Mental health is a tough subject, plain and simple. There are multiple opinions on the matter of causes and of treatment, ranging from high-dose medications to psychotherapy and everywhere in between. Unfortunately, mainstream medical doesn’t put much emphasis on nutrition for mental health, whether it be for general wellness or more complex cases like autism and schizophrenia.
I like this article’s way of explaining mental health care. In short, they state that the brain needs to be treated like any other organ in the body. We test for plaque buildup that damages the heart, and for basic functioning in kidneys and liver. The brain, however, is largely reduced to an enigma. Mental health issues become something that we need to ‘talk out of someone’, rather than diagnosing a physical or chemical problem. We, as health professionals, need to spend more time trying to find chemical and dietary sources of imbalances in the brain. The science is out there, we just need to apply it.
Brain health for everyone
General mental well-being depends on a number of nutrients in the diet. There are lots of nutritional players in mental health, and it is always best to get a well-rounded diet to cover the bases. Here are a few of the major nutrients shown to impact mental health:
Omega 3’s: Our brains are largely made up of fats. We require a good amount of healthy fats like omega 3 fatty acids from our diet to maintain tissue and brain function. Omega 3’s also have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body, decreasing effects of oxidative stress on the body and brain. More here!
B-Vitamins: As a category, B-vitamins are responsible for nerve health in the body. Poor nerve health in the brain can lead to ‘bad connections’ that can present themselves as mental illness.
Vitamin D: The role of vitamin D in the brain is not completely understood, but we do know that there are several vitamin D receptors in areas of the brain that are linked to the development of depression. A review done in 2013 found a lack of vitamin D in the blood is linked with being depressed and increases risk of depression and that taking a vitamin D supplement can improve or prevent depression.
Complex mental health issues are just that: complex. There are classifications for different types, but no two people present symptoms in the exact same way. This is perhaps why it becomes so difficult to treat. A study from 1999 shows a strong link between patients with schizophrenia or autism and sensitivities to gluten and dairy. If you know us, you have heard before that gluten and dairy are major causes of allergies and general body inflammation. This goes with the same line of thinking. Gluten and dairy cause inflammation in the body, which can manifest itself in many different ways. In the case of these patients, it manifests as mental illness.
Another known cause of mental illness is the consumption of heavy metals like lead, mercury or aluminum. It’s easy enough to reduce or eliminate harmful substances from our body, but that’s not always possible with heavy metals. These metals can linger in drinking water, in the plants and animals we consume, and even our daily hygiene and beauty products. This is a full list of harmful heavy metals, but here’s a rundown of the major players:
Aluminum: toxicity causes slurred speech and nerve issues. It’s found in most mainstream deodorants.
Mercury: toxicity causes hyperactivity, delayed speech, and lack of communication with others. Symptoms somewhat mimic Asperger’s syndrome (curious!). Eating fish that are susceptible to high mercury concentrations due to ocean pollution can lead to toxicity. Look at this chart to see which species have the highest levels.
Lead: this proven neurotoxin has been linked to depression and anxiety disorder, not to mention decreased brain function and verbal ability. Lead was used in paint up until the 1950s, old homes may still be cause for concern, as well as contaminated water supply, like in Flint, Michigan recently.
Whatever the cause of mental illness, it is important to treat it like any other medical diagnosis. The historical practice of treating people as if they are ‘crazy, insane, etc.’ for presenting with a mental issue is all wrong. The stigma created by this practice makes it less likely that people will reach out for help. It’s important to talk to health care professionals regarding symptoms. Ideally, your team of medical, mental health and nutrition professions can work together to pinpoint possible underlying causes of symptoms and help treat them appropriately.