Guest post by Angela Mari of GoodLife Nutrition LLC
When I was invited by Emmaus Counseling Center to write a piece for this blog, I was thrilled to have such a conversational platform on which I could open a discussion about nutrition and mental health. These two worlds are often kept apart when, in reality, we should eagerly marry what we know about both.
The good news is that there has been a noticeable shift in perception and understanding; the inextricable link between nutrition and mental health is turning the heads of practitioners and those of us who struggle with our own mental health. Last week, my client asked me, “Angela, I heard that the gut is the ‘second brain.’ What do you think about that?” This question was music to my ears and introduces our conversation about how nutrition affects our brain chemistry, emotions, stress response, and even pain perception.
To explain why our gastrointestinal tract aka “the gut” is referred to as the “second brain,” I’m going to share a mind-blowing statistic: 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced by our gut bacteria. Hold the phone, right? It’s not only serotonin, though; our gut bacteria produce all the other neurotransmitters that we’re familiar with, like GABA and dopamine. We can start to imagine what might happen to our moods and stress responses when the bad bacteria take over, which can happen due to dietary inputs, infection, inflammation, or emotional and environmental stress.
Let’s talk about these dietary inputs and lack thereof. Nutrient insufficiencies can also affect our mental health. Vitamin D deficiency is one that many of us are familiar with here in the northern hemisphere, but it doesn’t stop there. There are many cofactors in the synthesis of our neurotransmitters. For example, nutrients like iron, zinc, magnesium, and B vitamins are required in the synthesis of serotonin. If intake of any one is insufficient, susceptibility to serotonin-related mood disorders increases.
For the sake of keeping this conversation short and sweet, I’ll quickly run through other nutrition-related factors that can affect our mental health: blood sugar dysregulation like in diabetes and reactive hypoglycemia, food sensitivities like gluten sensitivity, thyroid problems like hypothyroidism, and gut inflammation like in the case of irritable bowel diseases.
So, what can we do to support healthy emotional and stress responses? I’ll give you a few general action items that can profoundly impact your mental and physical health.
First of all, favor whole foods. This seems like a “given,” but in a world of packaged groceries and fast food, we’ve lost our connection to living food. Our bodies speak in the language of whole foods; we best recognize nutrients when they are delivered in the “team environment” of a whole food. Enjoy vegetables, responsibly-raised meats, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fruits, spices, and herbs.
Limit processed foods like white breads and pastas, sweets made with refined sugar high fructose corn syrup, and anything including artificial sweeteners. This will support healthy blood sugar regulation and discourage inflammation.
Incorporated fermented foods into your diet. This goes back to promoting the “good” bacteria in your gut and discouraging the “bad.” Experiment with foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, olives, pickles, kefir, yogurt, oolong tea, kombucha, wheat grass shots, miso, natto, and raw vinegars.
Working with a nutrition professional can also be helpful in navigating your mental and physical symptoms and to personalize your efforts. Because each person’s scenario is different, this discussion doesn’t include functional foods and supplementation, which can be very important parts of our healing. Ask your nutrition professional if you might benefit from any of these interventions.
These suggestions leave us with a strong starting point for supporting our mental health nutritionally. They partner well with counseling and physician-directed interventions. Of course, not everything is for everyone, so always take care to discuss any efforts with your medical team.
Angela Mari is the founder of GoodLife Nutrition LLC which is located at 20925 Professional Plaza Suite 110, Ashburn, VA. She believes in helping people harness healthy behavior and the therapeutic value of whole foods to heal and thrive. In addition to her clinical nutrition practice, she’s recently co-authored two case reports in the Journal of Human Nutrition.