Nutrition and Mental Health: What You Need to Know
by Janice Maddox
The brain is not separate from our physical body. We know we need calcium for bones, and Vitamin C is an antioxidant, but it doesn’t end there. Just like a plant, if we aren’t getting the proper nutrients, our leaves will fall, one by one. We can use the best mental health interventions in the world, but if the issue is unaddressed dietary or nutritional deficits that cause or contribute to anxiety, depression, or other issues, results will likely be negligible.
Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a competent medical professional before making any decisions that could affect your health. I am not a medical doctor or a dietician. Information relayed here is for you to explore further, should you choose to, through discussion with your family doctor or other qualified professionals.
I was first introduced to the potential benefits of magnesium in addressing anxiety by two people who introduced magnesium into their diet under the supervision of a practitioner of alternative medicine. In separate incidents (they didn’t know each other), they each wanted me to know how much the magnesium had helped them, so that I could incorporate the information into my work.
According to Michael B. Schachter, M.D, symptoms of magnesium deficiency can include “…insomnia, anxiety, hyperactivity and restlessness with constant movement, panic attacks, agoraphobia, and premenstrual irritability,” among other things.
Some years ago I read a book Change Your Brain Change Your Life, by Dr. Daniel Amen and began incorporating some of his teaching into my work with certain clients. After reading the area in our brain associated with depression, the deep limbic system, directly processes our sense of smell and “stores highly charged emotional memories, and affects sleep and appetite, cycles, moods, sexuality, and bonding,” and that certain smells were shown to have a calming effect on the area of the brain associated with anxiety, the Basal Ganglia, the use of smells was integrated into cognitive behavioral interventions with some clients, with positive effect.
For example, a client who is struggling with anxiety in their place of work could tie an affirmation or other practice they have found useful for alleviating their anxiety together with the use of the scent of lavender, which has been shown to have a calming effect on the area of the brain associated with anxiety. They could keep a tiny jar of lavender oil at their desk, and as needed, unscrew the cap and take a smell, which could be enough to change the course of their anxiety (note these interventions are always client-specific and initially experiments to see what works and what doesn’t for a given client).
I’ve handed out Dr. Amen’s book Change Your Brain Change Your Life like a drunk-on-love Hare Krishna handing out flowers and banging cymbals at a Venice Beach drum circle. I do recommend this book.
Information I’m giving here on Dr. Amen’s work is very incomplete. He also states you should talk with your doctor before implementing any of his teachings. In addition to multi-faceted and very interesting information about the brain and the impact of head injuries on emotional regulation, Dr. Amen touches on a variety of nutritional components and other factors that could impact mental health:
If you struggle with anxiety, “You’ll do better with a balanced diet that does not allow you to get too hungry during the day. Hypoglycemic episodes make anxiety much worse.” In addition, “the B vitamins, especially vitamin B6 in doses of 100 to 400 milligrams, are also helpful. If you take B6 at these doses, it is important to take a B complex supplement as well.”
Dr. Amen notes, “In two studies in the American journal of psychiatry, men who had the highest suicide rates had the lowest cholesterol levels. Our deep limbic system (associated with mood) needs fat in order to operate properly. Some fats are better for us than others, such as the omega-3 fatty acids found most prevalently in fish.”
I was first introduced to the concept of adequate protein as a component of mood regulation by a personal trainer. Proteins are the building blocks of brain neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, which are all implicated in depression and other mood disorders. It makes sense that somebody who is getting most of their energy from carbohydrates, may find their mood negatively impacted by inadequate levels of protein needed for emotional regulation.
Dr. Amen states, “It is essential to eat enough protein in balanced amounts with fats and carbohydrates. Too much protein for some people may actually restrict the amount of ‘brain proteins’ that cross into the brain. Not enough protein will leave you with a brain protein deficit.”
When it comes to nutrition, balance is key.
Of course, as Dr. Amen mentions, it is often helpful to eliminate caffeine and “eliminating alcohol is often a good idea as well. Even though alcohol decreases anxiety in the short term, withdrawal from alcohol causes anxiety.”
People who become dependent on alcohol will generally have high levels of anxiety, which is related to a variety of factors.
Undiagnosed physical ailments can also cause mental health symptoms. Undiagnosed thyroid disease can be a cause of significant anxiety or depression. For this reason, thyroid levels are usually checked for patients admitted into a psychiatric hospital.
I encourage readers to ask their doctor to include a test of their Vitamin D levels when having their routine blood work done. Many who are feeling fatigue or muscle weakness these days are experiencing undiagnosed vitamin D deficiency, which can have profound long term negative impacts on health. I don’t advise increasing your intake of Vitamin D without having your levels checked by your doctor.
Many doctors now check vitamin D levels routinely. Many still do not check Vitamin D levels. Some doctors don’t even have a practice of doing blood work for their clients as part of an annual physical exam, although it’s an important component of preventative medicine. Most nutritional deficiencies won’t be detected through routine bloodwork.
We do have to be mindful of how we approach nutrients. Yes, we can get too much of a good thing. I satisfied a science requirement in college by taking a class on nutrition and learned when it comes to nutrition, there are complexities within complexities and most of the information presented to the general public is limited.
Do buy the book, Change Your Brain Change Your Life, Dr. Daniel Amen.