PTSD Awareness Month: Why Diet and Nutrition Really Matter

Medication and therapy can be extremely beneficial, but have you ever considered nutrition and exercise as an important part of your healing too?

Post-traumatic stress (PTS) can develop after someone has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. It is the body’s normal reaction to extremely abnormal events. However, it can be debilitating with symptoms such as flashbacks, intense fear, stress, and nightmares. Important to note is that these symptoms can negatively impact one’s appetite and the connection to their body’s internal signals around nourishment.

Some people with PTS find themselves never feeling hungry, almost numb with a lack of interest in food. Others may use food as a coping skill, unable to able to feel their bodies “fullness” cue. Over time, these erratic eating patterns can be harmful to a person’s PTS treatment, and ultimately their overall physical and mental health.

Traditional treatments for PTS, including medication and therapy, are extremely beneficial for treating PTSD. Other methods such as nutrition and exercise are occasionally overlooked. Eating is something that we do every day, several times per day, and making small changes to these behaviors can lay the foundation for a long-lasting impact on mental health.

The Impact of Nutrition on Mental Health

Food fuels our body and our mind, and our food choices can directly impact how we feel. Without the proper balance of nutrition, our physical and mental state can diminish. PTS involves oxidative stress and brain chemical abnormalities, which can be improved through good nutrition.

A study published in 2017, in Australia, looked at the association between fruit and vegetable consumption and psychological distress in adults over the age of 45 years old. The study concluded that increased fruit and vegetable consumption, due to the high levels of phytonutrients and antioxidants, helped to reduce psychological distress in this middle-aged population.

The Power of Carbohydrates (Glucose)

Has anyone heard the saying, “Glucose is the ultimate brain fuel?”

Carbohydrates (glucose) are found in foods such as starchy vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy, and more! From birth, our brains are designed and programmed to function off glucose. The brain requires glucose to allow us to make rational decisions, regulate mood, and manage our emotions. When the brain and body do not get enough fuel (glucose in particular), symptoms of PTS like anxiety may worsen. One may also be more likely to make poor impulsive decisions.

Maintaining stable glucose levels is only one part of managing and treating PTS symptoms. Everyone has individual nutrition requirements. Generally speaking, we recommend aiming for 3 meals day and 1-2 snacks per day with a wide variety of nutrients and consistent carbohydrate intake in the mix to help promote overall nutritional balance and stable blood sugars.

Brain & Gut Connection

The brain-gut connection is another important piece to consider. When the gut doesn’t feel good, the brain usually doesn’t feel good. The gut microflora helps our body to breakdown food and sustain normal bowel function. Consuming foods that will promote good gut microflora health, like Greek yogurt, Kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, whole grains, and colorful fruits and vegetables, can help maintain the gut’s integrity and keep the body and mind feeling positive and comfortable.

Omega-3 Fatty acids are another key factor. Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are found in fatty fish such as salmon and herring.  Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for the maintenance of brain health and for the prevention of cognitive dysfunction. Getting in 2 servings of Omega-3 Fatty acids per week (EPA & DHA in particular) can help preserve the maintenance and function of the brain, in addition to cognition. Get in that seafood!

Takeaways

It’s important to not overlook nutrition as an important part of healing. Overall, proper nutrition directly impacts both physical and mental health. “We are what we eat,” and feeling strong and healthy means putting a balance of nutrient-dense foods into our system.

In addition to traditional treatments for PTS, improved nutrition can be extremely beneficial. Eating times provide an opportunity every day, several times per day, to support our health. Small changes to these behaviors can lay the foundation for a long-lasting impact on mental health. This can allow people suffering from PTS to get the most out of their therapy sessions or benefit most from their medications.

If you have questions about the nutritional impact on PTS, please reach out to a Registered Dietitian at Home Base!

At Home Base we integrate nutrition within the Intensive Clinical Program through individual nutrition consults, cooking demos, and also nutrition groups. Our two-week intensive program is designed to treat Veterans and Families who are struggling with the invisible wounds of war, including post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries, military sexual trauma, depression, anxiety, and co-occurring substance use disorders.


About the Author: Emilie Burgess, MS, RDN, LDN s a Registered Dietitian within Home Base’s Warrior Health and Fitness Program and Intensive Clinical Program. Emilie brings her love for performance nutrition, wellness, and cooking to Home Base to help each person find a healthy relationship with food. She has volunteered for two NCAA Division-I Sports Nutrition programs around the country and is currently a Registered Dietitian specializing in sports nutrition and eating disorders at Laura Moretti Nutrition, a private practice in Somerville, MA. She believes in an individualized approach to nutrition counseling and wellness to help each person achieve their goals. Emilie is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as well as the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA).