“Our bodies and minds have so much innate wisdom, our job is to figure out how to honor it and take care of ourselves. Rather than looking at self-care as a luxury, because it’s essential. It’s a mindset and a lifelong journey. And we have the power and the tools to do this,” said Dr. Marni Chanoff, Integrative Psychiatrist.
The mental health crisis preceded the pandemic. And the strain of Covid-living has increased anxiety and depression. It takes a lot of energy to keep kids, careers and partnerships spinning in a positive way. And whether it’s finding doctors or space on the calendar, we tend to avoid dealing with stress. That is, until our bodies rebel.
But what if you can regain energy and peace in meaningful ways at home? Marni is passionate about unlocking the links between our habits, including what we eat, and strong health.
Meds Can Have Unintended Consequences
Marni developed expertise at the intersection of mental health and nutrition. Because she learned that many of the medications available, could harm nutrition and metabolic health. She said, “I worked with severely ill people for many years, which was what drew me to Psychiatry. When I started prescribing medication for acute psychotic disorders, I learned, that many of the most effective medications, can make some people gain up to 50 pounds. It’s a dilemma when you see someone start to get better mentally, as they put on weight, that can take years to take off.”
And Many Can’t Get Access to Healthcare Right Now
Pre-Covid, many people were on long waiting lists for everything from primary care physicians to specialists. And it’s much worse now. Particularly in underserved communities. Marni said, “Navigating the medical system can be awful, even if you have a solid education and good insurance. And so, for people who are struggling with any kind of mental or physical health problems, relying on the medical system as it is right now, can be extremely disillusioning. My hope is that we can help people realize that their health can start in the home. And that we have the power to take charge of our health.”
So, Start to Build Your Mental & Metabolic Health at Home
Marni explained, “If you’re in a depression or anxious state, you can get better. But then it can be very difficult for people to reenter the world if they feel terrible about their body. Even wanting to leave the house can be a real barrier. When people are depressed or anxious, oftentimes they go to food for comfort. Especially when it comes in a delicious salty or sweet package that you can pick up and bring home.” We’re taught to count calories. But some convenience foods can hurt both mental and physical health.
Of course, many people feel overloaded now. And may not have space to reimagine mealtimes. Marni said, “I recognize that making changes in one’s diet or the way they prepare meals for their family is a big deal. But there’s really no way around it. Because the health of the family starts at home. Especially right now with so many difficulties accessing medical and mental health care.”
How do you Build Capacity for Lifestyle Change?
In our study, surveyed parents have been as vocal about the pandemic’s pain as it’s unexpected, treasures. And for many, the increased time at home, has renewed interest in healthier habits. From nutritious meals and family time, to movement and stress management. But mental wellbeing is the meta skill. You need capacity to change your life. And adopting new habits feels harder when we’re stressed out, like in a global pandemic. So, how can someone who is ready to improve mental health, move from intention to action?
Figure Out Where you Are on The Stress Scale
Marni said, “I ask people, where do you think you live on this stress scale? And show how a little bit of stress, is not bad. It can be energizing and stimulating. But it’s when you get overloaded, that you get into trouble. And I will actually show people what’s happening in the body.” Not all stress is the same. Marni said, “We’re very well designed to cope with acute stress, but not chronic stress. Chronic stress can cause all kinds of medical issues. Including inflammation, which we now understand, affects the mind and body.”
Marni added, “So, I start with education. Once you can identify your own stress reactions, then I can teach how to take more control over your nervous system. And bring down your level of stress through meditation and mindfulness, deep breathing, getting better sleep or all of those things.”
Then Learn How to Bring Stress Down in Your Body
Stress causes inflammation and food is another tool to reduce it. Marni admits, few people expect a Psychiatrist to ask them about what they eat. “People come to me and often, they want to talk about medicine. As they should and I want to talk about the medicine, because it can be extraordinarily helpful. As I’m doing the typical evaluation, I also ask, ‘tell me about your typical day and tell me what you typically eat.”
She understands that it’s not realistic for everyone to make changes right now. She said, “Women, because of the roles we often have in our homes, might be in the position to make decisions about food and shopping for their family. But if they are struggling to get their kid on the fourth Zoom call of the day and work, it might not be possible. But I try to be curious and nonjudgmental. And show people that I’m very interested in that part of their life and how important I think it is.”
And Reduce the Inflammation Stress Causes
Inflammation starts in the gut. And changes to how we eat can help create the conditions to decrease it. Marni explained that many common foods, “Highly processed, high in fat, sugar and salt, are pro-inflammatory. Replacing ultra-processed food, with fruits, vegetables and whole grains, can be the most helpful thing to reduce inflammation.” Why is this so important? Marni showed me a diagram of what happens inside the gut.
She said, “Ok so, this is the gut brain axis. And stress, trauma, insomnia, the western diet and antibiotics, which wipe out the natural gut bacteria, can cause less of what we call short chain fatty acid production. Which is a byproduct of the gut bacteria. These molecules kind of act like spackling in the lining of the gut. And if you lose your short chain fatty acid production, you lose your spackling.”
To Protect Yourself and Your Brain
So, without this ‘spackling’ we’re at greater risk for toxins to pass into our blood stream. Marni explained, “The lining of the gut, which is a barrier between what’s in the gastrointestinal system and the rest of the body, becomes more permeable. So, toxins that leak into the bloodstream, release this inflammatory response. And we now understand that it’s a bidirectional relationship. So, toxins can reach the brain. But the brain can influence the gut!” How? She added, “If you’re having a major stress reaction, you might feel clenching and cramping in your gut.” A common complaint of chronic stress.
Which Can Actually Help Change Your Mindset
Marni said, “So, if you don’t have a good ecosystem in your gut, it can lead to inflammation. Which we think can affect your mood, anxiety, and stress response.” Wow. She explained, “What’s fascinating is that first line medication for depression and anxiety, SSRI’s, work to increase the availability of serotonin. And guess where like 90% of serotonin is produced naturally? In your gut.”
And Accelerate Your Wellbeing
The path to improve anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions, can feel slow. Medications, meditation or mindfulness, take at least eight weeks for most people to feel better. Are there any advantages to starting inside of your, body?
Marni said there are promising studies about the link between inflammatory foods and depression. She added “So, it still takes time but if you start cutting out the real pro-inflammatory food, sometimes people just feel better quickly. This is not a cure for severe depression and it’s not a quick fix, but people will hopefully start to feel better.” Amen!
Marni added, “We need to understand that when you go slowly and take the next steps when you’re ready, you can confidently build healthier ways of living.” Brilliant. We have a lot going on and it’s liberating that we can build towards change that lasts.
Share your experiences of how life has changed during social distance, it’s quick and the results from this study will be used to advocate better support for parents.
Employers, let us help you transform your workplace into an environment where caregivers thrive. Learn about Allies @ Work.
Many thanks to the talented Dr. Marni Chanoff!
Follow her great adventure. on her website, Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook. And register for her upcoming webinar Anxious About Re-Entry in a Post-Covid World? on May 12th.
About Dr. Marni Chanoff, MD.
She’s a Harvard-trained psychiatrist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and Mclean Hospital, and practices and teaches Integrative Psychiatry. She completed her residency at Harvard’s MGH/McLean Psychiatry Training Program, receiving the Mel Kayce Award for Excellence in Psychotherapy. She attended the University of Miami School of Medicine, where she graduated with research distinction and was honored as the most distinguished graduate in psychiatry. She completed her Ayurvedic studies at the Kripalu School of Ayurveda. And is certified as a culinary coach by Harvard’s Institute of Lifestyle Medicine.
She completed fellowships at The MGH Center for Psychoanalytic Studies and Harvard University Health Services. Following her training, she joined the clinical faculty at McLean Hospital as Psychiatrist-in-Charge of the Schizophrenia and Bipolar Program. She then served as an Ellenhorn PACT Team Psychiatrist and Chief Medical Officer over several years. And now she is thrilled to be in private practice and consulting.