Sunday, 16 October 2016

"Your Brain on Food"

A blog about chronic illness, chronic pain, disability, and mental health. Please do not ask me if...:
You are what you eat. You know that saying. Your are only as healthy as what you put into your body. We often equate the strong and virtuous of us with the ones making 'healthy choices'. The athletic-looking person in their workout gear drinking a smoothie. Or the mom in the grocery store only buying organic produce and natural foods for her children. We admire this.

Conversely, we see an overweight person with a grocery cart full of processed foods and we judge. We do. I would wager that almost all of us do. Society has a bias about health. Many biases, in fact.

Today is the first day of the Welfare Food Challenge here in Metro Vancouver. I have signed up to live on an $18 food budget for the week of October 16th to the 22nd. As part of this challenge participants cannot accept charity, free food or eat food that is already in their fridge or cupboards. Why $18 and why did I choose to participate? People who live in poverty in British Columbia and receive welfare subsist on a weekly food budget of $18 per person. B.C. is the only province without a poverty reduction plan. We are also the province with the most wealth inequity in Canada; Vancouver is home to the poorest and the richest neighborhoods our country.

The subject of poverty and welfare is a touchy one. Many believe that people on welfare are lazy and should just get a job. Others believe that people on welfare are taking advantage of the system. I am sure that sometimes this is the case. The face of poverty, however, is not what we think it is. Poverty impacts those already most marginalized in our communities: Aboriginal people, people with disabilities and mental health disorders, new immigrants/refugees, and single moms (who are employed) and their children. Yes, it's true - you do not have to be unemployed to live in poverty. It's a tragedy that in a developed nation in 2016 that this is the reality for so many.

This all makes me sad and angry. So I signed up to participate in the challenge. If you want to see change then you need to participate in that change. I spent two weeks considering my grocery list and scouting out spots where I could get the best deals (Dollar Tree and Superstore, for the record). I began my shopping. And I talked about it. I talked about it a lot - with fellow challenge participants, with colleagues, family and on social media. Here's the photo that I took of the food that I had purchased as of the middle of last week, with $5 left in my budget.

The photo is in black and white for a reason: the diet lacks colour. What it has in abundance are carbohydrates, sodium (!) and refined sugar. When I had to decide between eating healthy for a week (whole foods) and feeling full, I chose feeling full. But this photo caused me to pause. It also raised a red flag for some people close to me. 

Two people asked me, based on my continuing challenges with depression and anxiety, if it is wise for me to be participating in this challenge. Um, good point. I was getting caught up in advocating for an incredibly important topic and forgetting about my daily commitment (and battle) to maintain my own mental and physical health. According to the Harvard Health Publications, "Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function - and even worsening symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression." I already know this. I also know that I need to put the brakes on. So no Welfare Food Challenge for me this year.

There are no winners when it comes to poverty and food insecurity. The fact that poverty affects those already most challenged in society makes it that much worse. I don't actually need to eat poorly for a week to understand the impact that it has on one's body and mind - I, and the rest of society, just need to be more aware that many of us are walking a challenging path. What I have learned in the past few weeks as I prepared for the challenge is to be more aware of my own privilege and to be less judgemental about those around me. Maybe that person who is buying the processed food at the grocery story is doing so because that is what they can afford. Maybe they are simply doing the best that they can with what they have.

As you enjoy your Sunday brunch out today or even a simple cup of coffee (a luxury to many) consider this: how the food that you put in your body can impact your overall health and well being. Then, consider what food security and poverty mean to the health and well being of our communities overall. Is a healthy body and mind a privilege for only a few?

KB xo

Learn more about nutrition and mental health:

Friday, 7 October 2016

"Jagged Little Pill"

Quote by Sarah Ceasar: people think I should be able to handle my illnesses without medication. In reality, without medication, my illnesses would handle me."

How are you? How many times a day or over the course of a week are you asked this? We say that sentence so often without really meaning it. When was the last time that you asked that question and actually waited to hear the answer? If you heard the answer, were you really listening? It's a simple question with a not so simple answer at times.

October 2nd to 8th is Mental Illness Awareness Week in Canada. 'Illness', rather than 'health' - there is a subtle difference. Mental Illness Week is an opportunity to speak about the realities of mental illness rather than just overall mental health (which we all have, by the way, just like physical health). And the reality is that mental illness is still so misunderstood, which is why so many of us shy away from talking about it or reaching out for help or treatment if we think we might be ill.

A mood disorder can have a large impact on one's life. Depression, for example, can impact everything from your physical health (chronic headaches and back pain are not uncommon) to your cognitive abilities (difficultly concentrating), in addition to an overall depressed mood. It can be all encompassing for the individual. 

One of the more controversial subjects related to mood disorders is the subject of treatment. There are very real barriers to treatment and recovery. A big one is stigma. When society continues to downplay the importance and validity of mental illness in comparison to physical illness, it helps no one. Stigma is incredibly damaging. Stigma discriminates. Stigma kills. It's real and it's serious.

Admitting to yourself that you are not well and that you might need help can be a very steep hill to climb when you think that you won't be supported or believed. Receiving a diagnosis of depression can be a hard pill to swallow. Now imagine that you choose a course of treatment and, again, the world tells you that you are wrong. Which brings me to medication.

To medicate or to not medicate. That is the question. And it's a big question for so many of us who experience a mood disorder. And in Canada, that is one out of five of us. Not an insignificant number, certainly.

Before I go any further I want to say this: every single person who experiences a mood disorder is unique. I do not believe that one size fits all when it comes to treatment. I am not promoting one form of treatment over another. What I am strongly encouraging is for those of you who may require treatment, that you arm yourself with knowledge and be honest with your physician about what you are experiencing. Then make a decision that is best for YOU.

Over the years I have had a partnership with my doctor; we have discussed medications as well as natural options and talk therapy. As my illness has evolved, so has my treatment. I am not ashamed to say that I take a medication. But I don't consider that to be a cure or the answer to my illness. Nope - not at all. Taking a medication is just one tool in my mental health kit. Among the other tools are things such as plenty of sleep, a balanced diet and regular exercise (OK, full disclosure - this is an ongoing work in progress!), a strong social network for support, a fulfilling job, and a sense of purpose. When my depression was deep, I also participated in cognitive behavioral therapy.
femmehunting: Breathe. Maybe you think you’re going through a tough time or…
My biggest life lesson through 20 years of mental illness is this: do what is right for you. Ask yourself: how am I? How am I, really? Drown out all the voices around you; listen to the answer.

KB xo

* For more information about treatment visit the Mayo Clinic website.
* Learn about the Not Myself Today campaign and learn about the impact that mental illness has in Canadian workplaces.

"To New Beginnings"

Christmas and Hanukkah are over. The new year is just around the corner. Most of us are considering how we are going to get back on track...