Nutrition for Mental Health
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. According to a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the pandemic has led to an increase in mental health symptoms for many U.S. adults. During the survey completed in June 2020, 40.9% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health and/or substance abuse:
· 31% reported experiencing anxiety and/or symptoms of depression
· 13% started or increased substance use
· 26% experienced trauma- or stressor-related symptoms
· 11% seriously contemplated suicide
It’s no secret that our way of life has been disrupted over the past year. Many people are dealing with the loss of income, lack of social and physical interaction, fear of a changing world, fear of the unknown, and the loss of or are caring for an ill loved one. While the mental health statistics during the pandemic are indeed alarming, it’s important to remember that mental health disease in general is pervasive in the United States.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness:
· 1 in 6 youth aged 6-17 will experience a mental health disorder during any given year.
· 50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness start by age 14 and 75% by age 24.
· Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in people aged 10 to 34.
· 1 in 5 American adults experience mental illness.
· 1 in 20 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.
On the surface, it may seem like there is little we can do to right this ship. However, I believe this crisis can be addressed with nutrition. “Mood follows food” and every type of mental health disorder can be improved with nutrition-related strategies. In fact, many mental health disorders can be prevented and/or reversed with proper nutrition and a healthy lifestyle.
Nutrition for Improved Mental Health:
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 powerful 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. A meal plan that is high in plant-based fiber and adequate in healthy fat and protein can help to normalize blood sugar and optimize 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 can also help keep 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.
· 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.
· B vitamins act as coenzymes in many cellular processes and B vitamin deficiency predisposes patients 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 more than 70 percent of 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.
Lifestyle Modification for Improved Brain Health:
While nutrition itself can dramatically improve symptoms of depression and other brain health disorders, lifestyle modification in several areas can work in conjunction with nutrition-related changes to enhance results. Some ideas include:
Create and maintain a routine schedule. It can be very therapeutic to maintain a healthy routine. Healthy sleep, exercise, and mealtime routines can work together to improve brain health symptoms.
Create 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.
Create a healthy social support system and avoid isolating. Work to stay connected and engaged with those you love.
Learn a new hobby or volunteer. Challenge yourself with a new hobby or volunteer, which can help boost confidence and take the focus off the internal struggle you may be experiencing.
Seek individual or group therapy. Telehealth has really opened up the options in this area. Being connected to a counselor or others with similar struggles can help ease mental health symptoms.
A targeted nutrition and lifestyle approach to mental health can actually prevent or reverse symptoms and improve quality of life. While these types of changes can seem challenging, they should nevertheless be the first line of defense.
If you're struggling with brain health symptoms, contact us for a free 15-minute discovery call.
Dr. Leslie Korn – culinary medicine lecture
Dr. Daniel Amen – “The End of Mental Illness”