People sometimes tell me they wouldn’t have thought there was a link between nutrition and mental health. It is my hope the following will help you understand there is indeed a huge link between nutrients, mental health and mental health problems. And by growing our collective awareness of this, we might reduce the stigma of mental health problems and create a climate where more people seek and receive help with their mental health struggles, and go on to live happy and productive lives.
Nutrition does indeed build us — it gives us our very physical foundations — right down to our cells. Cells that make up our brains, brain stems and nerves, our hormone-secreting adrenal glands and ovaries and testes. Cells that make up our hearts and lungs, our complex, mind-blowingly amazing — and often abused — digestive systems. Cells that make up our blood. Immune cells that fight infections and keep us well.
For example, did you know that the membrane of every single cell in your body is made partly of saturated fat? That without the mineral zinc, your body cannot produce stomach acid needed for digestion? That without the right B vitamins, your body cannot build red blood cells to oxygenate your brain and organs, or maintain the structural integrity of your nervous system, or build the very neurotransmitter needed for sleep and calm? That without iodine, your thyroid gland cannot function normally and this will adversely affect your mood, weight management, fertility and more?
All of your cells, organs and body systems and the vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins, hormones, enzymes and everything your cells receive and produce — or don’t receive and can’t produce — play a huge role in your mental (and physical) health.
But this is not the only reason we should talk about nutrition and mental health. It is vital to understand that what we eat and drink and take and inhale or don’t eat, drink or take really does impact our mental and physical health, deeply. To claim otherwise is to deny biochemistry, scientific research and human experience.
Yet there is another reason we need to talk about nutrition and mental health.
In centuries passed, you could be killed for having a mental health problem. Viewed as possessed by a demon. Locked up. Pimped out for entertainment and financial gain. Cast out of family or village. And in many cultures, some of these horrific, stigma-driven abuses still take place — including the view that those who are mentally unwell are affected by demons or evil spirits, and therefore, dangerous. And shameful. And even today, in 2019, electric shock therapy still happens, as a form of ‘treatment’ for severe symptoms of depression, OCD and probably other mental health conditions, too.
The 21stC take, the current reality for around 13% of New Zealanders (where I’m from), is that if you are struggling with your mental health, you take antidepressant medications. Or perhaps you take antipsychotic, anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) or stimulant medications, or some combination of these alongside an antidepressant.
We have been told that these medications — which are often quickly prescribed, which alter the chemistry of your nervous system and which cause nutritional deficiencies that can worsen your existing health concerns — are the answer to your depression, to your anxieties about everything from harm to food to your sexuality to other people, to fears and intrusive thoughts you find hard to share and explain. That these medications are the solution to you thinking too much, thinking too fast, to your auditory and visual hallucinations, to your paranoia. The solution to your deep distress with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), the answer to your grief, sadness, worries, insomnia, suicidal feelings and mental exhaustion.
And while it is only fair to state that some people do report benefit from taking antidepressant, anxiolytic and antipsychotic medications, research and word of mouth reveals that a significant number of people feel worse or no better for taking medications. And many people find the side effects of these medications such as significant weight gain, headaches, dry mouth, visual disturbances, disturbed sleep, fatigue, emotional changes, digestive pain and erectile dysfunction intolerable. Indeed, since 2007, it has been an FDA requirement that all SSRI medications — a common class of antidepressants — come with the warning that they have been found to increase the risk of suicidal thinking and suicide in children and teenagers.
And not only all this, but the ever-increasing prescribing of antidepressant, antipsychotic and anxiolytic medications has not led to a reduction in suicide rates or an increase in good mental health across populations.
Let me be clear — I am not anti-medications. If they genuinely make you feel mentally and physically better and able to live a fulfilling life, I am glad. Because I am definitely pro people feeling better. But it cannot be truthfully said that medications achieve this for most people, most of the time. And this is a problem.
When it comes to mental health, we have made some progress but we still have a long way to go. With one in four people affected by a mental health problem in any given year, we appear, globally, to be at a crossroads with mental health. Mental health may never be more important in history than it is right now. The future of our societies is at stake.
So. What if we began talking openly about the scientific reality that nutrient deficiencies — of fats, vitamins, minerals and amino acids — and even, in some cases, excesses of these — can play a massive role in our depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, panic attacks, Bipolar disorder, addiction, self starvation, bingeing, obsessions and compulsions, tics, learning difficulties, rage and violence?
What if we began talking about how nutrition influences our hormones and these hormones, when not balanced by nutritional factors, can drive anxiety, depression, cancer risk, weight gain, pre-menstrual depression and suicidal feelings?
What if we started talking about common genetic variants that cause many people to be unable to efficiently metabolize essential vitamins, fats and minerals, meaning you more easily become deficient and unwell. That these nutrient deficiencies can then manifest as depression, OCD, anxiety, schizophrenia, addiction, rage, or high sensitivity — such as that child who is always crying, a picky eater, who is prone to rage and violence, who has few friends at school — and a very stressed out parent or parents.
What if we started talking about how environmental pollutants, and the stress of modern life — with its cheap, highly processed food choices crowding out the nourishing ones, with its growing inequality, excess caffeine and alcohol and blue light, constant late nights and always being busy and doing and busy and doing— can ‘switch on’ these genetic variants that make it even harder for you to absorb what little nutrients you are getting? What if we talked about how we can minimize the impact of these genetic variants, simply through our food choices and making adjustments to our lifestyles?
What if we started talking about how all the forms of stress we experience, physically and emotionally, have an impact similar to screeching around non-stop in your car at 150kph (or mph, if you prefer). But instead of using up petrol and oil and wearing down spark plugs and tires, you are churning through your vitamins and minerals, your organs and body systems are becoming increasingly inflamed, and you are producing masses of cortisol at the expense of other hormones and brain chemicals. Other hormones and neurotransmitters that, if you were less stressed less often and able to make these, would help you to feel happier, get pregnant, be less susceptible to flus, colds and infections, have less weight around your middle and to sleep soundly.
What if we acknowledged more deeply how stressful modern life is for many people? And the impacts of this on mental health, at a biochemical and nutritional level?
What if we talked more about how an abusive or neglectful childhood, how traumatic experiences like poverty, war, natural disasters, job loss, death and abusive relationships can change the way your nervous and hormonal systems function, affecting your mental health? Yet with the good news that nutrition, herbs and therapy, pets and friends, love, Nature and community can help heal these physical and mental assaults?
What if talking about mental health in these contexts — of genetics, environmental toxins, stress, social factors and nutrition— that cellular building block and healer — became the conversation around mental health?
What if we talked about mental health in this way, more and more?
Would this help reduce the stigma?
Would people feel less ashamed? More informed and with a road map to seek help?
What if your depression, fatigue and that mysterious tingling and numbness in your hands and feet was your body’s way of telling you that you have a genetic variant, enhanced by the stress of your divorce or losing your job or not seeing your kids enough, that has caused significant vitamin and mineral deficiencies?
What if your anxiety and panic attacks were rooted in never feeling safe or loved as a child, and worsened by food allergies and subsequent digestive inflammation and structural changes, causing your gut to struggle to absorb the nutrients from your food? And all this worsened by the fact you never seem able to sleep unless you have a few drinks — but the drinking is also causing you further nutrient deficiencies and worsening your anxiety, insomnia and poor digestive health?
What if your child’s Bipolar disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder — or whichever diagnoses they have been labelled with — their rage, fussy eating, learning difficulties and sensory issues were being greatly influenced by a surprisingly common problem with red blood cell function that cause the loss of specific and important nutrients, adversely affecting the growth of their brain and entire being? Wouldn’t you want to know that a urine test and nutrient therapy could help address the problem, reduce the symptoms and get your child back to their happy and true self?
What if those multiple courses of antibiotics — those ‘seek everything and destroy’ bacteria killers that you were given as a child and teenager or after you got so sick on holiday in Asia that time — have drastically changed the landscape of your body’s billions of naturally occurring beneficial bacteria, adversely affecting everything from your brain to your mood, to your digestion, your sleep, your weight, and that pesky jock itch or vaginal discharge that just. wont. go. away?
What if you’re not mental?
What if things are just out of balance, mentally and physically, for you or your child?
What if your body is sending out signals, trying to tell you “Vitamins needed here! Minerals being lost too rapidly here! Way too much inflammation there! Your gut needs healing! These hormones are way, way outta balance! These cells are literally starving! And please slow down and let me rest. Please speak kindly to me. Help me feel relaxed and safe, because I feel neither…..”
What if talking about mental health in these contexts — of genetics, environmental toxins, stress, social factors and nutrition and how our bodies actually work — became the norm?
Could we reduce the stigma of mental health challenges?
Could we take a leap forward and start to tackle our current mental health crisis, if we harness the power of nutrition as a tool to heal?
My name is Francesca Eldridge, I am a registered and qualified clinical nutritionist and trauma and OCD survivor. Nutrition was a key tool that helped me get my life back when I was housebound at age 29 with severe OCD and anxiety and could see no future. My mission now is to teach others suffering from mental health problems how you can get your life back, too. To help you learn how to rebuild from your cellular foundations, using the oldest medicine known to man, to create real and lasting change in your life, your family and in our communities.
Because you or your child probably aren’t ‘mental’. You’re most likely undernourished and biochemically out of balance. And I can help you.