Understanding the Connection between Nutrition and Mental Health

Meat and vegetables. Image: Pexels - Malidate Van

How you think, and feel is directly affected by what you eat. Eating the right food has been proven to boost your IQ, improve your mood and emotional stability, sharpen your memory, and keep your mind young. — Patrick Holford, Author of Optimum Nutrition for the Mind

Over the years in my practice, I have seen an increase in anxiety, depression, insomnia, mood swings, mental exhaustion, ADHD, addiction, and eating disorders. I have also seen how nutrition and supplement intervention have played a significant role in improving these conditions. There is so much we can do with the power of food and neural nutrient support to create balanced brain chemistry and improve the way in which we feel, think, function, and behave.

Mood swings, fatigue, apathy, poor memory, lack of concentration, difficulty sleeping, depression, postpartum blues, irritability, overeating, food cravings, addictions, anxiety, ADD/ADH, OCD, and more, can all have powerful improvement when the brain receives proper nourishment.

There are many effective nutritional strategies that are necessary for improvement in mental health, (far too many to mention here), so I choose what I think are the top 5 most important interventions.

1. Protein is Essential

Protein is the source for essential amino acids needed to produce neurotransmitters in the brain — “the feel-good hormones.” The production of Serotonin (natural antidepressant), GABA (natural tranquilizer), Catecholamines (adrenaline, norepinephrine, dopamine — natural stimulants), and Endorphins (natural opiates), and others are dependent on the protein you eat, digest, and assimilate. Just by increasing the protein in your diet, you may be able to experience improvement in depression, anxiety, insomnia, restless legs, and your ability to feel good and handle stress optimally.

If you eat tryptophan-rich protein like wild game meat, organ meat, grass-fed beef, chicken, turkey, or cottage cheese, you lay the foundation for serotonin production. Serotonin is your inner sunshine. It makes you feel happy, boosts your mood, and keeps depression at bay. Serotonin also helps make melatonin which is your key to deep restorative sleep.

The amino acid Tyrosine which is highest in wild game meat, organ meat, grass-fed beef, pork, cottage cheese, and turkey, helps to produce the catecholamines — adrenaline, norepinephrine, and dopamine. These neurotransmitters turn on your inner fire. They help you feel good, keep you feeling motivated, driven, alert, focused, and help you handle stress.

GABA — an amino acid and neurotransmitter — helps keep you calm and pacifies anxiety. The production of GABA is made possible by the taurine-rich proteins like shellfish (scallops, mussels, clams), halibut, dark poultry, A2 milk, and beef liver.

Ensuring you are receiving adequate protein at each meal and adding an additional protein powder or full-spectrum amino acid powder, is a great first step in improving mental health.

2. The Brain-Regenerative Diet Must be Fat-Centric

Essential fatty acids feed and fuel the brain and are imperative for intelligence, memory, focus, and concentration. Many mental imbalances like ADD, Schizophrenia, and depression and neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s have been linked to a deficiency in essential fatty acids. In addition, omega-3 fatty acids help maintain brain homeostasis, which is beneficial for neurological diseases, traumatic brain injury, and sleep disturbances.

The best fats for your brain are from fresh wild-caught fish (wild salmon, cod, sardines, herring. mackerel), fish oil, grass-fed beef, tallow, suet, duck fat, butter, ghee, avocado, olives, walnuts. coconut, MCT oil, and cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. Incorporating 4 small servings of healthy fats a day in addition to an omega-3 supplement will do wonders for your brain function, acuity, and mental health.

3. B Vitamins Are a Necessity

There are many vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that are important for healthy brain function, but the B Vitamins stand out to be among the most important, especially for mental health. B Vitamins play out so many different functions in the brain and they are also the key cofactors (along with zinc and magnesium) in converting amino acids into neurotransmitters. Without adequate Bs, the feel-good hormones don’t get produced and our memory, mental and emotional, well-being, and behavior can be affected. For example, Vitamin B6 (and zinc) is necessary to convert tryptophan into serotonin. If you do not have enough B6, serotonin production will be suboptimal and that can contribute to the formation of depression. Niacin deficiency (vitamin B3) has also been linked to Schizophrenia and OCD. Vitamin B1 (thiamine) is correlated to depression, confusion, and irritability.

The highest sources of B vitamins are organ meats, grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, eggs, poultry, and lamb. But high stress depletes our B Vitamins, so it is often important to add a highly absorbable and bioavailable B Complex to your supplement protocol especially if you have high stress and are concerned about your mental health.

4. Gut Health is Key!

When it comes to mental health the gut: brain connection can not be ignored. Considering that 90% of serotonin is made in the intestinal tract, the health and integrity of your colon is essential for the health and well-being of your brain.

Probiotics are a key player in producing serotonin and manufacturing B vitamins. Bacteria present in the gut affect the communication between the belly and the brain, and the lack of healthy gut flora leads to dysfunction in the gut-brain axis, which in turn may lead to neuropsychological disorders such as anxiety and depression. Healthy gut flora helps to produce serotonin, which helps regulate the stress response and modulate cognition and behavior.

Digestive enzymes, and particularly Betaine Hydrochloride (HCl) is important to help break down, digest, and assimilate protein and minerals. Many people may be eating enough protein, but they are not breaking it down effectively. A lack of Betaine Hydrochloride (HCl) contributes to excessive gas, belching, bloating, heartburn, acid reflux, and poorly formed bowel movements. Taking a multi-strain probiotic and broad-spectrum digestive enzyme with Betaine HCl are important considerations for optimum digestion and brain health.

There is a strong correlation between gluten sensitivity and inflammation in the brain. Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye, barley, spelt, and kamut and due to cross-contamination may be found in other grains as well, such as oats. Gluten is one of the most difficult proteins to digest and is very gut, brain, and immune compromising. Gluten sensitivity can mask itself as dementia, ADHD, depression, migraine headaches, and brain fog.

In most cases, my clients will begin their brain renewal with my gut restoration protocol which includes removing food allergens, sensitivities, and toxic foods — especially gluten as well as harmful microbes in the gut. Replacing with digestive enzymes, re-inoculating with probiotics, and regenerating the intestinal lining with specific nutrients that repair intestinal malabsorption also known as leaky gut. This is vital because if you have a leaky gut, you will most likely have a leaky brain.

5. Vitamin P is a Must

Of all the nutrients, I believe Vitamin P — Purpose — is the most important nutrient for the brain. Purpose elevates mood, energy, order, focus, and concentration and stimulates the mind. Purpose awakens the pleasure center of the brain — where all the endorphins reside. Lack of purpose depletes our neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. When we do what we love, the brain lights up like a symphony and orchestra, in perfect balance and harmony.

Ensuring that your life is filled with purpose and meaning is an important component of your mental health. Once the brain receives its proper nutritional requirements and neural nutrients, finding your purpose becomes easier. But it is often a lack of Vitamin P that leads to mental, emotional, and physical decline so creating a day filled with things you like to do, choose to do and love to do is essential. This is what I call Soulful Nourishment and I offer sessions for my clients to explore this often missing neural component.

There is no doubt in my mind that nutrition can play one of the most significant roles in improving mental health. Within a matter of a few weeks of making nutrition and supplement changes and filling up the neural nutrient buckets that so many people have become deficient in, my clients notice a significant difference in how they feel, think, function, and behave. When the “head” lights get turned on there is hope!

Amy Bondar, Nutritional Therapist, Certified Eating Psychology Coach, Speaker, and Author brings 2 decades of experience in the field of nutrition and mind-body coaching and believes that nourishing our body with the power of food, resolving stresses that are influencing our eating behaviors and living a life with purpose are the essential ingredients to optimizing our health. With an open heart and inquiring mind Amy will accompany you on a journey that will inspire you to transform your relationship with food, body, and self. To learn more and book a mind-body nutrition consultation with Amy, visit, www.amybondar.com or contact Amy, amy@amybondar.com

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