Nutrition, deficiencies and mental health
It’s not news that physical health and mental health go together. Natural health remedies are now a popular option for people looking to improve their mental health without using medication or feel they don’t have time for therapy but still want to feel more stable in their moods and anxiety levels.
Anti-depressants can be prescribed very quickly at the GP and, for a lot of people, this is a godsend but unfortunately, they don’t come without side effects. New research shows that there may not be a link between serotonin and depression. This is what the SSRI focus on – a chemical imbalance in the brain, including low levels of serotonin, also known as 5-HT leads to depression. Most SSRIs increase the serotonin in the brain.
But what if you don’t feel like visiting the GP or you feel that talking therapy might not be helpful? How can food and natural therapies support your anxiety and your general mood?
You can do a lot about food and habits to help you have a smoother day without too many mood swings, or "spikes" as one client explained it to me.
The key to a stable mood is to be able to adjust to the ups and downs of life, but sometimes life just gets overwhelming and that feeling of doom creeps in.
If you know how your physiological symptoms are linked to your mental health you can then be empowered to make some practical changes.
Anxiety can produce physical symptoms like a tight chest, rapid heartbeat, upset stomach, crying a lot, sleeping problems repetitive thoughts, excessive worry or fear and generally feeling very reactive to the environment around you.
Depression can manifest as extreme fatigue and hopelessness. A lot of these symptoms are driven by some kind of inflammation.
Here is a simple checklist of some of the things that can affect your mood and your ability to function well and stay calm in a busy world It’s followed by some practical steps you can take right now.
We like to think that everything that is in our heads is ‘real’ but our body has a very
clever way of communicating with us. Its language is all the physical symptoms that we experience and they are signs that we need to support ourselves more.
Low blood sugar
Hypoglycaemia is the medical condition of having abnormally low blood sugar, (i.e. glucose) and can be responsible for many physical symptoms like irritability, racing heartbeat, mood swings, and anxiety.
The body perceives low blood sugar as a threat to its survival and prolonged periods of continually having low blood sugar levels will increase these symptoms and sometimes they won’t be resolved even by eating a meal.
The reason for that is that the body stores energy in the body for ‘leaner’ times, that it can then whip out and support you when your physical needs outstrip the energy you have in the tank. However, if you consistently use up this stored energy without replacing it, the body will respond and down-regulate the support it gives to your nervous system, gut etc.
Rapid heartbeat, for example, is a sign that your body is under stress. Your body releases epinephrine from the adrenal glands during times of stress to prepare you for action and that can cause your heart to speed up, making you feel anxious and worried. If you were nourished and fed then this reaction may not happen as the body has enough glucose in the body to feel ‘safe’ and doesn’t need to signal to you that it’s under stress.
Solution: make sure you eat regular meals (i.e. breakfast, lunch, dinner) with a couple of snacks in between. Make sure they always include good protein and good fats, like avocado or butter.
Hormones are chemical messengers that carry around information in our body, and influence most functions we carry out each day. They are part of our endocrine system. They are very sensitive to change, which is great as you can quite easily resolve hormonal imbalances by giving it support, but this also means they only have to deviate only slightly for us to feel the consequences.
Here are some of the key hormones that directly can affect our mental health:
Cortisol – this is generally known as our ‘stress hormone’. It is vital for our ‘fight or flight’ response and our parasympathetic nervous system. Most cells have cortisol receptors, so when there is a lot of cortisol running around in our body, the higher our stress and anxiety tend to be. Cortisol also interferes with some of our neurotransmitters, including GABA and dopamine. They are important when regulating our mood.
Solution: Make sure you sleep well and reduce caffeine and never drink coffee on an emptystomach.
Thyroid – low thyroid and depression are linked and depression was a symptom used to diagnose thyroid issues in the past, however, we now know that depression is multi-faceted. Saying that, the thyroid is a key player in regulating mood as an underactive thyroid can negatively affect our mood.
In the book “The Thyroid Axis in Psychiatric Disorder” by Russell T. Joffe, M.D. and Anthony J. Levitt, M.D, it says, “In summary, it is important for those having behavioural and/or psychiatric symptoms to know that T3 [a thyroid hormone] is found in large quantities in the limbic system of the brain, the area
that is important for emotions such as joy, panic, anger, and fear…" and that "if you don’t have enough T3, or if its action is blocked, an entire cascade of neurotransmitter abnormalities may ensue and can lead to mood and energy changes.”
Solution: Reduce stress levels, eat nutrient-dense whole foods like fish and meat, ripe fruits and root vegetables to avoid deficiencies.
Progesterone – GABA neurotransmitter makes us feel calm and when we have low progesterone we are likely to have increased levels of anxiety and also may experience insomnia. Progesterone starts to decline around the age of 35 and lower progesterone means higher levels of cortisol - which means higher levels of anxiety.
It’s important to work with a practitioner with regard to dosage and timing
when taking natural progesterone.
Solution: Increase levels of Zink, Magnesium and B6 to boost your progesterone.
4 ways you can start supporting your mental health today
Eat for your gut microbiome
Research shows that when it comes to mental health, gut microbiome plays a pivotal role. A diverse microbiome helps to produce neurotransmitters, preventing neuroinflammation and reducing the stress response. Stay away from processed, high sugary foods and focus instead on healthy fats like butter and coconut oil, and good proteins like fish and seafood, chicken and lamb.
Try and incorporate as much colour on the plate as possible so you expose your gut to different fibres and phytonutrients. Easily digested carbohydrates like root vegetables and ripe fruits are both delicious and support your liver and your thyroid. Leafy green veg and brassicas, (i.e. broccoli etc,) are also full of nutrients, however, make sure you cook them properly, never eat them raw, and eat them with a protein/fat.
Stay away from caffeine on those days you feel extra anxious
Swap your cup of jo with some cinnamon tea as that helps with stabilising your blood sugar or try some Tulsi tea which is very soothing or your nervous system.
Check your breathing
Short, shallow breaths increase the heart rate so if you find that you are feeling anxious, slowing your heart rate down can actually calm you. Your heart rate naturally slows down as you exhale so we can take advantage of this by exhaling for twice as long as we inhale.
You simply inhale shorter breaths and then exhale longer. For example, inhale through your nose for three, exhale for six through the mouth. By slowing the heart rate down, your body feels safer and you are better able to cope with whatever is stressing you out.
Get natural light daily
Research shows that daylight improves both mental health and sleep. Today, the average Westerner spends about 90% of their time indoors. This disrupts our circadian rhythm with consequences for our mental health. The good news is that even a small amount of natural light can go a long way. So ideally get out there first thing in the morning to get the first light and then take a short walk at dusk. This resets our circadian rhythm and without this our biological rhythms become desynchronised and disrupted.
If you'd like to learn more about how food and nutrition can support your mental health, reach out to me or another nutritional professional on Nutritionist Resource.