A recent study explored how children’s sugar intake affects their physical and mental health. Not surprisingly, overconsumption of sugar led to some adverse health impacts. The more remarkable study findings are those involving the effect of sugar on mental health.
High sugar intake increases the risk of obesity and affects the nervous system
Predictably, the study found that long-term consumption of high-sugar diets increases the risk of obesity. However, it also adversely affects the nervous system. This can lead to problems with attention, memory, hyperactivity, impulse control, and decision-making. In fact, researchers found that high sugar intake was associated with mental health impacts including many of the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Overconsumption of sugar may play a role in ADHD symptoms
Reducing sugar intake can significantly improve both physical and mental health
Reducing sugar intake provides numerous health benefits. If your child is struggling with ADHD-type symptoms (whether diagnosed or not), diet may be a factor. Significantly reducing the amount of sugar in your child’s diet could make a profound difference in both their physical and cognitive/behavioral health.
If you’d like personalized support in identifying and addressing nutritional issues that might be affecting your child, I’d love to connect with you! Visit my Work With Me page to learn more and set up a consult!
The B vitamins are a group of essential water-soluble vitamins. In terms of vitamin classification, “essential” means we have to get them from our diets because our bodies cannot make them on their own. There are eight B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, and B12) which have similar roles and chemical properties, although each has unique functions. Our bodies need B vitamins for various functions throughout the day. Since we can’t store extra vitamin B, it’s important to replenish our supply often by eating vitamin B-rich foods.
What role do B vitamins play in brain function and mental health?
Here’s why B vitamins are critical for good mental health
B vitamins are important co-factors in the production of neurotransmitters (such as serotonin and dopamine), which affect mood, energy, appetite, and more. These essential vitamins also regulate energy release in brain cells, and perform a number of other important roles to support optimum brain function.
B1 – Thiamine
The brain uses vitamin B1 to help convert glucose or blood sugar into energy. Without it, the brain may not have enough energy to function normally. B1 deficiency has also been linked to anxiety, depression, irritability, memory loss, and insomnia. Good food sources of B1 include whole grain cereals, brown rice, green vegetables, potatoes, pasta, liver, pork, and eggs.
B2 – Riboflavin
Vitamin B2 helps break down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Like B1, it also plays a vital role in maintaining the body’s energy supply. Brain-specific symptoms of B2 deficiency include fatigue, brain dysfunction, and even personality change. The best food sources of B2 are dairy products, leafy vegetables, legumes, liver, brewer’s yeast, and mushrooms.
B3 – Niacin
B3 helps in the synthesis and repair of DNA, and also plays a role in signaling between nerve cells. In addition, it’s a potent antioxidant in brain cells. The mental health benefits of B3, or Niacin, have been extensively studied, and it is especially effective in the treatment of schizophrenia. B3 deficiency has been linked to depression, anxiety, aggression, memory loss, paranoia, and in more severe cases, psychotic symptoms. Good food sources of B3 include meat, fish, whole grain cereal, legumes, mushrooms, and nuts.
B5 – Pantothenic acid
B5, or Pantothenic acid, is a precursor in the biosynthesis of coenzyme A (CoA), an essential coenzyme in body and brain chemistry. Clinical trials have shown that Vitamin B5 deficiency can lead to fatigue, depression, apathy, irritability, and sleep issues. Foods that are good sources of B5 include meat, fish, whole grains, dairy, eggs, legumes, mushrooms, avocados, and sweet potatoes.
B6 – Pyridoxal, Pyridoxamine, and Pyridoxine
Vitamin B6 plays a critical role in keeping the brain and nervous system functioning properly. It helps the body make serotonin (which regulates mood) and norepinephrine (which helps us cope with stress). Vitamin B6 is also involved in melatonin synthesis, which regulates sleep. A deficiency in B6 can lead to irritability, fatigue, depression, cognitive decline, and autonomic dysfunction. Several studies have shown that many individuals diagnosed with autism present with low levels of vitamin B6, and experience symptom improvement with vitamin B6 supplementation. Good food sources of B6 include fortified cereals, beef, poultry, fish, starchy vegetables, and non-citrus fruits.
B7 – Biotin
B7, or Biotin, is a cofactor for several metabolic enzymes critical for brain function, and helps maintain a healthy nervous system. As a result, B7 deficiency can lead to depression, lethargy, and even psychosis. Foods rich in biotin include organ meats, egg yolks, dairy, barley, brewer’s yeast, fortified cereals, and wheat bran.
B9 – Folate
Vitamin B9, or Folate, plays an important role in brain function and mental health. First, it regulates the levels of tetrahydrobiopterin, or BH4, which is an important cofactor in the formation of dopamine and serotonin. Without adequate BH4, these critical neurotransmitters cannot be made. Folate is also involved in the breakdown of homocysteine, high levels of which can contribute to the development of both Alzheimer’s and depression. Other mental health symptoms associated with a B9 deficiency include difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, irritability, mood swings, and in extreme cases even psychosis. Good food sources of vitamin B9 include dark green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, whole grains, beans, liver, fish, and eggs.
B12 – Cobalamin
B12 supports optimum brain function by synthesizing and metabolizing serotonin. In addition, it supports the nervous system and prevents brain atrophy (the loss of neurons in the brain). As a result, a B12 deficiency can lead to memory loss or dementia, mood, and behavior changes, and more severe deficiency can contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s. Case studies have also documented B12-deficiency-induced psychosis. Animal products are the only natural food source of Vitamin B12, so vegans and vegetarians should choose fortified plant-based products or consider supplementing B12 to prevent deficiency.
Could a Vitamin B deficiency be affecting you?
If you suspect that you, or a loved one, might be experiencing symptoms of a Vitamin B deficiency, the first step is to look at the diet to ensure it includes adequate Vitamin B food sources. For some individuals, genetic, metabolic, or other factors can lead to vitamin B malabsorption or poor utilization even when dietary intake is sufficient. In those cases, taking a Vitamin B supplement may be beneficial.
One of the questions I’m asked most frequently is how to test for food sensitivities. Many of my clients (both kids and adults) experience physical as well as mental/emotional symptoms that they suspect may be linked to foods they’re eating. Of course, they want to know which foods might be triggering their symptoms.
Food sensitivities can cause a wide range of symptoms
These symptoms can range from digestive upset, to skin rashes, to brain fog. Research published in the distinguished scientific journal The Lancet shows that food sensitivities can even cause attention issues, hyperactivity, aggression, and impulse control difficulties. The full list of potential food sensitivity symptoms is quite astonishing. That’s why it’s important to be informed about the best way to test for food sensitivities.
Food sensitivity testing is widely available (but not very reliable)
Since DIY food sensitivity testing (i.e., direct-to-consumer testing kits you can use at home) is now widely available, interest in this kind of testing has increased exponentially. Unfortunately, these tests are not very reliable.
Food sensitivity tests measure Immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies, which we develop in response to certain foods. These antibodies are different from those associated with severe immune responses. Severe immune reactions are Immunoglobulin E or IgE reactions.
Food sensitivity tests measure markers that are part of our normal immune response
While food sensitivity tests measure IgG antibodies fairly reliably, the catch is that the presence of IgG antibodies does not necessarily indicate a sensitivity. IgG antibodies are part of our normal immune response. These antibodies are found in virtually all healthy individuals. As a result, IgG tests are not very accurate in identifying actual food sensitivities.
There is another option that is much more accurate and provides better insights
That is an elimination diet. A well-planned and carefully executed elimination diet is the “gold standard” for determining how a person reacts to different foods. Plus, it’s free!
How to test for food sensitivities using an elimination diet
For a period of about 3-4 weeks, you remove foods most likely to be irritating and inflammatory from your diet. These include highly processed foods, sugar, grains, and dairy. If your specific symptoms and health history warrant it, you might remove some additional inflammatory foods as well.
First, you eliminate foods, and then you slowly reintroduce them
After the elimination phase, you carefully reintroduce these foods one by one. As you reintroduce them, note how you feel. During the reintroduction phase, it’s important to reintroduce a single food for one day and eat at least two servings of it at different times. Monitor your symptoms for the next two days. Then, reintroduce the next food. At the end of the reintroduction phase, you should have a very good idea of which foods support your health and which don’t.
Your symptoms during elimination and reintroduction provide important clues
Symptoms to look for during elimination and reintroduction of foods include: insomnia, fatigue, joint pain, bloating, brain fog, skin breakouts or rashes, headaches, digestive and respiratory issues, and mood and behavior changes. If these symptoms improve during the elimination phase, and then reappear during the reintroduction phase, that’s a reliable indication of a food sensitivity.
It’s important to note that food sensitivity reactions are often mild to moderate. In addition, they can be delayed (up to 72 hours!) and can also last longer than classic allergic reactions. So even subtle symptoms that occur days after the reintroduction of a certain food can indicate a food sensitivity.
Preparation is the key to testing for food sensitivities with an elimination diet
Set yourself up for success for an elimination diet by preparing the week before. Preparation will generally include some meal planning, shopping for the right foods, and looking up recipes. Keep a journal during elimination and reintroduction to note symptoms and changes. This will make it easier to identify patterns related to consumption of certain foods.
Ultimately, the goal is to have the least restrictive diet possible. While eliminating one food in exchange for significant symptom relief might be manageable, people with multiple food sensitivities are in a much more difficult spot. An individualized nutritional support plan that includes probiotics, enzymes, and other gut-healing supplements can make a significant difference. In time, as the gut heals and symptoms improve, many people find that they’re able to tolerate foods that previously caused problems for them.
If you suspect that food sensitivities may be causing some of your symptoms, and you’d like to do an elimination diet with the support of a nutritionist, I’d love to connect with you! Visit my Work With Me page to learn more and set up a consult!
So many people are struggling right now. Many are trying to come to grips with the events of the past year and the impact on their lives. Stress, anxiety, and depression are at an all-time high. In addition (and to make matters worse), many people are having a difficult time accessing mental health services.
COVID-19 has had an adverse impact on mental health
Mental health is complex, and there are many contributing factors. One of the major modifiable risk factors for mental health issues is diet. A study published last month in the journal Nutrients reviewed the findings of a 5-year cross-sectional study, involving data from more than 2600 people from North America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.
The study notes that “anxiety, depression, and other neuropsychiatric disorders are often associated with poor-quality diets”. In addition, it found that adequate intake of certain nutrients is necessary for optimal brain function and mental health. Unlike many of the other factors adversely impacting our collective mental wellness right now (i.e., COVID stress, political flux, economic impacts, etc.), diet and nutrient intake is something within our control.
Eating an anti-inflammatory diet is key
Generally speaking, an anti-inflammatory Mediterranean-style diet provides the greatest mental health benefits. This type of diet includes lots of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, nuts, and fatty fish. It’s also low in processed food. Choosing high quality and nutrient-dense whole foods while limiting processed foods decreases inflammation, hormonal imbalances, and insulin resistance. These are all potential factors in mental health.
Nutritional needs differ by age and gender
However, it’s interesting to note that the study documented distinct differences in nutritional needs for optimum mental health based on age and gender. The correlation between nutritional factors and mental health varied between men and women. It also differed between young (18–29 years) and mature (30 years or older) adults of the same gender. Overall, the study’s findings support the need to customize dietary and lifestyle recommendations to improve mental wellbeing.
Feeling stressed? Are you getting enough magnesium? Read on to learn more about the stress-magnesium connection.
The stress-magnesium connection
Stress has a significant negative effect on our body’s nutrient stores. Our natural stress response rapidly depletes existing nutrient levels and can also prevent the body from absorbing essential nutrients. This is a big part of the reason why stress reduces our energy and makes us feel run down.
Magnesium is an essential mineral that is significantly depleted by stress. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also one of the most effective stress-relieving nutrients. So much so that it’s been called “the original chill pill”!
Magnesium plays a critical role in physical and mental health
Magnesium plays a role in more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body, and every organ (especially the heart, muscles, and kidneys) needs magnesium.
Not surprisingly, magnesium deficiency is a contributing factor in many diseases. Deficiency can lead to cardiac and neurological issues, diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease, osteoporosis and many other adverse health conditions.
Magnesium deficiency also has a profound impact on mental health. Because of magnesium’s critical role in our nervous system, deficiency can affect our ability to manage stress and lead to sleep problems, anxiety, and depression. Increasing magnesium intake to address a deficiency can improve sleep, mood, and mental health.
More than half of Americans are likely magnesium deficient
According to research, more than half of all Americans are likely magnesium deficient. Some experts believe that number is closer to 80%. What makes this especially concerning right now, given the COVID-19 pandemic, is that Vitamin D cannot be metabolized without sufficient magnesium levels. And Vitamin D deficiency can cause significantly worse COVID outcomes.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for magnesium for healthy adults is between 320-420mg a day (it varies by age and gender). People with certain health conditions or who take certain medications may be at a higher risk for deficiency, and may therefore need additional magnesium.
There are many great food sources of magnesium
Magnesium-rich foods include:
nuts and seeds (pumpkin seeds are especially high in magnesium and almonds, cashews and Brazil nuts are also great sources)
legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas, peas and soybeans)
dark chocolate (choose chocolate containing at least 70% cocoa solids – the higher the better!)
Magnesium supplementation can be beneficial in certain cases
It’s always best to get nutrients, including magnesium, from food. However, magnesium supplementation can be very beneficial in certain cases. People with certain heart and kidney conditions may need to avoid magnesium supplementation. Always discuss supplementation with your healthcare practitioner to make sure it’s safe and right for you!
Ten years ago, my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). He has made tremendous progress over the past decade, in large part due to holistic, nutrition-based therapies. The knowledge base on autism and other neurodevelopmental, learning, and behavioral conditions has advanced significantly during that time as well. One area of research that has received quite a bit of increased attention is the use of special diets for autism and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms. Do these diets help, and if yes, how? That’s what we’ll explore in this post.
Diets for autism and ADHD, such as the gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet and Feingold diet, have been a regular topic of discussion in parent groups for two decades. However, only in recent years have researchers produced evidence to support what parents and practitioners have known for some time: dietary interventions can make a big difference for kids with neurodevelopmental, learning and behavioral challenges.
What does the research say about special diets for autism & ADHD?
Gastrointestinal problems are common in ASD & ADHD
A recent review of 24 research studies on gut microbiota in ASD and ADHD underscores the role of gut health in these conditions. Researchers have found that individuals with ASD and ADHD have variations in gut bacteria that differ from their neurotypical peers. While the studies note a stronger association between gut health and ASD symptoms, ADHD-associated bacterial variations have also been reported. A disrupted gut microbiome can negatively affect brain function via the gut-brain axis. This in turn affects behavior and learning ability. Additionally, the research shows that dietary interventions can reduce symptoms of both ASD and ADHD, perhaps by balancing gut bacteria.
Food allergies and sensitivities are more common in ASD & ADHD
Research shows that kids with ASD or ADHD experience significantly higher rates of food allergies and sensitivities than their typical peers. A large multi-year study that included data from close to 200,000 children found that food allergies are more than twice as common among autistic children. Research on the connection between food sensitivities and ADHD symptoms dates back to the 1970s. As this body of research has grown, it shows an average response rate to elimination diets (i.e., diets eliminating common allergens/sensitivities) among children with ADHD of 49%.
Dietary changes are associated with both cognitive and behavioral improvements
How can you determine whether a dietary change will help?
The best way to find out whether diet may be contributing to symptoms is to do an elimination diet. This involves removing common allergenic foods and additives for a specific period of time. After the elimination period, the next step is to reintroduce foods, one at a time, to gauge reactions. The final step is to modify the diet as needed to remove identified sensitivities and prevent potential nutritional deficiencies. While an elimination diet does involve some planning and effort, it’s the most reliable way to determine whether a dietary change will be beneficial. Plus, it’s safe and should not require any extra expense.
If you’d like individualized dietary/nutritional support, I’d love to connect with you! My specialty is creating effective nutritional strategies to support brain functioning, mood, and behavioral health and I especially enjoy working with families of children with autism and ADHD. Visit my Work With Me page to learn more.
Most of us have experienced unpleasant symptoms after a meal. When we’ve eaten too much or too quickly, some bloating and stomach pain is not unusual. However, when discomfort after meals becomes a regular occurrence, that’s often a sign of a food sensitivity. And digestive discomfort is just one of many signs.
Food allergies are classic allergic reactions to food. People with food allergies experience a severe immune response (known as an Immunoglobulin E or IgE reaction) when they eat certain foods. Food allergy reactions often include hives, facial swelling, difficulty breathing and they can be life-threatening.
Food intolerances are primarily a digestive issue. A food intolerance develops when a person is unable to process or digest certain foods. Digestion requires the right enzymes in sufficient amounts, and without them, poor digestion and discomfort result. The most common food intolerance is lactose intolerance, which results from a deficiency in lactase, the enzyme that processes a type of sugar called lactose found in dairy products.
Food sensitivities are reactions to foods that don’t meet the criteria of food intolerances or food allergies. For people with food sensitivities, research suggests that exposure to specific foods creates an Immunoglobulin G (IgG) reaction. While the presence of IgG antibodies is considered a normal response of the immune system to food exposure, studies have shown that IgG food hyperreactivity (i.e., production of IgG antibodies significantly above normal levels) is linked to systemic inflammation and disease. Food sensitivity reactions are mild to moderate, often delayed (up to 72 hours!) and can last longer than classic allergic reactions. Symptoms of food sensitivities are not life-threatening, but they can have a significant impact on daily functioning and quality of life. While some signs of food sensitivities are the kind we would expect (i.e., digestive symptoms), others are more difficult to trace back to food and therefore often overlooked.
What are the signs?
1) Digestive issues
The most obvious signs of food sensitivities are digestive symptoms. These include bloating, abdominal pain, gas, and constipation or diarrhea. These also happen to be the primary symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Studies involving IBS patients have found that eliminating foods based on IgG antibodies significantly reduces IBS symptoms and improves quality of life. Even if you’re experiencing milder digestive issues, identifying and addressing food sensitivities may be beneficial.
Food sensitivities frequently contribute to skin problems, such as acne, rashes, and eczema. Research supports diet as an important factor in these conditions. Once again, inflammation seems to be the root cause. To maintain healthy skin, an anti-inflammatory diet is key. Allergic reactions, including both food allergies and food sensitivities, are one of the earliest signs of inflammation and frequently show up on the skin first.
If you’re constantly tired, you may have a food sensitivity. Food sensitivities often lead to nutrient absorption issues and nutritional imbalances which can contribute to fatigue. In addition, research has linked chronic fatigue with IgG-mediated food sensitivities. While fatigue can have a number of causes, if you’re experiencing fatigue along with several other symptoms in this list, you may want to consider a dietary cause.
Inflammation triggered by food sensitivities can lead to weight gain, and make it more difficult to lose weight. Obesity is associated with chronic low-grade inflammation, and immune-mediated food reactions can exacerbate this kind of inflammation. This creates a vicious cycle, as research also suggests that obesity can actually increase the risk of food allergies by causing an imbalance of allergic-related immune cells in adipose tissue, which in turn can damage the intestinal barrier.
10) Cold & flu-like symptoms
As we head into cold and flu season, it’s important to note that food sensitivities can actually cause symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, sore throat, and a stuffy or runny nose! In fact, in one study of food sensitivity reactions, nasal obstruction, sneezing, phlegm, and runny nose were among the most common symptoms. Of course, these symptoms are much more likely to indicate a cold or flu than a food sensitivity. However, if you have chronic nasal congestion or a cough that just won’t go away, you may be dealing with an immune-mediated food reaction.
Think you might have a food sensitivity?
The best way to identify food sensitivities is to do an elimination diet. This involves removing the most common allergenic foods (such as gluten, dairy, eggs, and others) for a specific period of time. After the elimination period, the next step is to reintroduce foods, one at a time, to gauge physical, mental, and mood-related reactions.
Of course, the goal is to have the least restrictive diet possible. While eliminating one food in exchange for significant symptom relief might be manageable, people with multiple food sensitivities are in a much more difficult spot. An individualized nutritional support plan that includes probiotics, enzymes, and other gut-healing supplements can make a significant difference. In time, as the gut heals and symptoms improve, many people find that they’re able to tolerate foods that previously caused problems for them.
While IgG food sensitivity testing is now widely available (including direct-to-consumer tests that can be done at home), these tests are not very reliable. A well-planned and carefully executed elimination diet is generally more accurate, cost-effective, and provides better insights. Check back for an elimination diet “how to” in a future blog post!
There’s no shortage of advice on nutrition and health. In the few minutes I spent on social media before settling in to write this post, I came across articles informing me about what to eat, which supplements “everyone must take” (there’s no such thing) and garlic as a superfood (I actually agree with this and there’s tons of science to back up this claim). Not only is the volume of advice overwhelming, but much of it is incorrect, it’s often conflicting, and worse yet, some of it can be harmful.
If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all, and wondering how to sift through the glut of nutrition and health advice, I’m hoping you’ll find this post helpful. Have you heard of the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 Rule? It’s a principle named after an Italian economist, who observed that for many events and phenomena, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. This principle seems to hold true across a diverse range of sectors, from economics, to computing, to sports, and even healthcare. Interestingly, it’s been studied in the context of infectious disease and researchers have found that even viral shedding appears to adhere to the Pareto Principle. The 80/20 rule is now being studied in the context of COVID transmission as well. Pretty fascinating!
So how does this concept help us sort through the ubiquitous advice surrounding health and nutrition, and focus on what matters most – or at least figure out where to begin? It’s an important reminder that perhaps it’s not necessary to do “all the things” in order to significantly improve our health. The Pareto Principle encourages us to look for that 20% of nutrition/health-related actions or habit changes that have the potential to produce 80% of the results we’re looking for.
It turns out that when we focus on supporting the health of a single organ in the body, a wide range of seemingly unrelated health symptoms can improve. Providing this organ with the right nutritional support has been linked to improvements in digestive symptoms, mood and mental health issues, immune functioning, metabolic conditions, hormonal imbalances, insomnia, and even acne! This organ is responsible for absorbing 90% of the nutrients from food we eat, contains the largest mass of immune cells in the body, and also produces most of the body’s serotonin. When this organ is not functioning optimally, overall health suffers. It’s been described as the most important part of the digestive system. The organ we’re talking about is the small intestine. As we’ll discuss in this post, it serves as a prime example of how focusing on creating health in just one body system — or even just one organ — can exponentially improve health and potentially address a large percentage of a person’s health symptoms.
“Gut health” is getting a lot of attention these days, and for good reason. The health of our gut, or gastrointestinal (GI) tract, is essential to our overall health. While the GI tract includes several organs, and they all serve important functions, some sections of the GI tract influence our health to a much greater extent than others. The small intestine (which, as mentioned previously, is where we absorb 90% of our nutrients) affects every other body system, as all systems (i.e., nervous, endocrine, cardiovascular, etc.) rely upon it to absorb and provide the nutrients they need. In addition, research has found that the small intestine is more vulnerable to toxins and dietary factors as its barrier is less dense than that of the large intestine. While “strong intestinal barrier” might not be the first thing you think about when it comes to health, it’s incredibly important. The intestinal barrier provides a physical and functional barrier protecting our immune system from the millions of microbes and environmental toxins we regularly come in contact with. When this barrier is compromised, a wide range of diseases can result.
I imagine you might be wondering whether it makes sense to focus specifically on the small intestine. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on improving gut health overall? Thankfully, this is not an either-or proposition. As the health of the small intestine is supported, overall health and functioning of all organs in the GI tract generally improves. The rationale behind prioritizing the needs of the small intestine is that it’s arguably both the most critical (in terms of impact on our overall health), and the most vulnerable organ in the GI tract.
So how can we specifically support the health of our small intestine? The short answer is: balance the intestinal microbiome (the trillions of bacteria that live in both the small and large intestines where they perform a myriad of critical physiological functions) and reduce inflammation through diet, beneficial supplements (as needed), and healthy lifestyle habits. This topic is substantial enough to warrant its own blog post, so I’ll cover it in more depth in the future. But I’ll touch on it briefly here.
Balancing the intestinal microbiome and reducing inflammation is a multi-step process that is going to look different for each person. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. The first step is to assess and modify the diet to address food allergens/sensitivities, and shift towards a whole foods, minimally processed diet. Healthy lifestyle habits (i.e., regular exercise, adequate sleep, time in nature, etc.) have also been shown to affect the microbiome and reduce inflammation and should be incorporated. Many people will feel significantly better after being at this step for awhile. Subsequent steps (which may or may not be necessary depending on the progress achieved along the way) may include supporting the gut with targeted strains of probiotics, prebiotics and other beneficial nutrients; testing for and using herbal/nutritional approaches to remove unwanted bacteria and fungi (in some cases, this step may require working with your doctor on an antimicrobial/antifungal protocol); and ultimately establishing a sustainable, long-term way of eating that supports your unique nutritional needs.
If you’re experiencing digestive issues or discomfort (i.e., gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or abdominal pain), unintentional weight changes, fatigue, skin irritation, or mood issues, taking the steps we’ve discussed here today can make a significant difference. If you’d like support with that, contact me and let me know how I can help!
In this post, we’ll explore the relationship between nutrition and mental health, with references to the latest research. But first, I’d like to share the very personal experience that opened my eyes to this connection.
Ten years ago, my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. After processing and absorbing that news for a few days, I did what I always do when faced with something big – I dug into the research, and immersed myself in any and all information I could find on Asperger’s and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). As I educated myself about his new diagnosis and researched ASD therapies, I learned about biomedical treatments, and specifically nutrition-based interventions. Many parents in the online autism forums I joined shared the amazing progress their children were making as a result of dietary modifications and nutritional supplements, and I was intrigued. How could nutritional support make such a profound difference for kids with a neurodevelopmental disorder?
In the decade since then, my son has benefitted greatly from nutritional therapies. As a result of my family’s experience, I’ve become a staunch advocate for holistic, nutrition-based alternatives to conventional treatment approaches. Ultimately, I decided to return to grad school for a Master’s degree in Holistic Nutrition, so I could offer nutritional consulting to families of kids like mine as well as help people with a wide range of health conditions support their body’s innate healing capabilities with evidence-based nutrition.
What exactly is this connection between nutrition and mental health? How does what we eat affect our mood, cognition, and (as a result) our behavior? While game-changing nutritional interventions can often be relatively simple, the science behind why these interventions work is more complex and more research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms at play. However, there’s quite a bit that we do know about how nutrition affects mental health.
The relationship between nutrition and mental health is mediated in large part by what happens in the gut, and specifically along the gut-brain axis. The gut-brain axis is a bidirectional signaling pathway between the central and the enteric nervous system, which links the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with gastrointestinal functions. It also intersects with branches of the endocrine and immune systems. Gut microbes create signaling molecules that send messages to the brain along the gut-brain axis, influencing our mental and emotional states, and signals also transmit in the opposite direction allowing cognition and mood to affect gut function.
Gut microbes produce many compounds critical to brain function. These include neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, and GABA as well as short-chain fatty acids and vitamins that play an important role in modulating cognition, mood, and behavior. In fact, 90–95% of serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract!
These compounds, or microbial metabolites, interact with the brain along various pathways.The pathways include endocrine, neuroendocrine, immune, and neurotransmitter signaling routes. Microbial metabolites activate fibers of the vagus nerve (which transmits signals between the digestive system and organs to the brain), they stimulate the immune system within the gut (activating immune signaling molecules into the bloodstream which ultimately reach the blood brain barrier), and they are also directly absorbed into the bloodstream from where they can interact with other organs, including the brain.
Inflammation plays a critical role in this relationship as well. Research shows that physiological pathways involving inflammatory and stress responses play an important role in mental health. One plausible evidence-based explanation for how inflammation influences mood and mental health is the finding that psychological stress can increase intestinal permeability and allow bacterial endotoxins to enter the bloodstream, causing peripheral inflammation which can then spread to the central nervous system (CNS) causing a neurotoxic reaction.
So how does this translate into actionable nutritional guidance? How do our day-to-day dietary choices influence our mood, cognitive functioning, and behavior?
Dietary patterns matter. A Western dietary pattern, a.k.a the “Standard American Diet” with its heavily processed foods high in sugar and saturated fat, is strongly associated with adverse impacts to mental health. This type of diet leads to increased inflammation, intestinal permeability and nutrient deficiencies, all of which are linked to adverse impacts on brain functioning and overall health. Conversely, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, high in healthy fats, nuts, and fatty fish, and low in processed food (i.e., an anti-inflammatory Mediterranean-style diet) is associated with the greatest mental health benefits. Limiting processed foods and increasing intake of nutrient-dense whole foods can make a big difference in mental health, and of course, it’s optimal for physical health as well.
Brains need specific nutrients for optimal functioning. Mood and cognition depend on the brain functioning at its best, and there are a number of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that the brain needs to support neurotransmitter synthesis, neurotransmission, and other critical brain functions. If adequate nutrients can’t be obtained from the diet (or in the case of metabolic/absorption issues), supplementation of certain nutrients may be beneficial.
Gut health is crucial. Eating a clean, well-balanced whole foods diet goes a long way in establishing and maintaining a healthy gut, but additional steps may be needed. Gut dysbiosis, intestinal permeability (i.e., “leaky gut”), food sensitivities and other gut health issues can all persist and cause problems even on the healthiest diet. Identifying and addressing gut health issues is critically important.
Nutrition doesn’t just affect mood, cognition, and behavior – it is essential for optimal mental health. The good news is that even relatively simple changes to improve diet, nutrition, and gut health can make a profound difference.
Are you interested in optimizing your health and wellness through individualized nutritional support? I offer nutrition consults via phone and video conferencing tailored to your specific goals and needs. Visit my Work With Me page to learn more. I look forward to connecting with you!