We all know someone that suffers from anxiety or depression and the common solution is to write a prescription. Mental health is treated the same as other chronic physical conditions, we are told to take a pill and hope things get better. Rarely is there any investigation of what could be the root cause of our mental health troubles.
However, we cannot overlook the role of nutrition in supporting mental health. Why does what I eat have anything to do with how I feel you may ask.
Everything we eat becomes part of our bodies – part of our cells, part of our hormones and part of our brains. If we feed ourselves the wrong thing, it becomes toxic. If we don’t feed ourselves enough of the right thing we develop deficiencies. What you eat has EVERYTHING to do with your mental health.
Understand it all in my two part series.
Is our mental health deteriorating? Setting the scene…
The saying “you are what you eat” is particularly applicable where mental health is concerned. There are an exponentially increasing number of adults, teenagers and children showing signs of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and behavioural problems. I suspect that there are plenty more undiagnosed mental disorders that might not necessarily fit a clinical diagnosis, but certainty tend towards depressive or anxious tendencies. I see so many of the people I love struggle with anxious or depressive feelings, myself included.
Sadly like with most other health conditions, the accepted medical paradigm is to write a prescription for a pill and ignore any possible underlying factors.
In 2011 in Australia 1.7 million people (7.8% of the Australian population) who had at least one PBS subsidised prescription for Antidepressant medications filled in 2011. (1) These numbers have undoubtedly increased in the last six years. Far too many people are on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs aka anti-depressants); benzodiazepines for anxiety; Ritalin for ADD; and various other prescription drugs for mental health problems.
There is no doubt we are seeing mental health conditions growing. This is like most other modern diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
But could there be a link between our worsening mental health and our increasingly nutrient depleted diets?
I think yes. Read on to understand why what you eat is critical to your mental health.
What does nutrition have to do with mental health?
The role of nutrition in the regulation of mental health is incredibly important and many mental health conditions can be attributed to nutritional deficiencies. You need to right building blocks to regulate your moods. These nutrient deficiencies and the associated mental health issues may well be corrected with the right nutritional interventions. In this sense mental health can be viewed is as much a physical condition as it is psychological.
As with all things in nutrition, without adequate digestion and assimilation of the right nutrients mental and physical issues caused by deficiencies can spiral out of control.
Remember: We are just a collection of atoms and cells that require a balanced array of the right chemicals function well.
What are these chemicals? The nutrients found in food (like zinc, magnesium, amino acids and more).
In this two-part series we look at 1) the critical nutrients required to support good mental health and 2) the importance of adequate digestive function for your body to acquire those very important nutrients.
Two key factors: Nutrient consumption and the body’s terrain
Like our physical health our mental health is dependent on the right balance of chemicals and their ability to perform millions of reactions that control how we feel and perceive situations. Particularly important chemicals where our mental health is concerned are:
Neurotransmitters and hormones
These substances play critical roles in regulating our emotions and both of these are derived from the right minerals and vitamins. As with all chemicals in the body there are two components that will dictate nutrient availability.
- Consumption of the right micronutrients, minerals and vitamins
- The correct terrain to absorb and synthesise other nutrients, ie: good digestive function.
First the right micronutrients are important for providing the building blocks of key emotional regulators, neurotransmitters and hormones. Neurotransmitters and hormones control how we see the world. If we have too much testosterone for example we will be aggressive. Too little serotonin will make us sad. I explain what does what a bit later on.
What are neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are the chemicals required by the nervous system to relay signals between nerve cells and neurons to enable certain emotions and behaviours. They act more locally than other hormones, at a cell-to-cell level. Neurotransmitters can have either an excitatory or inhibitory effect by stimulating or depressing the nerve cells respectively. Balance of these stimulant and depressant effects is essential for mental balance.
In reality our neurotransmitters, or lack thereof, control how we feel and react to things.
In part II of this series we will look at what neurotransmitters are made from and how to ensure you have a health balance.
If you are really struggling with mental health issues, then you may need additional support to complement positive diet and lifestyle changes. A therapist or pyschologist could help you identify and work through key issues. What is the difference between a therapist and psychologist, and how do you find one?