People sometimes tell me they wouldn’t have thought there was a link between nutrition and mental health. I believe that by growing our awareness of the link between nutrients, mental health and mental health problems, we might reduce the stigma of mental health problems. We might create a shift where more people seek and find answers to their mental health struggles and go on to live happy and productive lives.
Nutrition builds your physical foundations right down to your cells. Cells that make up your brain and nerves, your hormone-secreting ovaries and testes. Cells that make up your heart and lungs, your complex, amazing digestive system. Cells that make up your blood. Immune cells that fight infections and keep you well.
Did you know the membrane of every cell in your body is made partly of saturated fat and therefore we need to eat these fats to keep our cells healthy? Did you know that without the mineral zinc, your body cannot produce stomach acid needed for digestion? That without vitamins B9 and B12, your body cannot build red blood cells to oxygenate your brain? That without enough omega 3 fats, the structure and function of your brain could be adversely affected? That without vitamin B6, your body cannot make the neurotransmitter needed for sleep and calm? That without the mineral iodine (which isn’t commonly found in western diets), your thyroid gland can’t produce important hormones and lack of these hormones will adversely affect your mood, weight management, fertility and more?
Did you know many common medications will deplete your body’s stores of the vitamins and minerals discussed above? And that eating some popular, highly processed foods that our grandparents never ate can also cause nutrient deficiencies?
What we eat, drink, take and inhale or don’t eat, drink, take and inhale really does impact our mental and physical health. 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. Considered possessed by a demon. Locked up. Pimped out for entertainment and financial gain. Cast out of family or village. And in some cultures, some of these stigma-driven abuses still happen. Even now, electric shock therapy is still a treatment for severe depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Nowadays, around 13% of Kiwis take an antidepressant, antipsychotic or anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) medication, or some combination of these.
If you have struggled with your mental health and sought help, you have probably been told these medications — which are often quickly prescribed, alter the chemistry of your brain and cause nutrient deficiencies that can actually worsen your mental health — are your first treatment option for depression or anxiety. That these medications are your main treatment option if you have schizophrenia. That these medications are your main treatment option, alongside counselling or therapy, to treat your OCD, grief, panic, insomnia, suicidal feelings, excessive stress or mental exhaustion.
And while people do report experiencing benefits from taking antidepressant medications, research reveals a significant number of people feel worse or no better for taking them and that many studies claiming positive effects of antidepressants have a high risk of bias. 1, 2, 3
Additionally, many people report they find the side effects of antidepressants intolerable, such as significant weight gain, headaches, dry mouth, visual disturbances, disturbed sleep, fatigue, emotional changes and erectile dysfunction. Furthermore, since 2007, it has been an FDA requirement that all SSRI medications — a common class of antidepressants — come with the warning they have been found to increase the risk of suicide in children and teenagers.
And not only this, but the increased 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 help you feel mentally and physically better and get your head above water, I am glad. I am pro people feeling better. I am pro people staying alive. Yet it cannot be truthfully said that medications achieve this for everyone, nor that they are always your best or only option.
When it comes to mental health, we have made progress but 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.
What if you have another option? One that can be used long-term, safely, alongside medication if needed, and therapy, and which does not cause distressing side effects?
What if we began talking about the research that suggests nutrient deficiencies — deficiencies of fats, vitamins and minerals —do play a significant role in our symptoms of depression, anxiety, trauma, ADHD, Bipolar disorder, OCD, insomnia, eating disorders, schizophrenia and PMS? 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
What if we began talking about how nutrition influences our hormones like estrogen and progesterone and how our brains have receptors for these hormones? And what if we talked about how a lack or excess of these hormones can drive anxiety, depression, cancer risk, pre-menstrual depression and suicidal feelings?
What if we began talking about common genetic variants that can result in people more easily becoming deficient in specific nutrients? That these nutrient deficiencies can manifest as depression, OCD, anxiety, schizophrenia, addiction, rage, or high sensitivity — such as that child who is an extremely picky eater, who has few friends at school, who is prone to meltdowns and violence?
What if we started talking about how environmental pollutants and the stress of modern life — with highly processed food choices crowding out the nourishing ones, growing inequality, excess caffeine, alcohol, blue light and late nights and always being busy and doing and busy and doing— can enhance the expression of these genetic variants? What if we talked about how we can minimize the impacts of genetic variants through our food choices and lifestyle changes?
What if we started talking about how the excessive physical and emotional stress we experience in modern life has an impact similar to screeching around in your car at 150kph. But instead of using up petrol and oil and wearing out spark plugs and tires, you are churning through your stored vitamins and minerals. You are producing masses of the stress hormone cortisol at the expense of other hormones and neurotransmitters. Other hormones and neurotransmitters that, if you were less stressed and able to make these, would help you feel happier and less anxious, help you to sleep soundly and get pregnant.
What if we talked more about how an abusive or neglectful childhood, how traumatic experiences like poverty, natural disasters, job loss, abusive relationships and the death of a loved one can change the way your nervous and hormonal systems function, affecting your mental health? Yet with the good news that nutrition, herbs, therapy, love, Nature and community can help heal these physical and mental assaults.
What if talking about mental health in these contexts — genetics, environmental toxins, stress, social factors and nutrition—that cellular building block and healer — became the conversation?
Would this help reduce the stigma?
Would people feel less ashamed? More informed and equipped with a road map to find help?
What if your depression, fatigue and that mysterious tingling and numbness in your hands and feet was your body’s way of signalling you have a significant vitamin B12 deficiency? Which has been worsened by the stress of your divorce or break up and by the known side effects of antacid medications on your gut function (where B12 is absorbed).
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 gut inflammation, causing your gut to struggle to absorb nutrients from your food?
What if the diagnoses your child has been labelled with — manifesting as rage, fussy eating, learning difficulties and sensory issues—was their body’s way of saying they have deficiencies of vitamin B6 and zinc, adversely affecting the growth of their brain and entire being? Wouldn’t you want to know that support from a nutritionist and individualized nutrient therapy could help reduce your child's symptoms, help you understand how these deficiencies occurred, and help get your child back to their happy and true self?
What if the many antibiotics you were given as a child and teenager and after you got sick on holiday that time have drastically changed the landscape of your body’s billions of beneficial bacteria, adversely affecting everything from 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 depression, anxiety, panic, exhaustion, OCD, Bipolar disorder, auditory hallucinations, PMDD and other mental health symptoms are in fact your body sending out signals, trying to tell you “Vitamins needed here….minerals being lost too rapidly here! Too much inflammation there, your gut wall needs healing! These hormones are way outta balance! 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 — 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 start to tackle our current mental health crisis, if we also harness the power of nutrition as a tool to heal?
Because you or your child probably aren’t ‘mental’. You’re more likely affected by past and present stress, possibly your genes, and nutrient deficiencies. And these root causes of mental health problems are treatable.
1. Cipriani, A, Furukawa, TA, Salanti, G, et al., 2018. Comparative Efficacy and Acceptability of 21 Antidepressant Drugs for the Acute Treatment of Adults with Major Depressive Disorder: A systematic Review and Network Meta Analysis. The Lancet; 391 (10128):1357-1366.
2. Carvalho AF, Sharma MS, Brunoni AR, et al., 2016. The Safety, Tolerability and Risks Associated with the Use of Newer Generation Antidepressant Drugs: A Critical Review of the Literature. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics; 85(5):270–88.
3. Nelson, JC; Thase, ME, MD; and Khan, A, 2008. ASCP Corner: Are Antidepressants Effective? What’s a Clinician to Think? Journal of Clinical Psychiatry; 69(6):1014–1015.
4. Mental Health and Nutrition Research Group, University of Canterbury, multiple studies from 2009 to ongoing. Retrieved from: https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/science/schools-and-departments/psychology/research/mental-health-nutrition/
5. Doll, H, Brown, S, Thurston, A, et al.,1989. Pyridoxine (vitamin B6) and the premenstrual syndrome: a randomized crossover trial. The Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners, 39(326):364–368.
6. Jacka, F, O’Neill, A, Opie, R, et al., 2017. A Randomised Controlled Trial of Dietary Improvement for Adults with Major Depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BMC Medicine, 15:23.
7. Katz, RL, Keen, CL, Litt, IF, 1987. Zinc Deficiency in Anorexia Nervosa. Journal of Adolescent Healthcare, 8(5):400–406.
8. Firth, J, Stubbs, B, Sarris, J, et al., 2017. The Effects of Vitamins and Mineral Supplementation on Symptoms of Schizophrenia: A systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Psychological Medicine, 47(9):1515–1527.