Each year, mental illness affects 43.8 million or 1 in 5 adults nationwide. A growing body of evidence suggests that poor nutrition contributes to this epidemic. What’s more impressive is the nutritional research supporting the management of mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive, schizophrenia, eating and many mood disorders.
Outside of counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy, medication has been first line of intervention for those suffering from a mental disorder. It’s far too easy to alleviate symptoms with medication than to address underlying cause of mental disturbance. Naturopathic medicine excels in addressing the underlying cause of mental health conditions. As we understand the foundational components of brain chemistry, our basic nutrition becomes the most affordable and reliable method to managing mental illness.
Our brain is the central integration center for all organ functions. Its messages come from brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. When neurotransmitters are in balance, a person can experience feelings of positivity, reward, motivation, pleasure, and happy mood. Any imbalance or deficiency in neurotransmitters can cause aberrations in chemical signaling, giving rise to feelings of depression, anxiety, mood fluctuations, and behavioral changes. Deficiencies in neurotransmitters such as serotonin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), dopamine, and norepinephrine are often associated with mood disorders. Their production requires adequate amounts of nutrients, including amino acids, minerals, B vitamins, and healthy fats.
Many neurotransmitters depend on the availability of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. Eight out of 20 amino acids are considered essential and must be supplied through diet since our bodies cannot synthesize them directly. A high-quality protein diet can reduce neurotransmitter deficiencies.
1. Tyrosine. Tyrosine makes dopamine ‘the reward molecule,’ and norepinephrine ‘the motivating molecule.’ Studies show that L-tyrosine depletion in healthy women determines a decrease in neurotransmission, thus increasing risk of mood disorders. Food sources: grass-fed meats, fish, soybeans, nuts, seeds, eggs, dairy, beans, and whole grains.
2. Tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid responsible for making serotonin ‘the happiness molecule’ and melatonin ‘the sleeping molecule.’ Studies show that consuming more dietary tryptophan can significantly reduce severity and reoccurrence of depression, seasonal affective disorder, insomnia, anxiety and manic states. Over 90% of serotonin is made in our intestines and platelets. Caution is warranted with supplementation, as it can lead to adverse effects. Food sources: grass-fed meats, nuts, seeds, spinach, soy, cheese, fish, beans, lentils, and eggs.
3. Glutamine. Glutamine makes the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate and the inhibitory neurotransmitter called GABA or ‘the calming molecule.’ In anxiety disorders, GABA is the primary inhibitory molecule to counterbalance the action of excitatory glutamate. Diets rich in monosodium glutamate (MSG) leads to overactive nervous system, causing ADHD, anxiety, mood and behavior changes. Gut bacteria, specifically Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, have the ability to produce GABA and directly signal the nervous system to reduce anxiety. Food sources: seafood, grass-fed meats, eggs, red cabbage, dark leafy greens, parsley, asparagus, nuts, beans, legumes.
Multiple micronutrient deficiencies have been associated with depression, anxiety, and mood disorders. These essential cofactors are obtained through diet and are responsible for chemical reactions that synthesize key neurotransmitters. Our current food supply is considered nutrient deficient due to heavily depleted, chemically treated recycled soils.
1. Magnesium is required to produce serotonin, facilitate over 300 enzymes, and help relax nerve and muscle cells. Magnesium deficiency is associated with anxiety, depression, and elevated stress response. Food sources: nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, dark green leafy vegetables, dark chocolate.
2. Iron is required for production of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. It influences brain maturation and deficiency may play a role excitatory disorders like ADHD. Due to its oxygen carrying capacity, deficiency in iron can lead to anxiety, poor concentration, and panic attacks. Food sources: red meats, dark leafy greens, blackstrap molasses, beans and lentils.
3. Zinc protects the brain cells against potential free radical damage caused by inflammation. Its involvement in gene transcription is crucial, especially in involving emotion, learning and memory. Deficiency can induce depression and anxiety-like behaviors, while supplementation has improved the efficacy of antidepressant drugs in treatment-resistant patients. Food sources: oysters, beef, chicken, tofu, pork, pumpkin and hemp seeds, nuts, lentils, yogurt, oatmeal, and mushrooms.
Naturally found complexed together in vegetables and fruit, these water-soluble cofactors are necessary for metabolic processing of protein, sugar, and fat into useable energy for the body. Their collective effects are prevalent in energy production, DNA synthesis and repair, gene expression, and production of neurotransmitters related to mood regulation. Supplementation of nine vitamins that were 10 times greater than recommended dietary allowance (RDA) was shown to significantly improve mood in both men and women. In particular, vitamins B-6 (pyridoxine), B-9 (folate), and B-12 (cobalamin) are highlighted.
1. Folate and B-12 are responsible for liver detoxication, nerve conduction and regrowth, DNA repair, and mood stabilization. These vitamins help to reduce an inflammatory compound called homocysteine that is related to elevated anxiety or depression levels. Genetic mutations in MTHFR gene contribute to rising levels of homocysteine and deficiencies in folate and B12. Food high in folate: dark leafy greens, beans, legumes, lentils, asparagus, broccoli, soy. Foods high in B12: organ meats, chicken liver, fish, eggs, nutritional yeast, dark leafy greens.
2. B-6 is the single cofactor responsible in protein breakdown into useable amino acids. Diets low in protein and vitamin B-6 can greatly contribute to any neurotransmitter deficiency. B-6 works with folate and B-12 during liver detoxification, and has been shown to be a potent monotherapy in treating mood disorders and autism. Food sources: beef liver, meat, fish, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, potato, banana, avocados.
The brain and its nerve extensions are composed of 60% fat. These brain lipids are structural membrane components, made up of 50% polyunsaturated fatty acids, out of which about 33% belong to the omega-3 family. The two omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are essential. Highly concentrated in fatty fish (salmon), sardines, flaxseeds, and walnuts, these fatty acids induce anti-inflammatory effects on tissues by producing chemicals involved in body’s immune defenses and reduction in pro-inflammatory signaling. Accumulating evidence suggests a direct link between high omega-3 fatty acid consumption and lower incidence rate of mental disorders.
In summary, the most common nutritional deficiencies seen in patients with mental disorders are those of omega–3 fatty acids, B vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Personalized nutrition aims to correct dietary imbalance and replenish micronutrient deficiencies in order to improve brain chemistry and mental health outcomes.
Dr. Diana Zitserman, ND, LAc is a licensed naturopathic physician and acupuncturist, specializing in Whole Person Wellness at Collaborative Natural Health Partners in Manchester and West Hartford, CT. A seven-year career in cancer research propelled her for a lifelong career in practicing Naturopathic medicine that treats the underlying cause of disease processes. Dr. Z utilizes natural therapies and Acupuncture to create balance and health restoration for people of all ages. Collaborative Natural Health Partners, LLC, 315 East Center Street, Manchester. P: 860.533.0179