Finally Part 3 of the ‘Holistic Mental Health’ blogs. Tomorrow I will post Part 4. I have focused here diet, herbs and supplements, rather than the Psychological/other therapy aspects as this is beyond my scope of practice! However please do your own research into these areas. For now, back onto Nutrition…
Nutrition and Mental Health
When you understand that your cells, including your brain cells and neurotransmitters are made out of vitamins, minerals, fats and proteins, it makes perfect sense that food affects mood! It goes without saying that if you don’t get certain foods in your diet, your mental health will suffer. There is also a big overlap between food and herbal medicine. Many food plants have medicinal properties and are used therapeutically in herbal medicine.
In addition to the basic vitamins/minerals/fats/proteins, plants play a big part in mental health because they:
- Contain Antioxidant Phytochemicals (cell protectors) which protect our cells, including our brain cells from damage.
- They have Bioactive/Neuroactive Chemicals which can interact with and direct the brain to some extent! They do this by docking onto receptors and triggering various types of activity (like a lock and key). It is education, you can learn how to calm or stimulate the mind with food and medicinal plants. There is nothing scary about this, it is just about knowing what plants do what. Anybody who drinks coffee is already doing this!! This is nothing to be feared – it is self-medication as humans have been doing for a long long time. The herbs that herbalists use are very gentle and I’ll mention a few in tomorrow’s post. For now, back to foods!
What I want to stress here is that plants (in the form of foods or medicinal plants) can really help to heal the mind! I also want to say that rather than become fixated on one particular plant, aim to add a variety of plants and herbs to your daily diet. A combination of these will be more effective.
Diet & Food Specifics
Diet is the absolute foundation of good mental health. You can add in supplements (herbs or nutrients) but diet should always be the 1st thing you tackle. The changes you make should just focus on healthy eating, nothing too extreme (unless you have allergies/intolerances).
Your brain and your brain chemicals are made from fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals, which you can only get from food – the body can’t make them. So of course it goes to say that what you eat absolutely affects your brain function and brain health! A deficiency in any one of these nutrients can impact dramatically on your brain function. Diet should be the first line of treatment for any mental health disorder, alongside a regular exercise/relaxation regime (see later for why).
Focus on increasing nutritional status. Eat a wide variety of nutrition dense foods. Once you correct any nutritional deficiencies that may exist, you could find that your mood and emotions naturally stabilize, without you having to take specific supplements. These are my general dietary recommendations for a healthy mind:
Your brain NEEDS a regular supply of…
All the Essential Vitamins and Minerals
Protein and Amino Acids
Fats and Phospholipids (especially Omega 3 fats)
Plant Antioxidants (which protect the brain – see later)
Don’t forget Individuality
Now there is not a ‘one fits all diet’ and it may take some experimentation with the ratio of protein/carbs/fats or specific dietary protocols. You can also experiment with removing certain food groups, as I talk about below… Again, some nutritionists specialize in these areas, so if this interests you do your research and find a practitioner near you who can provide more guidance. For most people I would recommend you try a general balanced healthy eating plan (based on the Mediterranean Diet) before a stricter diet. So to start with, I have included some general health tips. However, if this not helping and you still have symptoms OR if you have a family history of autoimmune disease then I would definitely recommend removing certain foods, such as those containing gluten. See below for more info on this
For the majority, as a broad recommendation, I like a Mediterranean-style diet. The general advice is lots of seasonal vegetables, herbs and fruit, fish (including oily fish such as sardines/mackerel and anchovies), eggs, a little quality dairy (but not too much, ideally fermented – natural yoghurt, goats cheese), some poultry and meat (to a lesser extent), some quality wholegrain (such as oats, brown rice, rye, spelt and buckwheat- sourdough bread where possible) and good amounts of monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados. Quality is really important, go for locally produced food (if you can find organic please do). A Mediterranean type diet is basically an anti-inflammatory diet. As I’ve already mentioned in the last post, there is a strong link between depression and all other inflammatory diseases such as cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
Make sure your digestive system is functioning as it should. A Natural Health practitioner will establish this in the first consultation. If your gut is not healthy, your brain is not happy. Simple as that! Your gut is known as the ‘Second Brain’ because it (like the brain) has neurons and releases neurotransmitters! (your gut actually produces more serotonin than your brain… food for thought) Digestive system issues such like leaky gut and a bacteria imbalance can cause widespread inflammation and general chaos in the body.
Learn to Love Fermented Foods: yoghurt, kefir, fermented veggies such as sauerkraut (that is lacto-fermentation not alcoholic fermentation so no, beer does not count!). Fermented foods contain good bacteria. There are some studies which show that ‘bad’ gut bacteria can induce depression-like symptoms, whereas the introduction of beneficial bacteria can likewise improve symptoms. Certain beneficial bacteria have been shown to decrease activity in a region of the brain responsible for processing emotions, thereby decreasing levels of stress hormones! Look after your bacteria and you will feel happier 🙂
Do NOT go on low or no-fat diets!!! These diets are bad for the brain! You need the right kinds of fats- your brain is made up largely of fats. Eat oily fish (salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel, anchovies) or take a good quality fish oil supplement (for the omega 3 fats) as these reduce inflammation in the brain. If you are vegan, a diet rich in essential fats (nuts, seeds, olives) is helpful, as is a vegan omega 3 supplement.
Up your Antioxidants: Oxidants are particles which cause damage to the cells in our body (from pollution, unhealthy foods for example). Damage to our brain cells due to these oxidants has been linked to many mental health diseases. Antioxidants protect our brain cells from these oxidants. But forgetting about the science, to keep it simple: fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices are the best sources of these brain protecting antioxidants. Variety and Colour: Eat brightly coloured fruit and veg – different colours correspond to different antioxidants (cell protectors).
Eat your greens!
Greens contain 2 very important nutrients for mental health: Magnesium and Folic acid. Aim to have a serve of greens with each lunch and evening meal. People suffering from depression tend towards low folic acid levels.
Lots of fresh/uncooked fruit and vegetables- at least 1 serve with each meal. This is because cooking destroys vitamin C and enzymes, again both are important for mental health. Most of us don’t eat enough raw foods. Eat extra vitamin C-rich foods if you are stressed: berries, kiwi fruit, citrus, peppers, broccoli.
Keep hydrated, seems like obvious advice but even mild dehydration has a big impact on mood and cognitive function. Water is essential for communication between brain cells- dehydration slows signals! Coffee and other caffeine sources and excessive sugar only make cellular dehydration worse.
Some additional random foods (to show you that there is a big grey area between food and medicine!) I encourage you to do your own research into the many foods that can affect the brain 🙂 There are many more but this should peak your interest…
Cocoa contains psychoactive chemicals, making us feel happy (the same chemicals that we release when we fall in love!) Go for small amounts of dark chocolate, a couple of squares. Don’t eat a mountain of milk chocolate otherwise the sugar will negate all the positive effects!
This is both a food and medicinal plant- it is helpful for depression (and the brain in general) because it reduces inflammation.
I’m enjoying a drink of water with a pinch of this age old remedy right now. Saffron is better known as the star ingredient in Paella, helping to give it the deep red colour it is famed for. But it does much more than this, it has been shown to be helpful for depression and anxiety. It has been used for this purpose in Persian Traditional Medicine, now science is helping to prove it. See http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24299602
Protect our brain cells from damage and increase circulation to the brain.
The ‘AVOID’ List
Processed Foods & Pesticide Laden Foods
‘Clean Eating’ is bit of a buzz word recently but it just means cutting out the processed/packaged rubbish and putting in quality wholefoods instead. Our food supply is loaded with toxins such as pesticides, MSG, artificial flavourings/colourings, pharmaceutical residues: antibiotics and more, all of which can interfere with normal brain function, or worse cause damage. Focus on quality whole foods (as opposed to processed/packaged foods) to avoid taking in these toxic substances.
Avoid SUGAR or CARBS in excess
A high intake of sugar is toxic to the brain and linked to Depression, Anxiety, Schizophrenia and ADHD. Not only does it cause blood sugar fluctuations, but it is damaging to the brain as it causes inflammation (we know that inflammation is a big factor in many mental health disorders) and immune system imbalances. It also suppresses a growth/repair hormone in the brain so it is less able to recover from stress/damage. In regards to anxiety, the blood sugar high followed by the low stimulates the release of adrenaline (your fight or flight hormone) leading to difficulty concentrating, hyperactivity and yes… anxiety! This is followed by a ‘crash’ similar to depression. If this carries on day after day, your adrenal glands (which release adrenaline) can become exhausted, leading to more problems.
A Low GL Diet
It’s all about ‘Blood Sugar Balance’. Following ‘Low GL’ dietary guidelines is one of THE most important things you can do for your mental health (actually for your health in general). It is basically about controlling your intake of carbs to keep your blood sugar levels nice and stable. No rollercoaster ups and downs.
A ‘Low GL Diet’ does not mean cutting out carbs altogether, but the general consensus is to limit sugars/sweets/cakes/refined carbs, whilst also watching your portions of ‘good carbohydrates’. It also teaches you about how to combine foods in order to reduce blood sugar fluctuations (e.g. by balancing carbs with fat and protein). There is a lot of info around on the web, but to give you the best guide, I highly recommend you take a look at Patrick Holford’s book ‘The Low GL Diet’.
- Rather than refined ‘white’ carbs (white bread/pasta) or sugars (cakes, sweets) for low GI grains like oats, quinoa and rye and other slow release carbs such as lentils and beans. Remember some natural foods such as fruit or potatoes can be high GL, so limit portions.
- Eat some Protein with every meal- not only because it helps to keep blood sugar levels balanced, but it also contains amino acids which we need to make our neurotransmitters. For example, Tryptophan (found in most protein sources but especially nuts, cheese, poultry) is used to make serotonin- our ‘happy & calming’ brain messenger.
- If you have more serious problems controlling your blood sugar (such as hypoglycaemia, metabolic syndrome or diabetes) then there are some additional herbs/supplements which can help, which a practitioner can recommend.
Avoid Excess Caffeine
Coffee, Cola and other caffeine containing beverages also raise blood sugar levels and increase nervous excitability, inevitably making anxiety worse. If you are depressed, caffeine may temporarily lift your mood but the crash will be worse. Go for some of the herbal teas mentioned instead.
What About Elimination Diets?
It’s not just what you put in, but what you take out- as in toxins/allergens/foods which you are intolerant to can cause a lot of damage. If a regular healthy eating plan hasn’t worked for you then consider the possibility of allergies/intolerances. Certain food suspects can be a major contributing factor, so you may need to experiment with an elimination diet or other restricted diet as detailed below – a practitioner can guide you here. It is easier than you’d imagine these days, with the explosion of the ‘free-from’ range in supermarkets.
Paleolithic/GAPS/Specific Carbohydrate Diets
There is a growing amount of research that an intolerance to gluten (coupled with intestinal bacterial imbalance and leaky gut) can lead to neurological problems from depression to anxiety to autism. Proteins from dairy/grains and other foods have been linked to numerous psychiatric diseases (e.g. caseine from dairy, lectins in beans or gluten from wheat and other grains). Gluten avoidance has resulted in significant improvement/remission in some cases. Now I am not suggesting that absolutely everyone with anxiety/depression should go gluten-free, however it may help for many people with chronic issues, who are not responding to a basic healthy eating plan. A paleo type diet may well be life changing for some. Again a practitioner can guide you and may recommend eliminating gluten and/or further laboratory testing (such as a gluten antibody panel).
Advocates of a Paleo Diet for mental health diseases
Dr Perlmutter is a neurologist and expert in the area of gluten and mental health: https://www.drperlmutter.com/
Dr Kelly Brogan is a psychiatrist who specializes in a Paleo approach for depression and anxiety http://kellybroganmd.com/
Detox is very important- as mentioned, the accumulation of toxins can affect neurobiology- especially heavy metals, which love to accumulate in the brain. As one example, higher blood levels of lead is associated with increased incidence of severe depression and anxiety. The detox approach is an important part of any treatment plan in Naturopathic and Functional Medicine circles but that is a whole other matter which I won’t delve into here. A naturopathic detoxification is a comprehensive, step by step process. See my recent blogs on the subject for an introduction: http://pineapplesage.co.uk/?p=791 and http://pineapplesage.co.uk/?p=777
Last but certainly not least… Exercise 5 times a week is proven to be MORE effective than any anti-depressant. Do this in combination with a healthy diet and I guarantee that you will feel the benefits. Start off gently (see a personal trainer if need be) and aim for 1 hour 4-5 times a week of moderate exercise.
Plus: as I have already mentioned, for chronic or unexplained cases that are not responding to treatment, be sure to get a general check-up with your GP or Naturopath to assess for any underlying conditions.
Part 4… Beneficial Herbs and Supplements