Nutrition and Mental Health: A Missing Link to Finding Joy and Peace of Mind?

My heart goes out to anyone struggling with mental health challenges. Adding scientifically based nutrition interventions to your treatment program may be the missing link in getting back your joy, vitality, vigor and harmony.

My heart goes out to anyone struggling with mental health challenges. Adding scientifically based nutrition interventions to your treatment program may be the missing link in getting back your joy, vitality, vigor and harmony.

If you are receiving quality mental health care, but are still suffering with symptoms, you may have one or more nutrient imbalances that have not been addressed.

Most people (and their doctors) don’t realize how powerful the combination of diet and nutritional supplements can be for mental health. It can make the difference between:

  • Feeling like your life is mundane and worthless on most days; or going through your most days feeling joyful and full of energy.

  • Experiencing anxiety and insomnia; or feeling peaceful and sleeping deeply.

  • Feeling scatter brained and disorganized; or feeling calm, focused and organized.

Nutrient imbalances can have an enormous impact on mental health.  In a 2015 study in the Lancet Psychiatry Journal, Sarris et al., suggested that “diet is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology,” as well as “evidence is steadily growing for the relation between dietary quality (and potential nutritional deficiencies) and mental health, and for the select use of nutrient-based supplements to address deficiencies, or as monotherapies or augmentation therapies.”

Receiving proper mental health care is imperative. However, medications and therapy can’t correct nutrient imbalances. Regardless of your mental health diagnosis, nutritionists use a different lens to explain symptoms. Instead of saying ADD or depression, we may say we see evidence of iron deficiency, malabsorption, elevated homocysteine, B vitamin deficiencies, etc. We can often find a reason for your symptoms based on your chemistry. This doesn’t mean you don’t need medication or therapy, but if we correct the underlying nutritional issue you will likely have a better outcome.

My hope is that this article will entice you enough to consider adding nutrition to your overall healthcare plan to more effectively manage your mental health concerns.

The key points to be addressed in this article:

  • If your mood is off, something biochemical is happening in your entire body, not just the brain.

  • The nervous system responds to nutrients just like the heart or the liver.

  • Sub-clinical nutrient deficiencies may show up with mood and behavior changes before you notice other physical symptoms.

  • Our nutrition status is determined by our absorption, genetics, food choices and agricultural practices.

  • Inflammation plays a key role with mental health. Oftentimes, the inflammation resides in the gastrointestinal tract (gut), but it may also be in the brain.

  • We need to address gut health in order to produce a healthy level of neurotransmitters. Over 90% of our serotonin is produced in the GI tract.

  • Hormones play a huge role in mental health and we can positively influence our hormonal balance by diet and lifestyle factors.

  • Choosing organic whole, unprocessed foods, and eating a balance of the right foods can positively affect brain chemistry.

  • Besides nutrition, other factors such as exercise, lifestyle and meditation are important for balancing the brain/body chemistry and hormones.

  • When dealing with mental health issues, dietary supplements can be very helpful in balancing brain chemistry, and improving the health of the nervous system. Diet is often not enough.

  • Working with a team, including a nutritionist, doctor, and psychotherapist, can be a winning combination for tackling mental health issues.

  • Homeopathy is very effective with mental health challenges and can safely be used with medications and nutrition supplements.

  • For a free 15 minute chat to discuss how nutrition can help you, SCHEDULE HERE.

Mental Health and Nutrient Deficiencies

The brain is one of the first organs affected by nutrient deficiencies, and you can bet that other organs will also be affected by these deficiencies over time, if they remain unaddressed. No matter what mental health diagnostic “label” you are given, it is highly UNLIKELY that there is NOT a nutritional component to your symptoms. You may still need psychiatric intervention with medications, as well as psychotherapy, but you should also get the underlying nutritional imbalances corrected.

Based on my 30 years of clinical experience, I think that it is a mistake NOT to work with a nutritionist if you are suffering from mental health challenges. I don’t know the exact reason people are not referred to a nutritionist when suffering with mental health challenges. It may be due to busy providers, as well as lack of nutritional knowledge among these providers. A provider cannot recommend something that they are not educated in, or knowledgeable about. There is also a strong belief among clients, and parents of clients, that do-it-yourself nutritional care is sufficient. I am here to tell you that it is not, and it can sometimes can make things worse.

Given my clinical experience, I believe that a winning combination for helping mental health challenges is the use of advanced level nutritionists, psychotherapists and psychiatrists together.

Neurotransmitters and Nutrition

Most people these days are familiar with the term neurotransmitters (the body’s chemical messengers that transmit messages between neurons), and they are aware that neurotransmitter imbalances can affect mood. Neurotransmitters are produced by NUTRIENTS. If you consume the right nutrients you will be able produce enough of the right neurotransmitters to make you feel good. Nutrients can also quiet down the production of neurotransmitters that are causing anxiety and insomnia.

Neurotransmitters affected by nutrition include serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, acetylcholine, gaba and glutamate. When your body has an imbalance of neurotransmitters we can use targeted nutrients to bring back balance and harmony to the system.

Nutrient requirements will be unique for every single person, based on their symptoms, lab work, and genetics. Some of the nutrients we look at in lab work include specific amino acids (from protein) such as methionine, tryptophan, tyrosine, glycine, taurine, theanine; vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, folate, B12, inositol, vitamin C; the minerals magnesium, calcium, zinc, iron, copper, selenium, lithium; other nutrients such as choline, TMG, SAMe; electrolytes such as potassium and sodium. All of these nutrients play a crucial role in making neurotransmitters. A person may have one or a several of these nutrients in short supply, thus affecting the ability to produce a balanced level of neurotransmitters.

Serotonin helps with happiness, a feeling of calm, sleep and impulse control.

Dopamine helps with motivation, pleasure, concentration and focus. A deficiency of dopamine is often a huge factor in addiction, loss of concentration and motivation, and when it feels like nothing in life brings pleasure anymore.

Norepinephrine helps with sustained focus and is often low in people experiencing ADD/ADHD.

Epinephrine (adrenaline) is our vital fight or flight neurotransmitter, but when levels are excessive it can cause panic and anxiety.  

Acetylcholine is required for learning, memory, deep REM sleep and autonomic functions such as bladder and bowel emptying.

Gaba brings us peacefulness and allows us to calm down and sleep. We can feel chronic anxiety when gaba levels are too low. Certain amino acids help to produce our own natural gaba.

Glutamate is required for concentration and focus, but when levels are too high it can cause anxiety and damage to the brain, such as after head trauma. Through specific nutrients we can help to metabolize out excessive glutamate and protect the brain from high glutamate levels. Glutamate converts to GABA, but some people have a genetically slow functioning enzyme that is responsible for this conversion and they end up with excessive glutamate. Vitamin B6 is one of the nutrients that helps that enzyme convert glutamate to GABA so we can feel calm.

Nutrients are the building blocks for making neurotransmitters. We can test levels of neurotransmitter metabolites in urine as well as genetic variants to precisely target neurotransmitter balance through nutrients. There are a variety of nutritional products and specific foods that can bring balance to the body chemistry thus relieving the distressing symptoms of neurotransmitter imbalances. Exercise and meditation are also extremely important in balancing out your production of neurotransmitters.

Genetic Variations in Nutritional Requirements

Meeting individual nutrition needs is not exclusively about the diet you eat, it is a bit more complicated than that. You may be eating a healthy diet but suffer terribly from mental health concerns.

Research supports that individual nutrient requirements can have a genetic basis; in other words, we (including our family members) may genetically require high amounts of specific nutrients that are not available in our current diet. These genetic variations are not dysfunctional, in fact, they probably played an important role to our survival at one point, and were less of an issue because our ancestors were eating regional foods that were robust in these certain nutrients.

What is important now is that your ancestors have migrated geographically away from their original diet and the specific foods that kept them healthy. These genetic variations are passed down through generations of people who may not be eating enough of the specific foods that help them express their genetic variations in a healthy manner, so they can feel robust and vital.  

You may notice that you have extended family members who exhibit similar patterns of mental and physical health complaints. We may find that these family members share gene variants that may require higher levels of nutrients such as choline, folate, riboflavin, magnesium, vitamin B6 and B12, etc.  If your diet heavily consists of white flour products (bread, pizza, pastries, cookies, pasta, rice) and sugar with very little produce and nutritional variety, you will be deficient in most of the nutrients that are required for good mental health.

For example, an abundance of organic leafy greens in the diet may help provide enough folate to make up for an MTHFR genetic variant, but people with this gene variant who don’t eat an abundance of this nutrient, would logically experience mental health and physical health challenges.

Since these nutrient requirements run in families, we may see a mother who is genetically low in zinc, B vitamins, magnesium and iron, and she is experiencing depression, anxiety and sensitivity to external stimuli such as bright light, loud noises, crowds; and it is likely that her children are also low in these same nutrients, and are experiencing similar symptoms that show up as challenging behaviors.

These unique nutritional genetic requirements become even more of a problem when our current agricultural and food processing practices strip vital nutrients out of our food. Added to that, we choose a diet that is full of processed foods instead of whole foods that retain vital nutrients to help us balance our brain chemistry. Depending on the genetic variants we inherit, we may actually require supplements to get enough of these crucial nutrients to enjoy robust mental health.

Malabsorption of Nutrients

Some of our neurotransmitters are produced mostly in the gut rather than the brain. Most of our immune system also is in our gut. Immune system issues, inflammation, hormonal imbalances, and mental health challenges can all occur together and can be related. In addition, there is bi-directional communication between the gut and the brain carried out by our friendly probiotic bacteria. The gut and brain influence each other.

Malabsorption of nutrients interferes with our ability to produce enough neurotransmitters to feel good. Malabsorption can occur due to a variety of factors such as celiac’s disease, an inflamed intestinal tract or overgrowth of bacteria, fungus or parasites. This is area where a nutritionist can play a crucial role in finding out causes of low nutrient absorption and helping to correct those imbalances so you can start producing healthy levels of neurotransmitters. We can also find clues in your lab work to suggest if you need to see a gastroenterologist for further testing. 

Current Agricultural Practices, Food Processing and Mental Health

Current mainstream agricultural practices strip the soil of nutrients and beneficial microorganisms, as well as discourage the diversity of plants in our food supply. Diversity of plants make our immune system stronger and help us have a healthy expression of our DNA. As a result, we now have an abundance of food that is lower in the specific nutrients and plant diversity that is required to keep us robust and healthy.

We also are bombarded with foods that are loaded with chemicals such as flavorings, colorings, preservatives and hormones that affect behavior.  Chemicals used in big agriculture are neurotoxic and can damage our brains and nervous systems, they deplete the soil of nutrients and beneficial micro-organisms, disrupt our healthy bacteria, cause excessive estrogen levels in males and females, and are linked with diabetes and liver damage. Our grandparents and great grand-parents grew up with a healthy, non-toxic food supply and it is my belief that we deserve the same right.

An abundance of toxic, processed foods has set our society up for serious mental and physical health challenges. When our food no longer contains nutrients required for making neurotransmitters, we will quickly experience mood, thought and behavioral dysregulation.

To protect your mental and physical health, buy your food from small local organic farmers that are going back to basics by enriching the soil with nutrients and beneficial bacteria, and saying NO to using harmful chemicals that weaken the plants and poison our bodies. These farmers are focusing on growing food that can once again nourish our bodies as nature intended. I personally feel safer using small farmers from a standpoint of food-borne illness. It seems that big agriculture operations lose control over quality and have far more recalls on their products.

Hormones and Mental Health

Hormone imbalances are another HUGE factor that affect our brain chemistry. When I talk about hormones I am talking about thyroid, adrenal (DHEA and cortisol), insulin, melatonin, vitamin D, estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. These imbalances are often unrecognized by mainstream medicine. Most people don’t realize that hormones can be affected by our food choices, environmental contaminants such as plastic food packaging, lifestyle choice such as lack of exercise, in addition to ages and stages of life.  

Hormone imbalances affect mood and brain chemistry. I often see women struggling with depression, anxiety and addiction as they are headed into menopause. Or they may experience post-partum depression and anxiety, as well as premenstrual syndrome PMS) or premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Oral contraceptives cause a deficiency of certain B vitamins which can lead to depression. Hormonal changes and imbalances, combined with genetic nutritional needs that are not being met, may result in not being able to produce enough serotonin or dopamine.

Middle aged men with depression, irritability and hopelessness may be experiencing declining DHEA and testosterone levels combined with high or low cortisol levels from stress, high insulin levels, and can feel like the wind has been knocked out of their sails. I also see many young men with depression and anxiety that also have low testosterone levels. Testosterone levels can be affected by poor diet, environmental contaminants, lack of exercise, lack of sunshine, possibly marijuana and alcohol use, and eating foods packaged in plastic and BPA. Vitamin D and cholesterol are important for producing hormones, so if these are low they need to be addressed as well.

Kids going through puberty often struggle with depression and anxiety as well. Psycho-social stress is also at an all-time high for this age group.

Imbalances in hormones can cause anxiety, fatigue, depression, low energy, insomnia, and achiness. Circadian rhythm disruptions can cause a whole host of issues for mental and physical health. Oral contraceptives can cause a variety of nutrient deficiencies that affect mental health.

The good news is that positive changes with diet, exercise and other lifestyle factors can have a terrific effect on balancing hormone levels.

How I Use Nutrition To Improve Mood and Benefit the Neurological System

To help people with mood concerns, I start with blood work through their doctor combined with a mood questionnaire that can help pinpoint neurotransmitter issues. Based on these results, I custom tailor specific nutrients and foods to start using right away. At the first visit I give people a few samples to try based on their most pressing symptoms and taking into account any medications they are taking.

Through lab work, nutrient levels, hormonal levels, clues that point to a deficiency of specific nutrients, an unhealthy balance of bacteria in the gut, malabsorption, inflammation, genetic variations that may affect nutritional status. Functional medicine nutritionists look at lab work differently than physicians. We use reference ranges that are narrower in scope for the purpose of optimizing health, and we look for patterns in lab work that point to specific nutrient needs.  Medical reference ranges are very large and are looking for a diagnosis of disease. Often, I find a nutrient that is just barely above the level of an overt deficiency, but it didn’t get flagged as low, so it was missed by the physician.

If someone wants to get more specific, we also have the option to test neurotransmitter metabolites in urine to get a better reflection of what is low. We can do nutritional genomics testing (a cheek swab) to see exactly which variants the person has inherited that we need to more closely target with lifestyle changes, specific foods, and supplemental nutrients. Sometimes nutrition genomic testing is the magic bullet in figuring out puzzling mental and physical health challenges.

The Good News

I find that when nutritional status is optimal people start sleeping and have far more motivation and energy to get out and do things; they feel like socializing, cooking, exercising; and they become very efficient in life as they can concentrate and focus far better at work and school. They also have a much easier time conquering their old self-medicating habits such as binge/compulsive overeating, excessive caffeine, alcohol, marijuana, etc. In fact, I often don’t even suggest they give these habits up as they seem to naturally do it themselves.

Overall, mental health challenges seem very responsive to targeted, common sense nutritional interventions combined with psychotherapy. If someone is on medications through a psychiatrist, we can custom tailor the plan to be safe with these medications. Adding nutrients to a medication regime is often a very beneficial one-two punch that can help people can start to feel much better quickly. Nutritional products also act quickly, sometimes in 30 minutes to an hour, unlike medications that can take weeks or months to kick in.

Key Points

  • The brain is an organ just like the heart, and it responds to nutrients. If the mood is off, this is a reflection of the biochemistry throughout the body.

  • Inflammation can affect our mental health.

  • Subclinical nutrient deficiencies usually first show up with mood and behavior changes.

  • Our nutrition status is determined by our absorption, genetics, food choices and agricultural practices.

  • Most of our neurotransmitters are produced in the gut so we need to address gut health in order to produce a healthy level of neurotransmitters.

  • Hormones play a huge role in mental health and we can positively influence our hormonal balance by diet and lifestyle factors.

  • Choosing organic whole, unprocessed foods, as well as eating a balance of the right foods, can positively affect brain chemistry as well as our entire body’s biochemistry.

  • Exercise is a huge factor in balancing your brain/body chemistry and hormones.

  • Learning techniques such as meditation to balance your stress level can change neurological pathways and chemicals in the body.

  • The right dietary supplements can be very helpful in balancing brain chemistry.

  • Working with a team including a nutritionist, doctor, and psychotherapist, can be a winning combination for tackling mental health issues.

  • To schedule a nutrition appointment to see how nutrition can help you, please, schedule here.