Nutrition for Mental Health
I wish I had a dollar for every client that was told their symptoms were all in their head. The ironic part is that it may be true, but not in the hypochondriac sense. Many of the symptoms of mental distress originate as nutrient deficiencies in the brain. The pituitary, located in the brain, is the control center for all of the hormones in our bodies, and needs sufficient nutrition to orchestrate the endocrine system properly. So technically yes, the symptoms may be all in your head.
It's All In Your Head
We suffer from brain fog, memory loss, and depression but we are told it is "just old age." Well, I will not accept it. Old age is inevitable but the symptoms of poor mental health are not. I suffered from depression for a lot of my life, the kind where you are troubled on the inside and calm on the outside. I used to think depression was in my genes and there was nothing I could do about it. However, a simple understanding of what was going on inside my head, and I have been able to address this issue with real food and a healthy lifestyle.
Emotional stress is normal but a healthy system can overcome the mood swings. Medication may allow you to "kiss the blues away" but this is a temporary goodbye. The problem is the nutrient deficiency in the body creating the root cause of the mental problem is still brewing under the mask of medication and can often grow more severe if left unattended. Plus, pharmaceuticals cause more nutrient deficiencies in the body which in turn increases the severity of symptoms. Soon we feel worse, need a stronger dosage and begin to create a downward spiral in overall health.
The Body is Not Deficient in Pharmaceuticals
The medical prescription for depression is most often an anti-depressant or an SSRI which stands for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. That descriptive title means that the pills block the absorption of serotonin in the brain making more of it readily available. Unfortunately, as with most pharmaceuticals, your body gets used to this dose, starts to find a way around it, and inevitably you are a prescribed a higher dose. Raising a dose goes against the original intent of how these medications are to be used.
Candace B. Pert, a research professor at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington D.C. wrote to Time magazine in 1997 that she regretted ever creating SSRI's because they cause cardiovascular problems after long term use. She also mentioned that the public was misinformed about SSRI's, and that diet and lifestyle changes can better help mood and mental health.
"I am alarmed at the monster that Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Solomon Snyder and I created when we discovered the simple binding assay for drug receptors 25 years ago. Prozac and other antidepressant serotonin-receptor-active compounds may also cause cardiovascular problems in some susceptible people after long-term use, which has become common practice despite the lack of safety studies.
"The public is being misinformed about the precision of these selective serotonin-uptake inhibitors when the medical profession oversimplifies their action in the brain and ignores the body as if it exists merely to carry the head around! In short, these molecules of emotion regulate every aspect of our physiology. A new paradigm has evolved, with implications that life-style changes such as diet and exercise can offer profound, safe and natural mood elevation."
Dr. Candace B. Pert
Letter to the Editor of TIME Magazine, October 20, 1997, page 8.
Let's investigate what diet and lifestyle changes would need to occur. There are 5 neurotransmitters in the brain that act as chemical signalers and control the way we experience emotion.
5 Neurotransmitters in the Brain
- GABA - responsible for calming effect
- Serotonin - involved with perception, overall outlook of the world
- Norepinephrin - long term memory and mental energy
- Endorphin - mediates negative moods
- Dopamine - fine motor control, pleasure and arousal
The control of these signalers is balanced by the pool of nutrients we have in our body which is why a nutrient dense diet is so important. These neurotransmitters come from amino acids which are properly broken down in the stomach. Just to reiterate amino acids are proteins and can only be broken down in the stomach with a strong stomach acid. With most people the solution to their ailment can be linked to that fact alone.
Mental Health is Related to Gut Health
For example, I suffered from depression as a young adult, but I did not see the connections that existed in my diet and lifestyle. I was a strict vegetarian for 9 years so my protein, vitamin B, and iron levels were very low. I often took antacids because my stomach would act up. My stomach was acting up because it did not have enough protein to stimulate the stomach acid, but I did not yet understand that stomach acid is a crucial step in digestion. My poor body lacked the necessary nutrition to produce proper neurotransmitters. Still depressed I pushed harder, less animal protein, more antacids, etc., creating a harmful cycle.
When I shared my symptoms with doctors they recommended prescription strength antacids. This is tragic and still happening today. The problem was NOT that I had too much acid, it was that the lack of protein did not trigger the production of ENOUGH stomach acid to break down food. Thus, the stomach tried to "toss up" what it could not digest, which is what we see in GERD(Gastroesophageal reflux disease). Instead of furthering the problem with an antacid, the doctor should have recommended I eat a great big steak! Now I realize it was my fault for asking my doctor for nutritional advice because they do not study nutrition. It is not their area of expertise.
Exercise Improves Mental Health
The other prescription doctors offered me was an anti-depressant. Luckily, I was too afraid to try any. I somehow managed to stay at an operable level for a few years. In hindsight, I believe it was due to my activity level. I was dancing 4-6 hours a day. Come to find out, it was my saving grace. Neurotransmitters are affected by diet and exercise. You have probably heard people say they exercise because the endorphin rush makes them feel better. Well, that is exactly what I was doing. Based on my experience, the best way to avoid a mental meltdown is to eat a proper diet, or exercise all day long until you fall into bed, exhausted.
Neurotransmitters have been likened to the chemistry of emotions; they are essential to our mental health. The way you perceive the world is affected by these neurotransmitters as if they were all different lenses. If there is low serotonin, you see the world as depressing. Conversely, if there is ample dopamine you may experience the world as delightful. Too much dopamine however, may tip the scale towards paranoia. The chemistry must be in balance to control our emotions.
The best way to balance our emotions is to supply the body with adequate nutrition to build neurotransmitters. The best sources in the correct ratios come from animal proteins, for example, real grass fed butter offers the nutrients necessary to build GABA. A deficiency in GABA can lead to anxiety and panic attacks so remember to stay calm by eating your butter. I have been known to be a little anxious, okay very anxious, and not immune to minor panic attacks. However my tagline "saving the world one stick of butter at a time" comes from the fact that I think eating butter has saved my life. I have come a long way from losing my cool at the smallest mistake.
The one vitamin crucial for building most neurotransmitters and for this reason has been prevalent in the media is B6. Vitamin B6 is often recommend by doctors because so many things cause a deficiency in B6.
Causes of Low B6
- alcohol abuse (daily use)
- estrogen use
- food processing removes it from food
- low stomach acid
- antibiotics (also in the food supply ex. conventional beef)
- pharmaceuticals or recreational drugs
Vitamin B6 is abundant in animal proteins that are not fed antibiotics or living under stress. Grass fed meats and pasture raised animals are the best sources. Many people buy B6 or some B complex supplements but do not notice the effects promised by consumption. This is because the stomach acid must be strong enough to cleave the B vitamins, from the pill or the food ingested. Also like most vitamins, B's are like a puzzle piece that only fit into our body with the appropriate matching pieces. Not all vitamins present B6 in its natural form with all of the puzzle pieces aligned as it is in animal proteins. This is why it is sometimes said that vegans will not receive the same nutrition as omnivores. It is not impossible to build the 5 essential neurotransmitters unless we receive sufficient vitamin B6, amino acids, minerals and a few other nutrients in perfect proportions as nature provides for us in the meats, milks or eggs of animals.
If you have made the decision to lead a vegan lifestyle, I completely respect your choice, but please consider a child must have this nutrition while their body is growing and the effects of limiting their animal proteins can be detrimental to their mental health and physical growth.
The Plan of Action
If you feel that you are experiencing any deficiencies that may be "all in your head", I encourage you to look into your diet and see if you are consuming adequate proteins. Second, make sure that the stomach is creating enough acid to break down and absorb the essential building blocks for proper neurotransmitter production. It all starts by building a healthy food foundation and by that I mean eat your butter. As a general rule, remember if the food came from nature, is still in it's natural state and has been eaten for centuries, it is probably okay. If it was made in a lab or factory, leave it alone. We are simply not able to create food that is better than nature intended.
Please note, I do not advise that anyone stop taking a pharmaceutical that has been prescribed by a doctor. I will work hand in hand with your medical practitioner when you are ready to wean, but this takes a great deal of time and patience. It is mandatory that you build a healthy food foundation first and are providing the body with exactly what it needs for some time before you will notice the need for pharmaceuticals to diminish. The best thing you can do is start eating right today!