But too often we blame ourselves for being weak, telling ourselves to snap out of it. A growing body of research is finding a strong link between what we put into our bodies and mental illness.
Food is your mood
While there may be an emotional component to mental illness, we can do a lot to improve our so-called mental health issues with nutrition. Modern food is depleting our bodies, and especially our brains, of nutrients fundamental to good brain chemistry and health. By balancing our nutrition while also addressing digestive problems - which is where most of our brain cells live, and where nutrients are absorbed and/or created in our bodies - we can help overcome mental health problems.
Some mental health statistics in Australia
Mental illness is common in Australia. One in five people aged 16-85 experience a mental illness in any year. The most common mental illnesses are depression, anxiety and substance use disorders. Of the 20% of Australians with a mental illness in any one year, 11.5% have one disorder and 8.5% have two or more disorders. Almost half (45%) of Australians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Suicide is the biggest killer of young Australians and accounts for the deaths of more young people than car accidents.
Food and brain chemistry
Research indicates a direct relationship between the nutrient pool within the body and the production of our personal brain chemistry, specifically the saturation or depletion of five neurotransmitters in the brain: GABA, serotonin, norepinephrine, endorphin, and dopamine. These specific transmitters help create the ‘chemistry of emotion’ and are responsible for the depth of moods, depression, anger management, problem resolution, and energy & activity levels we feel.
Our neurotransmitter levels are affected by the decisions we make about our diet, exercise, nervous system states (stressed or relaxed) and so on. One of the most influential controls over the levels of transmitters is nutrition. Our intake of quality vitamins, minerals, amino acids, essential fatty acids, enzymes impact the body’s level of neurotransmitters. If we don't make the necessary nutrients available to our body, we're unable to produce the proteins and thus neurotransmitters we need. Shortages of these nutrients can lead to anger, depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, drug and alcohol cravings, and unpleasant moods.
The role of digestion in mental health
We have more neurons (brain cells) in our gut than in our brain. Good digestion is key to producing the neurotransmitters our guts and brains need.
If our digestive system - beginning with our mouth and ending with our colon - is in a poor state with 'indigestion', IBS, SIBO, low stomach acid (which is chronic), yeast overgrowth, GERD and so on, then it follows that poor health and mental health will follow. You wouldn’t put third-grade fuel into a car that's never serviced and expect it perform optimally.
With the challenges of industrialised of food and processed diets, our increased reliance on drugs and alcohol, the reduced biodiversity in our food, our abandonment of the traditional diets our bodies have lived off for hundreds of thousands of years, lack of minerals in our soils caused by industrial farming, pesticides and other chemicals in our environment and high stress lives we live, we must take additional care to live and eat the way our bodies are designed for.
So many people believe they eat well, but they may need to address suboptimal food absorption through improving stomach acid, healing leaky gut, getting rid of parasites and increasing our enzymes. Nutritional therapy can assist with this process.
Some specific examples of how nutrients impact mental health
Vitamin B6 is a cofactor necessary to create
Foods high in B6 include turkey breast, grass-fed beef, pistachios, tuna, avocado, pinto beans and chicken breast. Good digestion is critical for B6 absorption.
Recent research shows that the immune system and inflammation can play a large role in depression and anxiety.
Examples of foods that can cause depression are too much caffeine or sugar and specific sensitivities to foods like gluten, soy, dairy, nuts and eggs. Deficiencies of the minerals calcium, copper, iron, magnesium and/or potassium are associated with depression.
Deficiencies of the vitamins biotin, folic acid, pyridoxine, riboflavin, thiamin, vitamin B12 and/or vitamin C are also associated with depression.
Excesses can be associated with depression too, such as too much magnesium or vanadium.
Good fat diets, not low-fat diets, are critical to mental health
The brain is comprised of about 70% fat, including cholesterol. 25% of the cholesterol in the human body is found in the brain, where it plays critical roles.
The brain needs essential Omega-3s for normal development, functioning and mood balance. Omega 3 fats, along with other healthy fatty acids, improve neurotransmitter activity, assisting brain cells to communicate with each other, enhancing brain-cell plasticity and reducing inflammation, which can damage brain cells. Omega 3 fats have been proven to reduce depression and mood disorders.
Our bodies can’t make Omega 3 fats meaning it’s important we include in our diet foods such as cold-water fish, grass-fed meats, flax and chia seeds, and walnuts.
The problem is that we eat way too many Omega 6 fats these days, largely through fried and processed foods, and not enough Omega 3s. Our brains need a balance of both.
While also essential to the body, processed and heated Omega 6 fats are of poor quality and are often rancid. Healthy Omega 6 fats can be found in fresh nuts, seeds and plant-based oils such as hemp seed, sesame and walnut. But avoid cooking with them as they're unstable and quickly turn toxic.
Most people need to focus on adding more Omega 3 fats.
As a final note, eat more vegetables!