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Nutrition: the missing link in mental health treatment

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Nutrition: the missing link in mental health treatment

Nutritional psychiatry is a realm of mental health treatment that sees nutrient deficiency as a major contributor to mental ill-health and poor wellbeing.

Nutritional psychiatry deals with multiple types of mental illnesses:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • ADHD

Why are we talking about this now?

From the nutritional psychiatry perspective, the Western diet is in such a poor state that our nutritional deficiencies have reached a level where they can impact our wellbeing and our mental health. Even though we are consuming more calories than ever before, even those at the top of the economic food chain may not be meeting their recommend levels of brain-essential nutrients. (1) (2)

Most developed countries have adopted a diet high in saturated fats and refined sugars, and we don’t have nearly enough variety of whole foods; fish, nuts, legumes, beans and vegetables are all missing from our everyday diet, causing us to become deficient in essential vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which are brain-essential nutrients. Studies have found that these are also the most common deficiencies amongst the mentally ill population. (3)

Over the past decade, the number of prescriptions for antidepressants has more than doubled in the UK, and has especially increased among the under-18 population. However, there is much evidence to suggest that antidepressants are not always effective, and also come bundled with unpleasant side effects that can have a massive impact on those taking the medications, including the development of dependancy. For these reasons, many are searching for different ways to manage their symptoms.

What does our gut have to do with our brain?

Your gut houses 80% of your immune system in what’s called your microbiome, the “good” bacteria that lives in your gut. Your microbiome protects you from the bad bacteria you ingest, it manages inflammation and it helps our body absorb the nutrients from food. 

Your gut also produces 95% of you body’s serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates your sleep, appetite, mood, and inhibits pain. In order to maintain proper serotonin levels, the cells in your gut need to be healthy and protected by the microbiome. (4)

The problem arises when the food we eat doesn’t provide the nutrients our microbiome needs to thrive. This causes not only our immune system to suffer, but the rest of our body suffers from lack of essential nutrients, including your serotonin production. Serotonin is a vital neurotransmitter, in charge of regulating how neurones all over the body react to incoming transmissions. Serotonin levels are directly linked to our behaviour; when levels are higher, we’re happier, and when they’re low, we’re more depressed. So, if we aren’t feeding our body consistent nutrients, our serotonin levels can be all out of whack. 

So, what did you have for breakfast?

What you choose to put in your body can directly impact how you feel throughout the day. A balanced meal, including a wide range of foods from vegetables, to fruit, to fish, fosters the best environment within your gut to allow your microbiome and your cells to thrive and function as they should. 

However, in the eyes of nutritional psychiatrists, those suffering from mental ill-health could be doing even more to correct their nutritional deficiencies. Nutritional psychiatrists believe this needs to start with doctors gaining a deeper understanding of nutrition, so they would be better equipped to advise mentally ill patients on how they could improve their nutrition. Something that could boost the strength of your microbiome are pre and probiotics. 

Studies have shown that people who add these types of foods to their diet report lower levels of anxiety, stress, and an improved mental outlook, compared to those who did not. (5)

Prebiotic foods feed the good bacteria: 

  • Onions
  • Leeks 
  • Asparagus
  • Garlic
  • Bananas 

Lactoferrin is essential to the maintenance of our gut health as well, as it fights off bad bacteria while also helping to maintain the structural integrity of the gut wall. It plays a key role in preventing leaky gut syndrome, which allows nutrients to leak out of the gut, inhibiting absorption. Lactoferrin stops that from happening, allowing the body to better absorb and utilise those nutrients. Leaky gut syndrome is a common cause of nutrient deficiencies and chronic inflammation.

Probiotic foods are the good bacteria: 

  • Sauerkraut
  • Pickles
  • Kefir
  • Kimchi
  • Miso
  • Kombucha

What does the science say?

Nutrition has a definite hand in your wellbeing; a poor diet damages your microbiome and leaves you deficient in vital nutrients. Research has shown that people who consume a more traditional diet, like the mediterranean diet, have a 25-35% lower risk of depression than those following a western diet. This is generally accredited to traditional diets including nutrient-rich whole foods, nutrients our bodies require to function properly. (6)

Deficiency in vitamin D has been linked to increased risk of schizophrenia and increased depressive symptoms, and a deficiency in B9 (folate) has been reported in depressed populations, as well as in poor responders to antidepressants. These nutrients are commonly found in a more traditional diet, but not in the Western diet. (7)

Antioxidants are also integral to proper brain function, especially glutathione, the body’s master antioxidant. While you can get most nutrients by simply eating a varied and colourful diet, glutathione is destroyed by the cooking process and is therefore not easily digestible from food. 

However, undenatured whey is provides cystine, glutamate and glycine, the precursor amino acids to glutathione — your body uses these amino acids to manufacture glutathione inside the cells. Glutathione is able to neutralise harmful reactive oxygen species in the brain, protecting your brain from damage that contributes to impaired function and heightened age-related deterioration. (8)

What’s the takeaway?

Nutritional psychiatry looks to a future that uses nutrition to correct the deficiencies created by our Western lifestyles, deficiencies that may be contributing to poor mental health — that starts with medical professionals recognising nutrition as a major component of mental health. (9)

In the meantime, you can support your own wellbeing by broadening your diet to include a variety of whole foods, by adding pre and probiotic foods to your diet and by encouraging others to take care of their bodies in the same way. 

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