This month is mental health awareness month and last week was mental health awareness week. We often associate mental health with anxiety and depression. However, there are many other illnesses associated with mental health like ADHD, Bipolar disorder, Eating disorders, PTSD, mood swings, irritability, Schizophrenia, and Autism.
Whenever someone has a mental health problem, we first think about getting psychological help, managing it with medications, or getting help to deal with a stressful situation. This is all very important, but rarely does anyone realize the HUGE impact that nutrition has on mental health. In fact
NUTRITIONAL DEFICIENCIES ARE OFTEN AN UNDERLYING ROOT CAUSE OF MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS.
Our brain, which is part of the nervous system, requires 5 key nutrients. Let's have a look at each of them and the impact they have on our brain.
Glucose: The brain consumes more glucose than any other organ in the body. It requires a slow and steady supply which is why slow releasing complex carbs are preferred. Simple (or refined) carbohydrates convert too quickly causing a spike and then a crash. Refined carbohydrates are also void of vitamins and minerals. In fact, they actually burn up the body's stores vitamins and minerals to process them!
Essential Fats: 60% of the dry weight of the brain is made up of fat. Essential fats make up the myelin sheath that acts as an insulator and protects nerves.
The brain and nervous system are actually made up of 4 types of fat.
1) Saturated and monounsaturated fat
3) Omega 3 (ALA)
useable forms are
(Eicosapentaenoic acid EPA and docosahexaenoic acid DHA)
4) Omega 6 (Gamma Linoleic Acid GLA and Arachidonic Acid AA)
Saturated fat and cholesterol we don't have to worry about because the body is able to make all it needs. It is also very easy to obtain these two fats from the diet. Especially if we are eating animal products.
Omega's are Important for more that just making up the myelin of nerves. The body also makes prostaglandins from them. Prostaglandins are extremely active hormone-like substances. They relax blood vessels, lower blood pressure, help to maintain water balance in the body, boost immunity, decrease inflammation and pain, while also helping insulin do its job. In the brain, prostaglandins regulate the release and performance of neurotransmitters. Low levels are known to be a factor in depression and schizophrenia. Omega 3’s also affect learning, behavioral problems, and attention deficit disorder.
Now let's look at omega 6:
Supplementing GLA has proven effective in a wide variety of mental health problems.
Schizophrenics tend to have low levels of omega-6’s. When schizophrenics supplement with evening primrose oil, studies show that have great improvement. They improved even further with the addition of B vitamins, zinc, and vitamin C. Some types of omega 6's from arachidonic acid (AA) are inflammatory and need to be kept to a minimum. These tend to be from animal products.
Another fascinating fact about evening primrose oil is that – when added to the diet of alcoholics, withdrawal symptoms were greatly reduced.
These are a type of lipid that make up cell membranes while also making up the myelin sheath (think of our nerves as electrical wires and myelin as the insulation that surrounds the wires). Phospholipids also make acetylcholine which is a memory neurotransmitter. Phospholipids enhance our mood, mind and mental performance while protecting against age-related memory decline and Alzheimer's.
There are 3 types of Phospholipids
1) Phosphatidyl Choline: Deficiency is the single most common cause of declining memory. It is very important in pregnancy. Studies have found that brains of pregnant women will shrink during pregnancy if lacking in this nutrient! Basically the growing fetus robs the mother if she is not getting enough in her diet.
2) Phosphatidyl Serine: Serine is a vital element in the receptor sites of brain cells helping them communicate. It's found mostly in organ meats and the body can make some of what it needs, but not enough.
3) Phosphatidyl Dimethylthanolamine (DMAE): Synthesizes phosphatidyl choline in the brain and accelerates the production of acetylcholine (a memory neurotransmitter). DMAE reduces anxiety, stops mind racing, improves concentration and promotes learning. The most abundant source is from sardines.
Amino Acids are building blocks of not just protein, but also neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters can be described as the words the brain uses to send messages and amino acids are like the letters that form the words. Deficiency in amino acids is common.
There are 5 main types of neurotransmitters.
1) Adrenalin, noradrenalin, and dopamine: These are stimulating and motivating.
2) GABA: Counteracts the stimulating neurotransmitters and is relaxing and calming.
3) Serotonin: Keeps you happy, improves mood, combats depression.
4) Acetylcholine: Keeps your brain sharp, improves memory and mental alertness.
5) Tryptamines: Keep you connected, like melatonin that regulates your day/night cycle.
Here's a few other examples of what amino acids can do:
Tryptophan: A handful of cashews which are high in tryptophan may be as effective as a dose of Prozac. Other rich sources of tryptophan include poultry products such as chicken and turkey, eggs, as well as pumpkin and sesame seeds.
Tyrosine is known for improving mental and physical performance under stress. It is found in soy products, chicken, turkey, fish, peanuts, almonds, avocados, bananas, milk, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, lima beans, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds.
GABA: Highly effective against anxiety. GABA rich foods include cruciferous vegetables, beans, peas, tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms, sprouted grains, rice (particularly brown rice), and chestnuts. Also, enjoy fermented foods (kefir, yogurt, tempeh, kimchi, etc.) and oolong and white teas, which all naturally contain GABA.
These nutrients play a supporting role in brain health and in turn mental health. They turn glucose into energy, amino acids into neurotransmitters, essential fats into complex fats, and choline and serine into phospholipids. They help build and rebuild the brain and nervous system.
B Vitamins: Turn glucose into energy, make stress hormones and neurotransmitters, protect against neural tube defects, control methylation.
Deficiency symptoms include: poor attention span & memory, foggy head, cognitive decline, poor stress response, inability to make serotonin, depression, Down's, Autism, Schizophrenia. B Vitamins can be found in whole grains, legumes, leafy greens, and bananas.
Vitamin C: This vitamin isn't just for the immune system. Vitamin C helps balance neurotransmitters while also reducing depression. Everyone has different requirements for this vitamin and the RDA is quite low. Schizophrenics able to absorb 10 X more than RDA.
Magnesium: Relaxes nerve and muscle cells. It is a factor in over 800 different enzymatic processes in the body and can be found in dark leafy greens, nuts/seeds. It is also a component of chlorophyll. So anything that is green will have magnesium.
Zinc: Zinc is the most commonly deficient mineral, yet the most critical for mental health!
Zinc is required for faster, more accurate memory, and better attention spans. The need for zinc increases with stress, infections, alcohol consumption, blood sugar imbalances, birth control pills and excess copper. Deficiency symptoms include: Schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, anorexia, autism, hyperactivity. This mineral can be found in nuts, seeds, meats, and oysters.
If you ever start to feel your mental health slipping away, don't forget to have a look at your diet and try adding supplements if needed. Nutrition can make a big difference and may be able to keep you off prescription meds.