Managing Mental Health Symptoms Post-Pandemic
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and this year it may hit closer to home than years past. The Novel Coronavirus has affected all of us and while we are each having a unique experience, I suspect there will be an increase in mental health symptoms in the coming months. Afterall, our way of life has been disrupted and many people are struggling with much more than the fear of becoming ill with the virus. Many are dealing with the loss of income, lack of social and physical interaction, fear of a changing world, fear of the unknown, and others may be caring for a loved one who has fallen ill with the virus.
Outside of the pandemic, mental health statistics are overwhelming:
· 1 in 5 children aged 13 – 18 have or will have a serious mental illness in their lifetime.
· 50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness start by age 14 and 75% by age 24.
· Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in people aged 10 to 24.
· 1 in 5 American adults experience mental illness.
· 1 in 25 American adults live with a serious mental illness.
· Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.
· 90% of those who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness.
As a dietitian, I believe our mental health crisis can be addressed with nutrition. “Mood follows food” and every type of mental health disorder can be improved with nutrition-related strategies.
My approach to healing brain health symptoms starts with an investigation of gut function. Dysbiosis is common in those with depression (and other mental health disorders), which can lead to neuroinflammation and altered neurotransmitter, hormone, and vitamin production in the gut. Healing the gut with targeted nutrient supplementation, nourishing foods, and the removal of triggering substances or stressors can provide significant mental health relief.
In addition to establishing a healthy gut, maintaining healthy blood sugar levels is vital. Blood sugar fluctuations and elevated insulin levels (even in those without diabetes) are implicated in depression. Following a meal plan that is high in plant-based fiber, and adequate in healthy fat and protein will help to normalize blood sugar and insulin levels. Avoiding high glycemic-low fiber and processed foods, artificial dyes, sweeteners, and food additives, as well as allergic or sensitive foods such as gluten, dairy, soy, and corn is also important for keeping blood sugar and insulin levels in control.
Focusing on brain-boosting nutrients is also powerful for improving brain health symptoms. Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, the B vitamins, and magnesium are of particular interest.
Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is important for neural cell signaling and quieting neuroinflammation. Choose fatty fish twice per week to help increase intake of these healthy fats, but a high-quality fish oil supplement can be helpful as well.
Vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency are very common, especially in those with mental health symptoms. Inadequate vitamin D levels impair immune function, but also affect oxidation and inflammation in the body. There are very few good food sources of vitamin D and sun exposure isn’t always possible, so vitamin D3 supplements are often helpful.
The B vitamins act as coenzymes in many cellular processes and B vitamin deficiency predisposes people to neurological disease. A large portion of the population are either deficient or marginally deficient in one or more B vitamins. B vitamins can be found in leafy greens, animal products, eggs, legumes, and nutritional yeast.
Magnesium is a co-factor required for many of the pathways, enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters associated with regulating mood and most Americans have inadequate intake of this important brain nutrient. Magnesium is found in dark chocolate, nuts, seeds, legumes, and leafy greens.
Another tool in my toolbox for improving brain health symptoms is intermittent fasting, which has been shown to reduce neuroinflammation. I typically recommend a 12-hour overnight fast but there are many different ways to fast and this should be personalized. For more specific information, check out my article.
Just as it is necessary to provide adequate brain health nutrients, it is equally important to avoid brain-harming substances. For example, gluten (the protein in some grains) and casein (the protein in milk) – have been implicated in schizophrenia, depression, and autism spectrum disorders.
While nutrition itself can dramatically improve mental health symptoms, lifestyle modification in several areas can work in conjunction with nutrition-related changes to enhance results. Some lifestyle changes include:
Creating and maintaining a routine schedule. Even when job and family situations are temporarily altered, it can be very comforting to maintain a healthy routine. Healthy sleep, exercise, and mealtime routines can improve brain health symptoms.
Creating time for daily self-care to effectively manage stress. Examples include a relaxing bath, gratitude journaling, healthy exercise, yoga, meditation, reading, listening to music, cooking healthy meals, and prayer.
Creating a healthy social support system and avoid isolating. While social distancing may be in place for quite some time, there are numerous options to stay connected and engaged with those you love.
Learning a new hobby or volunteering. Challenging yourself with a new hobby or volunteering can help boost confidence and take the focus off the internal struggle you may be experiencing.
Seeking individual or group therapy when necessary. This can easily be accomplished online via telehealth and can be an additional support for those with mental health symptoms.
A targeted nutrition approach to mental health can actually reverse symptoms and improve quality of life. Nutrition-related changes can be challenging, but should nevertheless, be a first line of defense.
If you are personally experiencing mental health symptoms, try some of the above suggestions and seek professional guidance. Nutrition and lifestyle related changes can provide much symptom relief. For a free fifteen minute discovery call contact us.
Amen, Daniel. (2020). The End of Mental Illness. Tyndale Momentum
Kennedy, D. (2016). B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose, and Efficacy – A Review. Nutrients. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4772032/
Mattson, M., Moehl, K., Ghena, N., Schmaedick, M., & Cheng, A. (2018) Intermittent metabolic switching, neuroplasticity and brain health. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Retrieved from: https://www.nature.com/articles/nrn.2017.156
Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Apostolopoulos, V. (2016). The Effects of Vitamin B in Depression. Current Medicinal Chemistry. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27655070
National Alliance on Mental Illness www.nami.org
Tarleton, E., Kennedy, A., Rose, G., Crocker, A., & Littenberg, B. (2019). The association between serum magnesium levels and depression in an adult primary care population. Nutrients. Retrieved from: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/11/7/1475/htm