more properly, reduce intestinal inflammation and improve gut biota balance.
6- Add Seaweeds- Yes seaweed. Its wild, abundant and one of the most important ways we can nourish ourselves with wild foods. Japanese people have long known the importance of seaweed but Westerners are still learning about the benefits. Seaweed is densely nutritious with high amounts of protein, fiber, vitamins A and B-12 along with a lot of trace minerals. Nori snacks are a good gateway seaweed.
In our desire for greater mental health, we have focused strongly on altering neurotransmitters or focusing on mental techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy. But perhaps we have missed one of the main underlying factors for why we are feeling increasingly anxious and depressed. And that has much to do with our modern diet. Researchers are increasingly seeing that a diet of processed and refined foods is leading to severe digestive problems that impact our mental health. We are now seeing the importance of eating a diet strong in traditional foods as a way of not only healing us physically, but emotionally as well. Eating wild and nutrient dense food is one way to reconnect to our wild roots and our wild heart.
You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health