PTSD and Nutrition: Are You Eating Properly?

If you’ve ever been depressed, anxious or angry you know how emotions can impact your appetite. Any one of those experiences can make you eat more or less depending on the day and the intensity of what you’re feeling. And then what happens? If you skip some meals or binge on junk food, do you feel better or worse?

That’s what I thought. Eating or not eating has consequences that range from mental to emotional to physical, which makes nutrition very important in PTSD. Especially if you’re on a quest to reclaim some balance and self-regulatory control, you need to be giving your body — and your number one resource: your brain — what it needs to optimally function.

Your Best Brain Fuel: Glucose

I myself went the less eating route – for over twenty years. In a bid for control over a body in which I felt trapped and terrified I restricted food (I was anorexic) just to feel that I, and not my body or the past or some future trauma was in control. Restricting food became a game I played with myself: How long could I not eat and still be able to sustain activity and survive? Often, I’d wait until I was about to pass out before I’d eat some small thing. By doing this I felt, ironically, safer. The more stress and trauma I created for myself the more secure I felt knowing I could handle it. This process became a way I tested myself to make sure I was strong enough to survive whatever trauma came next.

Of course, giving in to those feelings really put my body, the past and some unnamed future trauma in control. Eating as little 500 calories a day you can imagine how fuzzy my head was, how poor my emotional control and how damaged my body eventually became. By the time I was thirty-five I was diagnosed with advanced osteoporosis, partially caused by my severe lack of nutrition.

The biggest problem with PTSD and nutrition habits, however, has less to do with bones and a lot to do with your brain and what it needs to optimally function. Your brain runs on the simple sugar, glucose, which can be found in grains, fruits and vegetables, refined sugar and dairy products. In order for you to have the energy you need to be able to manage emotions, create a sense of calm and make good decisions your brain needs enough glucose to run all of its systems at the same time.

When you don’t give your brain the fuel it needs, guess what it does? It shuts down systems that use large amounts of energy. For example, your willpower system, which can be enormously critical in PTSD management as it helps you make good decisions that influence what you think, feel and do. Without access to willpower, it can be very tough to achieve your recovery or coping goals.

When your brain conserves energy by shutting off high-energy consumption systems that leaves in charge your low-energy, lower brain processing systems. Know what those are? Your older brain structures that run on threat detection and emotion. Of course, in PTSD those systems are already hypersensitive, which means they work overtime, making your higher brain functions (those that include willpower) incredibly important to create balance in your internal experience.

Without glucose your brain can’t access all of the higher systems it needs, so the lower brain structures run the show, creating chaos as they overreact and you feel the spiral out of control. You can, however, help your brain process more effectively and efficiently. All you have to do is eat well, in a balanced and scheduled program. For an overview of how you can add more good glucose to your diet check out this list of options. For more healthy eating tips, click here.

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5 Responses to PTSD and Nutrition: Are You Eating Properly?

  1. Mary says:

    PTSD, depression, anxiety and flash backs run my life. The worst are the flash backs at night – nightmares, based on events that really happened. I use diet, medication & therapy. Nothing helps. I am desperate & will try anything. I feel like a mutant, a non-human mutant.

    • @Mary — I’m so sorry that you’re struggling with nightmares, that’s so tough! I used to have that problem myself. With healing those nightmares were eliminated for me. You might enjoy some of the recent radio shows I’ve done on this topic. They include a simple dream revision technique that may help you. Check out the episodes in our archives here:

    • Mary, I am sorry that you are suffering. Please consider practicing “Classic Yoga Nidra” by Sunrise Guided Visualizations for 99 cents on Amazon MP3. As you know, the military has adopted this ancient practice to assist with PTSD.
      And for depression (along with the other good things you are doing) (and I know this sounds odd) please consider painting the bedroom yellow. You may be pleasantly surprised! All the best!

  2. victoria says:

    Anxiety, fear, depression, nail chewing and ptsd affect me almost every day. With medication, walking, praying, and reading I.m trying to learn how to control my overwhelming emotions. I am a working professional, attractive, fairly active, and otherwise healthy female. But sometimes I feel like isolating myself from everything and everyone because of my emotions. What can I do? Thanks for your advice.

    • @Victoria — I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve been unhappy. It’s never too late to find relief. It’s so hard to hold together a personal and professional life when PTSD hangs around. In all that you’re doing you didn’t mention treatment, so I’ll focus there. Everything you’re engaged in is terrific, and yet the hard work of trauma resolution still needs to be done in order to be set free.

      If you’re interested in how to feel better there’s a lot of great info about recovery processes here: Plus, my radio show also has a slew of free podcast archives with ideas that you can do on your own:

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