In July, Molecular Psychiatry published a study that found that there is no evidence to support the theory that depression is caused by abnormal serotonin levels or neurotransmitter imbalance. This study was an umbrella review that summarized meta-analyses and reviews that have been conducted over the past 30 years and included over 10,000 participants all together. While this particular study gained some traction with the press, the proof that using antidepressants for treating depression has been lacking for a long time.
Why, then, have we kept treating depression this way?
The truth of the matter is that we still don’t know what causes mental illness. And if we don’t know the cause, it is difficult to treat.
However, there is abundant evidence that, like all areas of health, mental health is dependent upon multiple factors. We know there are biological, psychological, and social contributors to mental health. Neurotransmitters, hormones, and genetics, trauma and stress, and substance use are all recognized as risk factors for mental illness.
In addition, we need to be considering nutrition, inflammation, infection, trauma (both physical and emotional), and toxins. These are important factors that could hold the key to successful treatment of mental health disorders.
Nutrition makes up an enormous part of Naturopathic Medicine and has a tremendous effect on health in general, even on mental health. Nutrition is my first line of defense in all disease.
When it comes to mental health, it is important to recognize that the brain requires an enormous amount of energy to function. While it is only 2% of our body mass, it requires between 20-50% of our energy demands. Given the high metabolic demands of the brain, very often the first signs of nutrient deficiency are psychological and can present as anxiety, depression, ADHD, bipolar, and more.
Two important concepts of nutrition play into mental health: genetic predispositions and poor nutrition from diet.
We all have a myriad of genetic mutations. Some of those mutations alter the functioning of certain enzymes in our bodies and give us a greater need for certain nutrients. This means that some people have a congenital need for higher than usual amounts of cofactors (micronutrients) for optimal enzymatic activity. There are many genetic diseases that can be remedied simply by giving higher doses of the corresponding vitamin that can at least partially make up for the reduced enzymatic activity.
The most well-known example of this is the genetic mutation on the MTHFR gene. A mutation here can alter the methylation pathway in the cells that help to process amino acids, and can lead to a buildup of homocysteine and a deficiency in methionine. People who have this very common genetic mutation have a higher requirement for the vitamin B9, or folate, which helps to drive the methylation cycle to decrease the amount of homocysteine in the blood. This can play a role in mental health and has led to many doctors prescribing high dose folate to try to improve mood.It may be helpful to have genetic testing done and analyzed to determine which nutrients you are genetically predisposed to require a higher intake. However, it has not been shown to be as beneficial to replete a single nutrient based on your genetic mutations as it has to replete ALL nutrients. This is likely due to the fact that most people have more than one genetic mutation leading to higher nutrient needs, and because all the different micronutrients act in different ways to make all of the functions of the body work better. A broad spectrum multi-ingredient formula containing a wide variety of high dose, bioavailable vitamins and minerals is highly recommended!
Our diet provides another avenue to ensure better nutrition.
First of all, we get micronutrients from the foods we eat. Not the processed foods that we get in a bag or a box, but from real, whole foods. Second, the food we eat (and don’t eat) controls our metabolic health, which has a profound effect on our brain function.
The nutrient profile in the standard American diet is abysmal. Ultra-processed foods make up 67% of caloric intake for children under the age of 19 and 57% of caloric intake for adults. This leads to broad micronutrient deficiencies in most of the population.
Nutrients are essential for the proper functioning of the body, including the brain. It has been well established that improving nutrition has a profound positive impact on mental health. This is because micronutrients such as B vitamins, zinc, iron, copper, and manganese, essential fatty acids from cold water fish, nuts and seeds, and amino acids from protein are needed to make things like neurotransmitters, hormone, and all those cofactors that drive cellular metabolism. Nutrition is also what gives our brains the energy to actually function.
Because most of us do not eat a nutrient dense diet, we are at a high risk for developing deficiencies that can certainly contribute to mental (and other health) disorders.
Healthy metabolic function helps to regulate our mitochondria. Mitochondria are often described as the powercell or battery inside of every cell in the body. Mitochondria help the cells work the way they are supposed to work. Many diseases are now thought to be a factor of poor mitochondrial functioning, including diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease and cancers.
Eating a healthy, whole foods diet gives our mitochondria the fuel that they need to keep doing their job to maintain health. Studies have shown that restoring mitochondrial function by controlling blood sugar and insulin levels has a profound effect on mental health.
Taking control of your diet is an excellent first line therapy for anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.
Taking control of your diet is an excellent first line therapy for anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. Eat a wide variety of vegetables, healthy sources of fats and proteins to give your body as many micronutrients as you can. Avoid processed foods that are full of calories and inflammatory fats but devoid of nutrients. Eliminate sugars and work to keep your blood sugar low.
While this approach may seem overly simplistic when considering treatment for mental health disorders, it is highly effective. Never underestimate the power of nutrition!
Give me a call if you have any questions about how to improve your mental health with nutrition or would like to become a healthier you.
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