Connection between Nutrition and Mental Health
article is about the connection between nutrition and mental health. What I say is
backed up by, or relies upon, many scientific studies. In my opinion nutritional
science is science at it’s best. And nutritional science in relation to mental
health is science at it’s very best. In discussing nutrition in regard to mental health I am in no way suggesting that diet is the only answer, or a complete answer, but it is nevertheless part of the answer, especially for young people whose brains are just developing.
I’ve always had an interest in the connection between nutrition and mental health, and my years as a Naturopath (1970s to 1990s) deepened this interest and my commitment to health in body and mind, and this in turn has informed my work with psychotherapy clients (1990 to the present day). In the last few years, my interest has been renewed because there is so much exciting research, especially research in the field of neuroscience, that is the functioning of the brain, and nutrition.
I will firstly introduce some of the leading pioneers of nutritional medicine for mental health. These pioneers are often controversial figures, because mainstream medicine - and mainstream opinion - have not caught up with their findings. Additionally, neuroscience is such a rapidly expanding field, that opinions are modified regularly. I will finish with a very brief discussion of dietary details.
Dr William Davis, cardiologist and health campaigner, says that
"The food you eat is making you sick and the agencies that are providing you with guidelines on what to eat are giving dangerous advice with devastating health consequences. You can change that today."
Dr Davis has a specific concern about gluten-containing foods, especially wheat. He says, “Consumption of modern wheat has been wreaking havoc on your metabolism, blood pressure, gastrointestinal tract, nervous system, even hormones. Remove wheat and your body begins to heal and undo the damaging effects.” He stresses, however, that there are several additional steps to take to fully retrace your way back to health. When Dr Davis says nervous system, he means the brain and our mental functioning.
Dr Davis’s special focus is diabetes and he claims that all diabetic symptoms can be removed by avoiding wheat totally.
Here is further information about eating wheat and all other gluten-containing grains and the claim that this disturbs the gut flora, and disturbed gut flora leads to symptoms that we label psychiatric.
Dr David Perlmutter, in his 2013 book “Grain Brain”, claims that you can keep your brain healthy, vibrant and sharp, and dramatically decrease the risk of developing any brain disease in the future. As a neurologist, with over 35 years of studying brain disease, Dr Perlmutter says that eating wheat and all other gluten-containing grains causes brain related disease, including ADHD, ADD, psychiatric illness including bi-polar disorder and age-related brain degeneration including dementia. This is an extraordinary claim! In his book, which includes recipes, he recommends an entirely grain-free diet, in fact low carbohydrate, with an increase in good fats. We’ll revisit those fats later. We could question whether or not other grains such as quinoa or rice, which do not contain gluten, are good foods for the brain. For Dr Perlmutter, however, all grains are out!
Dr Joseph Mercola is an osteopath and nutritionist, who takes up the issue of disturbed gut flora. Possibly because he represents alternative, rather than mainstream medicine, his opinions are considered particularly controversial. However, he did not discover the link between disturbed gut flora and mental illness - the connection has been understood for a long time. Remember that the reason we are focusing on gut flora is that the condition of our gut flora is related to our mental wellbeing.
Dr Mercola says that virtually everyone today suffers some gut-flora disturbance because our lifestyle can and does influence our gut flora on a daily basis. For example, your gut bacteria are extremely sensitive to:
- Chlorinated water
- Antibacterial soap
- Agricultural chemicals
- Genetically modified foods
All of these common exposures can alter the makeup of bacteria in your gut, but researchers are now increasingly looking at the cascading ill effects of antibiotics in particular.
Not only are antibiotics overused in medicine, the vast majority of these antibiotic drugs enter you via the food chain – you consume antibiotics every time you eat meat or milk products from an animal raised by conventional methods. In fact, about 80 percent of all the antibiotics produced are used in agriculture – not only to fight infection, but to promote unhealthy (though profitable) weight gain in the animals. If we are serious about optimum health, it is crucial that we avoid conventionally-raised meats.
According to a recent article in The Guardian, certain species of gut bacteria have been found to influence gene activity in our brains. According to the authors, microbiota (your gut flora) play a role in the communication between your gut and your brain. The genes in the brain - which gut bacteria influence - manipulate your behaviour, and your memory as well. Lets now concentrate on the gut-flora/mental health connection.
Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride is a specialist in the gut-flora and psychology syndrome, and she outlines this in her book “Gut and Psychology Syndrome.” Her approach is a natural treatment for autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, depression and schizophrenia. This is a very big claim. According to Dr Campbell-McBride the problem of imbalance in gut flora begins at birth or even earlier. She says that children with imbalanced gut flora are more prone to develop neurological disorders, such as ADD/ADHD and various learning disorders. Dr. Campbell-McBride claims that the epidemic in autism-spectrum and ADD conditions is due to an accumulated deficit in healthy gut bacteria caused by several generations of antibiotic use. I will further discuss epigenetics later in this talk. Dr. Campbell-McBride reveals that her own first born son was diagnosed autistic at the age of three. Her own profession, that of medicine, had nothing to offer. This threw her into a huge learning curve. She looked for solutions and found them. Then she went back to university and completed a second postgraduate degree in human nutrition and learned much more, which she then applied to her son. As a result, her son fully recovered from autism and is a normal adult. Dr Campbell-McBride’s interview is worth hearing in full.
Gut health can be improved through introducing good bacteria and avoiding the things which compromise the health and balance of gut bacteria. This is done by consuming pre-biotics and pro-biotics. Pre-biotics are non-digestible food ingredients that promote the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the intestines. Prebiotics are food for probiotics. Prebiotics are found in asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, onions, beans, chickpeas, lentils and supplementary fibres such as psyllium, pectin, guar gum and slippery elm. Probiotics are found in yoghurt, milk kefir, water kefir, kombucha, miso, sauerkraut, natto, tempeh and kimchi. To maintain a healthy gut microflora, small amounts of probiotic foods need to be consumed daily. Dr Campbell-McBride says it can take up to 2 years to completely recolonize the bowel with a stable population of healthy microflora. Healthy microflora will be approximately 4 times the number of cells in the body! They protect us against invasion, and promote our immune system.
Most essential nutrients, when deficient, produce symptom that affect the brain and therefore behaviour. An outstanding example is the case of a vitamin of the B group, niacin or B3. Dr Abram Hoffer, (1917-2009) was a psychiatrist and champion of “Orthomolecular Psychiatry”, or nutritional medicine as a way to treat mental disorders. Dr Hoffer pioneered the creation of the then-controversial treatment of acute schizophrenia through principles of respect, shelter, sound nutrition and the administration of large doses of water-soluble vitamins. In particular, Dr. Hoffer identified that large doses of Vitamin B3 (niacin) and Vitamin C could eliminate the symptoms of schizophrenia and reduce relapses. He dedicated his life to curing—not palliating—schizophrenia.
Niacine is not only useful in treating bi-polar disorder, but also depression, anxiety and stress - the body uses more niacin when stressed. Dr Hoffer said that niacin creates “peace of mind!”
Hoffer’s critical research showed how the body’s overall health could be restored by replenishing it with vitamins and minerals natural to it and eliminating toxic foods.
Dr Kelly Brogan works in holistic women’s health and psychiatry and focuses on the identification of root causes of symptoms and natural treatments for whole body wellness. She has an extensive website with much excellent information. Her aim is to reform the way psychiatry is practiced so it includes environmental and dietary medicine.
Dr Brogan has an article entitled “Go Gluten Free, Fix Your Brain”. This might be the last prescription you ever need, she says. If you want all the science behind this, go to
Dr Brogan discusses vitamin B12 and mental health. Functional deficiency is not the same as a “normal” reading that shows up in a blood test - readings can be within what is considered to be a normal range, but that particular person can still be deficient. A “normal” reading might therefore be “abnormal”.
We know that high consumption of alcohol results in deficiencies in Vit B12, and that any rehab programme is wise to include vit B12 injections. A brief word here on alcohol; there is no safe limit in pregnancy, because the developing foetus is particularly susceptible to damage from alcohol, but so are other organs, throughout life, specifically the brain, thyroid and other endocrine glands.
Back to vit B12. Dr Brogan cites the case of a “57 year old woman who was treated with months of both antipsychotic and antidepressant medications and given two rounds of electroconvulsive treatment before anyone bothered to check her vitamin B12 level. Her symptoms included tearfulness, anxiety, movement abnormalities, constipation, lethargy, and eventually perceptual disturbances (hearing her name called) and the ultimate in severe psychiatric pathology: catatonia. Despite her inpatient treatment, she remained suicidal, depressed, and lethargic.
Within two months of identifying her deficiency, and subsequent B12 treatment, she reverted to her baseline of 14 years previous, and remained stable with no additional treatment."
As Dr Brogan says, this is “a wake up call to the average psychiatric prescriber. Much of what we attribute to serotonin and dopamine “deficiencies” melts away under the investigative eye of a more personalized style of medicine that seeks to identify hormonal, nutritional, and immune imbalances that can “look psychiatric in nature”. What Dr Brogan is saying is that nutritional deficiencies can manifest in symptoms that could well be misdiagnosed as psychiatric illness. On her website, Dr Brogan details the science of Vit B12 to demonstrate how essential this vitamin is to our mental health.
Lets move to another vitamin, vitamin D. Vit D levels are of concern not only to Dr Brogan, but to all practitioners of nutritional neuroscience. Receptors for vit D are in the brain, making this an important vitamin in cognition, memory and movement. Its deficiency is associated with neurological disorders and depression, poor memory and inability to concentrate.
Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with major psychiatric symptoms. Interestingly, the current trend of suppressing cholesterol may be contributing to the association of low vitamin D with chronic illness. There is much we do not yet know about why low vit D levels in both men and women have reached epidemic proportions. Here is Australia, there have been so many doctors requesting vit D blood level testing for their patients, that the system has become overloaded. Until we understand more about the reason for low vit D levels (poor gut health and the widespread use of sunscreens seem to be contributing factors) we can supplement Vit D almost universally. The best sources in the diet are cod liver oil, caviar, oily fish, mushrooms, tofu and dairy products. The average adult requires about 8,000ius of vit D daily - 1 teaspoon of fish roe contains around 17,000 ius of vit D. Vit D is an oil-soluble vitamin, which means that we can store it in our body, for later use.
Another area of nutrition which contributes to mental malaise is food allergies. Dr Brogan provides a simplified discussion on food allergies, by saying that the culprits are usually gluten, corn, soy and dairy. Anyone with mood disorders or a psychiatric diagnosis can eliminate these foods for three months, then do a 3 day challenge of one of these foods. If mental and physical symptoms are then aggravated, continued abstinence of that food is obviously wise. Undigested proteins from these allergic foods pass into the blood stream and attach themselves to opioide receptors in the brain, causing an inflammatory response. In this sense these foods can be addictive and drive behaviour.
Attachment to opioid receptors is the same response the brain has to high-sugar foods - more on that later.
Gary Johnston of the Golding Institute in Australia is a psychotherapist and clinical hypnotherapist with 30 years clinical experience. He specializes in the science of nutrition for the mind and nervous system. His research is essential information for anyone with anxiety, depression and “the more aggressive mental disorders”. Gary Johnston specializes in anxiety disorders and trauma and is an expert in the relationship between nutrition and mental health. You will find many of the points I make here being expanded upon by him.
Gary Johnson emphasizes that in order to make psychological intervention effective the biochemical undercurrents must be dealt with first. If a person who suffers from anxiety or depressive disorders is not able to concentrate or think clearly psychological interventions don't work. An integrated approach using both psychonutritional strategies and psychological interventions get much better and lasting results.
Dr John Arden, PhD, has 35 years of experience in providing psychological services and directing mental health programmes. His focus is nutritional neuroscience, and he recommends life-style management and a specific dietary framework to support mental health. He will be in Australia in May 2015, in Melbourne and Brisbane to present his integrated approach. Dr Arden stresses that to support the brain’s natural tendency towards neuroplasticity, which basically means that we CAN rewire the brain and teach the old dog new tricks, we need to feed it the right things, in terms of nutrition, as well as life-style choices, and beneficial therapy processes. His book, “Brain2Brain: Enacting Client Change Through the Persuasive Power of Neuroscience”, is truly exciting.
As an example, Dr Arden points out that in PTSD there is a reduction in the size of the hippocampus, a part of the brain. Demonstrating neuroplasticity, he says that the hippocampus can regrow and regain normal size, through good diet, (specifically no gluten and lots of good fats) the stimulation of a brain hormone called neurotropic factor, aerobic exercise and brain exercises. It is exciting to know that nutritional neuroscience demonstrates that what a person eats can either dismantle or enhance their brain function. Related to this is the field of psycho-immuno-neurology; where we understand how the psychology of the patient effects how their brain works, and this in turn effects the quality of their immune system. Dr Arden emphasizes that in order for the brain to grow, for consciousness to rise, we also need a sense of safety. A simple example is that a child’s brain will not grow, and the child cannot learn, when it is shouted at.
Let’s look at some of the specifics of nutritional neuroscience, that is diet and brain chemistry. Dr Arden recommends evenly spaced, small meals. Smaller meals, 3 to 4 times daily provide the best support for memory and stable moods. He emphasizes breakfast as the foundational meal of the day, for people of all ages. Skipping breakfast leads to cognitive deficits, mood swings and depression, lower energy and increased response to stress.
Dr Arden advises that we eliminate sugar and refined carbohydrates entirely. Fruit should be kept to a maximum of one piece per day, and fruit juice and dried fruit avoided. Many neurologists are now calling Alzeimer’s disease “type 3 diabetes”, because of too much glucose in food, and therefore in the brain. This causes slow-firing nerve-cells, and the death of cells. The brain cells prematurely age by becoming stiff and rigid, making it more difficult to learn. A 2013 Harvard study shows that high sugar foods - typically processed foods – actually turn on a part of the brain that is affected by cocaine and crack, the opiode receptors. This is not a healthy-promoting response!
Dr Arden reminds is that tryptophan is essential in the diet, as it is converted into serotonin, which produces healthy sleep and a stable mood. High tryptophan foods include nuts, seeds, tofu, cheese, red meat, chicken, turkey, fish, oats, beans, lentils, and eggs.
We have heard a great deal about good fats and bad fats in the last few decades, especially in relation to blood cholesterol levels. In relation to the brain, the bad fats interfere with the smooth functioning of nerve cells. Bad fats are found in fried foods, most manufactured foods, margarine, and most vegetable oils such as corn oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil and canola oil. The good fats are those that are high in omega 3 fatty acids, and are found in fish, fish roe, fish oils, krill, marine algae and phytoplanktons, chia seeds, walnut oil, olive oil, avocadoes, flaxseed oil, hemp oil, free-range eggs and grass-fed beef. Coconuts contain something rare in nature - medium-chain fatty acids - and therefore are considered good fats.
Related to neurobiology is the field of epigenetics. Dr Bruce Lipton, a cellular biologist, in his book “The Biology of Belief” demonstrates that the "environment" that your genes respond to also includes your conscious thoughts, emotions, and unconscious beliefs. In other words, emotions can regulate genetic expression. We are not, therefore, victims of our genes. Even if your forbears experienced certain illnesses or character traits, we can either switch on or switch off those genes.
According to Dr. Lipton, the true secret to life does not lie within your DNA, but rather within the mechanisms of your cell membrane. Each cell membrane has receptors that pick up various environmental signals, and this mechanism controls the "reading" of the genes inside your cells. Your cells can choose to read or not read the genetic blueprint depending on the signals being received from the environment. The genetic information does not ever have to be expressed. What this all means is that you are not controlled by your genetic makeup. Instead, your genetic readout (which genes are turned "on" and which are turned "off") is primarily determined by your thoughts, attitudes, and perceptions! And your diet!
This new science of epigenetics also reveals that you are in fact an extension of your environment, which includes everything from your thoughts and belief systems, to toxic exposures and exposure to sunlight, exercise, and, of course, everything you choose to put onto and into your body. As Dr. Lipton is fond of saying, the new biology moves you out of victimhood and into Mastery—mastery over your own health.
So the good news is that you are in control of your genes. You can alter them on a regular basis, depending on the foods you eat, the air you breathe, and the thoughts you think. It's your environment and lifestyle that dictates your tendency to express disease, and this new realization is set to make major waves in the future of disease prevention -- including one day educating people on how to fight disease at the epigenetic level. When a disease occurs, the solution, according to epigenetic therapy, is simply to "remind" your affected cells (change its environmental instructions) of their healthy function, so they can go back to being normal cells instead of diseased cells.
You can begin to do this on your own, long before you manifest a disease. By leading a healthy lifestyle, with high quality nutrition, exercise, limited exposure to toxins, and a positive mental attitude, you encourage your genes to express positive, disease-fighting behaviors. Dr Lipton says “genes don’t determine the fate of cells. The environment determines the fate of our cells, not the genetic pattern. So if cells are in a healthy environment, they are healthy. If they’re in an unhealthy environment, they get sick.” One of the most important environmental factors that will help genes to express healthily, is diet. Each of us is in charge of what we eat, and therefore our genetic expression.
Dr Lipton also says that “your perception of any given thing, at any given moment, can influence the brain chemistry, which, in turn, affects the environment where your cells reside and controls their fate. In other words, your thoughts and perceptions have a direct and overwhelmingly significant effect on cells.” Dr. Lipton emphasizes that it comes down to how the subconscious mind, which contains our deepest beliefs, has been programmed. It is these beliefs that ultimately cast the deciding vote. So, here we are in the Jung Study Group, back to the idea that it is the unconscious that we need to wrestle with.
Dr. Lipton says: “I used to say, ‘You are personally responsible for everything in your life,’ but people would look at me as if I’d slapped them. Now I say, ‘Once you become aware of the fact that invisible programs from the subconscious mind are running your life, then you are responsible for it.’
According to Dr. Lipton, we can rewire the brain in many ways. “Through processes such mindfulness, or a series of psychological reprogramming modalities, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), we can rewrite those destructive programs that occupy our subconscious field.” Some not so new techniques are analysis, dream work, and living the examined life.
In 2015 Dr Lipton was one of the speakers at the Uplift Festival in Byron Bay
Bio-Balance and Dr William Walsh
Bio-Balance Australia's primary aim is to make available in Australia information on the use of a comprehensive biochemical assessment and advanced complementary nutritional treatment of a range of disorders such as behavioural disorders, ADD, ADHD, learning disorders and Autism as well as mental disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression.
Techniques used are based on work originally developed by Dr. Carl Pfeiffer as well as world leading doctors specializing in the treatment of Autism. This work has produced remarkable outcomes. An example is the work they do with pyrrole disorder, which is a genetic condition where certain vitamins and minerals ore deficient.
Much of what I have summarised above is gathered together and offered as an integrated programme in Australia through Bio-Balance. Bio-Balance Health supports on a not for profit basis the training of Doctors in Australia.
This training is led by Dr. William Walsh PhD of the Walsh Research Institute and world leading Doctors specializing in the treatment of Autism. The Bio-Balance Health Association Inc is a registered Charity and not-for-profit organization run by voluntary effort.
Bio-Balance Health was initiated by two Australians in 1998 following their visit to Health Research Institute – Pfeiffer Treatment Center (now closed) in the USA and discussions there with Dr. William Walsh, founder and Scientific Director of HRI-PTC. They were so impressed with the work being done there in treating patients with mental and behavioural disorders and the outcomes being achieved that they resolved to take action to make these assessment and treatment techniques available in Australia.
Following their return to Australia, they joined with a number of like minded people to set up Bio-Balance Health Association Inc. The association is a not-for-profit community organization dedicated to the task of making comprehensive biochemical assessment and advanced complementary nutritional treatment techniques readily available in Australia, disseminating information about these techniques and supporting further research and development in the fields of biochemical assessment and treatment of mental, behavioural and autistic disorders.
After considerable preliminary work to ensure access to the required assessment facilities, Bio-Balance's efforts resulted in Dr. William Walsh visiting Australia in 2004 to train an Australian doctor and to address public and doctor meetings in Sydney, Brisbane and on the Gold Coast. The success of this visit led to Dr. Walsh return to Sydney each year to conduct Outreach Clinics, training more Australian and New Zealand doctors and addressing Conferences.
Dr. William Walsh PhD, who established the Walsh Research Institute in 2008, is continuing this work together with world leading Doctors specializing in the treatment of Autism.
Dr Sue Shepherd, and FODMAPs.
To extend further our understanding of food allergies and intolerances, the Australian researcher Dr Sue Shepherd developed the low FODMAP diet in 1999. She has proven, through her pioneering PhD research, that limiting dietary FODMAPs is an effective treatment for people with symptoms of IBS and impaired gut health. And remember the connection between gut health and mental well-being.
FODMAPs is an acronym (abbreviation) referring to Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols. These are complex names for a collection of molecules found in food, that can be poorly absorbed by some people. When the molecules are poorly absorbed they act as a food source to the bacteria that live in the gut. The bacteria then digest/ferment these FODMAPs and this can cause symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). And remember again the connection between healthy gut and mental health.
The Wahls Protocol is an integrative approach to healing chronic auto-immune conditions by a doctor, researcher, and sufferer of progressive multiple sclerosis. Here is a TEDx talk that outlines Dr Wahls approach.
Like many physicians, Dr. Terry Wahls focused on treating her patients’ ailments with drugs or surgical procedures—until she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000. Within three years, her back and stomach muscles had weakened to the point where she needed a tilt-recline wheelchair. Conventional medical treatments were failing her, and she feared that she would be bedridden for the rest of her life.
Dr. Wahls began studying the latest research on autoimmune disease and brain biology, and decided to get her vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids from the food she ate rather than pills and supplements. Dr. Wahls adopted the nutrient-rich paleo diet, gradually refining and integrating it into a regimen of neuromuscular stimulation. Now she shares the details of the protocol that allowed her to reverse many of her symptoms, get back to her life, and embark on a new mission: to share the Wahls Protocol with others suffering from the ravages of multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune conditions.
Food Guidelines: very briefly!
- Avoid processed foods
- Eat fresh, seasonal, local
- Eat smaller meals 3 or 4 times daily, and avoid a heavy meal at night.
- Consider checking levels of Vit D and B12 and other vits.
- If you have allergies, consider FODMAPS
- Avoid sugar.
- Go grain free, or gluten free at least
- Emphasize foods that contain “good fats” such as coconut, fish, fish roe, fish oils, krill, marine algae and phytoplanktons, chia seeds, walnut oil, flaxseed oil, hemp oil, free-range eggs and grass-fed beef and dairy products.
- Increase natural minerals in your diet, especially through bone broths.
- Add probiotics to you diet daily in the form of naturally fermented foods, such as milk kefir, water kefir, yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, natto etc. Most of these are easy to make at home.
- Include high tryptophan foods - nuts, seeds, tofu, cheese, red meat, chicken, turkey, fish, oats, beans, lentils, and eggs.
- Keep yourself well-hydrated by drinking plain water. Insufficient hydration can contribute significantly to brain impairment. Soft-drinks and sports drinks do not provide hydration, primarily because of the sugar they contain.
Lifestyle guidelines: even more briefly!
- Exercise – be active at any age
- Sleep hygiene – healthy sleep architecture is critical for cognition, emotional stability and all body functions. Brain waves are different as the hours of sleep pass, with the peak of REM sleep being between the 6th and 7th hour, and tapering off in the 8th hour. The message is that we DO need the full 8 hours to function well. Sleep is critical for memory consolidation. Medication-induced sleep and the effects of caffeine and alcohol intake, contribute to shallow and disturbed sleep. A single night of sleep deprivation causes a significant decrease in healthy brain activity. We need to consider sleep disruption as a cause of depression, rather than a symptom of it. Exposure to bright light in the day enhances sleep, exposure to bright light at night inhibits natural sleep cycles. TV and computer screens, even mobile phones, are sources of bright light at night. Ideally, do not expose yourself to these sources after the sun goes down, especially if you are experiencing sleep disturbances.
- Avoid environmental chemicals - uncontaminated air, uncontaminated food, uncontaminated water.
- Avoid exposure to microwave radiation, specifically from mobile phone towers and mobile devices themselves.