Frequently ignored and misunderstood, mental health problems are common in our society. They range from disorders such as depression and anxiety to rarer diseases such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. In this article, I want to focus on the link between nutrition and symptoms such as depression and anxiety. Many factors contribute to the development of depression and anxiety, including genes, nutrition, trauma, psychological and social factors, environmental toxins and others. As a naturopath, I commonly see people with varying degrees of depression and/or anxiety who improve by dietary adjustments, nutritional and herbal supplements and counselling.
The foods we eat directly affect how we feel and think. Our bodies make neurotransmitters which pass on messages between cells, both in the body and brain. There are many different types of neurotransmitters, and some of them affect mood, mental alertness, calmness and concentration. The main ones for mental health include:
• Serotonin - improves your mood and keeps you happy.
• Dopamine, adrenalin and noradrenalin - help you deal with stress, stimulate, energise and motivate, keep you happy, addictions, rewards????
• Gamma-amino-butyric acid (GABA) - switches off the stimulating neurotransmitters, calms and relaxes.
• Acetylcholine and tryptamines such as melatonin.
Our body has to make these neurotransmitters from food. The main sources are amino acids found in protein, including tryptophan, phenylalanine and tyrosine, taurine and glutamine. To convert these amino acids to neurotransmitters, several other nutrients are needed, mainly vitamins B6, B12, B2, B3, C, folic acid, and the minerals magnesium, iron, zinc, manganese and copper.
People who suffer from depression may have lower levels of serotonin and noradrenalin in their brain. Tryptophan is needed to make serotonin, and this is found in meats such as chicken and turkey, eggs, tofu, beans, cheese and oats. Unfortunately, other amino acids compete with the uptake of tryptophan, and sometimes supplementing with 5-hydroxytryptophan is best, with added B vitamins and a carbohydrate meal. This can also improve sleep and ease anxiety.
Essential fatty acids (found in fish, nuts and seeds), selenium, chromium, vitamin D and stable blood sugar levels are also important for healthy brain function and mood. Avoid refined carbohydrates such as lollies and white flour, and don’t skip meals.
To give your mind the optimum nutrition, you need to eat foods high in protein, vitamins C and B complex, minerals and essential fatty acids. Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, and some whole grains. Make sure you have plenty of protein in your diet – good sources are meat, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, and combinations of grains and legumes. See a qualified practitioner for advice if you want to take amino acid supplements. For further reading, I recommend the ‘New Optimum Nutrition for the Mind’ book by Patrick Holford, or the websites of the Food for the Brain organisation:
www.foodforthebrain.org, and Institute for Optimum Nutrition: www.ion.ac.uk (click on Information → Health notes). For best results in treating depression and anxiety, look at the specific and individual contributing factors and address them with appropriate therapies.
Naturopath ph 0427 025051