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Diet & Mental Health

Mental illness affects millions of people every year. 

It is estimated that during a lifetime, more than 25% of individuals develop at least one mental or behavioral disorder.  If left untreated, persons living with severe mental health illness are more likely to die over 20 years earlier, on average, than the rest of the population.

Mental Health & The Body

The subject of mental health as a physical disorder is relatively new. Emotional stress, trauma and abuse can result in reactions within the body that manifest as physical disease. Using therapy and positive thinking alone to ward off symptoms is often insufficient.

Many mental disorders also have a physiological cause and can be linked to problems in areas including the thyroid, gut, adrenal glands or hormones. 

Underlying physical conditions of mental health disorders can be addressed through dietary changes and lifestyle support combined with professional therapy or medication. 

There are a few physical concerns closely tied to mental wellness:

Inflammation

Inflammation can be triggered by poor dietary choices, food allergies or sensitivities, genetic predisposition and childhood trauma amongst others. Causes are often multi-factorial and can escalate quickly when triggered by chronic issues.  

When left unchecked, inflammation often targets the gut, endocrine organs, and the brain itself which can trigger mental health issues. Studies now point to the growing connection between systemic inflammation and the development of many common chronic diseases, including depression

To adequately address inflammation, it becomes important to address dietary, lifestyle, and environmental triggers.

Gut Health

The gut has a huge impact on brain function, and is closely tied to disorders like depression and anxiety. The gut is carefully designed to allow digested nutrients into the bloodstream whilst keeping out toxins with an intricate lining. When this lining malfunctions, toxic particles can enter the bloodstream and lead to inflammation, chronic conditions, food reactions, and more.

The brain-gut pathway forms a part of the body’s nervous system. This pathway is how a permeable gut lining along with other intestinal or digestive issues can be connected with neurotransmitter imbalances. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for providing stability and acting as an antidepressant, is mostly made in the gut. The gut can communicate with and influence the brain by sending messages through the nerves. This can create mood issues when the gut is inflamed or imbalanced. 

Since the gut is responsible for digestion and absorption of nutrients, deficiencies can also occur through an inability to adequately digest, absorb, or utilize nutrients.

The Role Of Diet

Studies confirm that people with poor dietary habits are more likely to develop depression, anxiety, and other types of mental illnesses as a result of inflammation. Foods that make up a poor diet include refined and processed foods made with sugars, grains and seed oils.  Over consumption of refined starches and sugars pose a higher likelihood for a person developing depression. 

Anti-Inflammatory Paleo Diet

An anti-inflammatory Paleo diet has been shown to significantly help people manage mental health illnesses. With that in mind, you can refine your Paleo diet for better mental health. 

Nutrients Supporting Mental Health

B Vitamins

Deficiencies in vitamin 12, folate and vitamin B6 can cause a rise in homocysteine blood levels associated with causing mental illness. A deficiency in folate accelerates depression by affecting a person’s monoamine metabolism. People with depression have been shown to have 25% lower levels of folate compared to healthy people. 

B vitamins can be found in:

  • Animal foods for vitamin B12
  • Green vegetables
  • Beetroots
  • Liver
  • Broccoli
  • Beef

Omega-3 Fats

Omega-3 fats are important for brain health and other deficiencies that contribute to the development of mental illnesses due to the role they play in gene expression, neuronal survival, dopamine and serotonin transmission, neuron growth and transcription and membrane fluidity.

Studies show a correlation between a deficiency in omega-3 and depression. Clinical trials have revealed taking adequate amounts of omega-3 improves symptoms of ADHD, bipolar disorders, depression, and schizophrenia. A 1 g daily intake of omega-3 in the form of DHA and EPA was found to support cognitive function.

Some recommended sources of omega-3 are:

  • Seafood, particularly mackerel and salmon
  • Nuts, especially walnuts
  • Lamb

Amino Acids

Specific types of amino acids reduce symptoms of mental illness while supporting mental health. Depression is associated with low levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine, noradrenaline, GABA, and serotonin. These neurotransmitters require certain amino acids such as tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin and has been known to reduce depression and OCD disorders. The amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine are converted into the transmitters norepinephrine and dopamine which support mental well-being.

When ATP is combined with methionine, an amino acid, it produces SAM (S- adenosylmethionine), which helps alleviate depression symptoms. Glycine has proven to reduce schizophrenia symptoms. The amino acid taurine plays an important role in reducing the manic episodes associated with bipolar disorder.

There are many Paleo sources of amino acids including:

  • Grass-fed beef
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Lamb
  • Pork
  • Organs
  • Bone broth

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Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a strong contributor to your mental health. Studies continue to associate low levels of vitamin D with depression and schizophrenia.

 Read on here for more on the importance of Vitamin D

For some people, taking vitamin D supplements may be necessary to obtain sufficient vitamin D to impact mental health. Although research is still ongoing, the link between vitamin D and mental health has a lot to do with vitamin D receptors being present in the hypothalamus thus giving it a role in the regulation of the neuroendocrine function.

Sources of vitamin D include:

  • Sunlight
  • Fatty fish
  • Egg yolks
  • Full-fat dairy (if tolerated)
  • Liver 

Zinc

Zinc plays a very important part in maintaining the function and structure of the brain. A zinc deficiency is associated with ADHD and clinical depression. Research shows that zinc supplements can greatly reduce symptoms of depression, impaired socialization, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.

Some of the best sources of zinc are:

  • Shrimp
  • Liver
  • Oysters
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Beef

Antioxidants

Antioxidants can help combat internal sources of oxidation and damage, helping you fight inflammation from the inside. 

Good sources of antioxidants include 

  • Citrus fruits
  • Bell peppers
  • Blueberries

Blueberries are also a good source of flavonoids, which can help provide anxiety relief. 

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Lifestyle Factors

Personalizing your diet and lifestyle to suit your own needs is an essential first step. Avoid known allergens and sensitivities as well as environmental exposures that can lead to toxicity, inflammation, and gut problems.

Beyond following Paleo diet and avoiding allergens and sensitivities as well as environmental exposures that can lead to toxicity, inflammation, and gut problems, there are a few extra ways to help your brain function at its best.

Avoid Sugar

Sugar is one of the driving factors of inflammation, which worsens mental well-being. Sugar stimulates the release of dopamine which temporarily eases feelings of angst, sadness, anxiety and depression. Over time chronic overstimulation from dopamine hits will lead the brain to synthesize less, leaving you more dependent on sugar to feel well. 

To quit sugar for mental health, avoid all forms of sweeteners, including honey, coconut sugar, and even stevia. This is important because simply the taste of sweetness can be enough to initiate that dopamine response. You want to allow the brain to receive dopamine boosts from factors other than sugar.

Avoid Alcohol

Drinking alcohol changes the way the brain and nervous system function, and interferes with the brain’s basic ability to communicate. 

Alcohol can also disrupt the balance of bacteria in the gut microbiome, increase chronic inflammation and worsen symptoms of mental illness. It can also play a role in gut permeability, leading to malabsorption of crucial nutrients.  

When battling mental health challenges, it is important to avoid stimulants like sugar and alcohol that impact neurotransmitter function. This will give your body the chance to re-balance the nervous system communication and synthesis of neurotransmitters.

Exercise

Exercising and moving your body regularly boosts your mood. Studies show that exercise reduces depression and anxiety while at the same time improving your cognitive ability.

When it comes to mental health, exercising outside in the natural light is highly beneficial. Something as simple as a 15-20-minute walk a few times a week can improve mood, self-esteem, overall well-being, and happiness of moderately depressed people. 

Learn more about how to be less sedentary and move your body here

The stigma associated with mental illness can become a burden making it challenging to associate with others in a normal setting, find work, or generally live a normal and healthy life. If a mental illness is left unchecked, it can spiral out of control. Accumulating research in the field of neuroscience has confirmed that nutrition can significantly impact mental health. 

With the primary focus of the Paleo diet being on nutrient density and lifestyle practices to improve your mental health, it comes as no surprise that a lot of people suffering from mental health illnesses find tremendous improvements in their mood, focus, energy and mental clarity once they incorporate a well-formulated Paleo diet plan into their treatment program.

Michal Ofer is a wellness and digestion expert and nutrition coach. She is focused on assisting clients to take control of their health and happiness through the sustainable food and lifestyle choices that best support them. Through strengthening the body from the inside out, her clients are able to reach new heights of health, happiness and wellness. Michal obtained her Professional Training and Certificate from The Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York. She has a further studied through the University of Colorado (Boulder) and Stanford University and is a Certified 21 Day Sugar Detox Coach. Michal has also received a Bachelor’s Degree in Life Sciences and a Master Life Coach Certification. For further information and to connect with Michal visit her website at www.michalofer.com