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4 Nutrition Lessons for Mental Health

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For decades, mainstream medicine didn’t acknowledge the connection between mental health and diet. But the answer to the question “Does nutrition affect mental health?” is a resounding yes. Through my 45 years of work in the field of integrative mental health, I have seen that nutrition is the most important missing link in mental health care.

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If you add the lenses of nutrition and diet to your clinical (and self-care) toolbox, you can enhance the efficacy of all of your other methods. That’s because poor nutrition leads to and exacerbates mental illness, and optimal nutrition prevents and helps treat it.

How Does Nutrition Affect Mental Health?

Whether your clients currently experience depression, anxiety, and worry; sleep or focus problems; or addictions to drugs, alcohol, or foods, there are ways to significantly improve their health and well-being through the use of foods and supplemental nutrients. High-quality foods and nutritional support often provide the missing key to attaining mental well-being.

Eating the right food can increase your clients’ stamina, stabilize their mood, decrease irritability, improve sleep, and even combat pain.

In this post, I will share four key focuses to begin with from the field of nutrition for mental health.

1. Tailor Your Diet to Your Unique Metabolism

One of the most important elements to successful nutrition for mental health is that there’s no one diet for everyone. In this realm, biology is much more important than ideology.

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For effective nutrition, an individual’s diet must be tailored to their metabolism. Our biochemistry is genetically based and culturally and environmentally linked to our unique ancestry. A consistent use of dietary “fuel” that is not the right fit for the individual body leads to physical decline—whether it is obvious or subtle, quick or slow.

It’s not the diet that determines your well-being, but your biological alignment with the dietary fuel you are putting in your tank.

Some people function better as carnivores, while others function better as vegetarians. Knowing who you are and what your body needs is the art and science of mental health nutrition. As part of my work, I have created self-paced short courses as well as a bestselling Mental Health Nutrition certification course.

2. Shift Away From the Standard American Diet

The Standard American Diet (SAD) diet lacks the nutrients our brain and body need to function well and is pro-inflammatory. That some of us survive on this sugary, processed-foods diet is sheer luck. For some people, illness comes in childhood, for others not until middle age or later, but it comes for many at some point—just as a car you put the wrong fuel into eventually breaks down, halfway to your destination.

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If you shift away from the SAD diet and toward eating whole, unprocessed, and nutrient-dense foods, you’ll eliminate your exposure to additives, preservatives, toxic pesticides, and fertilizers, and positively affect your (or your clients’) mental health. Those who can’t always purchase wild or organic foods can focus on organic eggs and meat products.

As you “un-refine” your diet, you’ll start reducing inflammation, which is one of the major consequences of the SAD diet and one of the most important and negative influences on mental health.

3. Lower Inflammation

Inflammation is now understood to underlie most mental illnesses, including depression, and chronic low-level inflammation contributes to cognitive decline. Any good protocol focusing on nutrition for mental health must take aim at decreasing inflammation.

But what is inflammation? Everyone is familiar with the kind that occurs after an injury, such as a fall leading to a bruise or cut. The tissue becomes red and swollen, and it is often painful. This is the body’s natural immune response, helping us to heal from injuries and infection.

A similar kind of inflammation also occurs systemically throughout the body, though it’s invisible. If the inflammatory response within the body is chronic, the cells’ immune secretions stay turned on all the time. The cells produce proteins called cytokines that contribute to depression and to the breakdown of nerve cells.

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People who experience major depression have increased levels of inflammatory cytokines that, in turn, negatively affect their neurotransmitter function.

Foods such as refined sugars trigger those inflammatory cytokine responses in the body. I call these foods “dietary stressors.” Other foods, like fresh berries and herbs like turmeric and ginger, can quench the fires of inflammation.

Stimulating the anti-inflammatory cytokines can improve depressed mood and increase treatment response to conventional antidepressant medication by counter-regulating the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines.

Stress is also a cause of inflammation and depression. Relaxation decreases the inflammatory response. The elimination of sugar helps to stabilize mood and also reduces cytokine production and thereby reduces systemic inflammation.

This is one of the first steps I teach clinicians to take with all their clients, whether they are depressed or not: reduce stress, eliminate inflammatory foods, and increase anti-inflammatory foods. (Learn more in my books The Good Mood Kitchen, Eat Right, Feel Right, and Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health.)

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4. Feed Your “Second Brain”

To optimize nutrition, we need to nourish the “second brain” as well. The discovery of the “second brain,” also known as the enteric nervous system, has confirmed that the “gut” communicates with our first brain. This second “brain” controls the digestive system via a complex network of over 100 million nerves and chemicals that send messages to the central nervous system.

When we say, “I just feel in my gut that is right” or “my gut is telling me no,” that sensation may reflect the second brain communicating. Feeling and sensation are part of its function, and it is linked to our emotional lives and intuition.

The vagus nerve carries messages from the digestive system to the brain. The feeling of “butterflies in the stomach” describes the physiological stress we experience in the gut.

The gut also controls the breakdown and absorption of foods, elimination of waste; what’s more. It takes food particles and transforms them into the chemical messengers that support our emotional and cognitive life. We now know that it is this second brain that makes these messengers, the neurotransmitters, and supports bacteria that help regulate brain function.

To nourish the second brain, focus on eating plenty of fiber and fermented or probiotic foods. Fiber intake is essential to a healthy colon and mental health. There are digestible and non-digestible forms of fiber. The indigestible ones are found in natural plant foods such as leafy green vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and grains.

Fiber has no calories or food energy, and yet it is a crucial component of a healthy diet.

Probiotics are live microorganisms that colonize the intestines, maintaining a balance of beneficial gut bacteria. There are 400 to 500 different kinds of healthy microbiota that inhabit the gut. They promote a healthy digestive system; prevent infections, diarrhea, and inflammation; and improve immune health. They also produce nutrients, such as vitamin K, B vitamins, short-chain fatty acids like lactic acid, and folate.

Probiotics have also been called “psychobiotics” because they produce both GABA and serotonin, which have been shown to reduce stress and decrease anxiety. Maintaining healthy bacterial levels in the gut supports neurotransmitter activity in brain health.

Sources of probiotics include fermented foods like sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, miso, and brewer’s yeast, as well as yogurt and cheeses with live cultures, and probiotic supplements.

Putting It All Together

Changing what you or a client eats is not in and of itself sufficient to fully treat mental illness. It is essential to also use the right vitamins, minerals, fats, and other supplements such as glandulars.

You don’t need to become a mental health nutritionist, but you do need to keep in mind that an optimal mental health diet plan must be tailored to the needs of the individual, who may have been missing the basic ingredients for optimal brain function their whole life.

Recognizing that mood is a mind-body experience and not just based on personal history or mental processes can be crucial in enhancing your sense of self-efficacy, feeling empowered and motivated to take action, and developing a broader perspective on the many pathways to change.

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