With the modern discovery of the gut brain microbiome axis, science continues to reveal how the mind is connected to and affected by everything inside the body. Some in the medical community are even beginning to integrate mind body medicine into their treatments for anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, adhd, autism, and Alzheimer's disease. With these empowering new discoveries, our mental health is seemingly more within our control than we ever realized.
Yet somehow the conventional medical model still views the mind as lacking a connection to the body and focuses mostly on psychotropic medications as a primary method in treatment. While working as a clinical dietitian in psychiatric care, I witnessed just how ineffective this approach is and how using pharmaceuticals, even when combined with psychotherapy, infrequently produced a meaningful change.
A shocking review of published (and unpublished) studies submitted by pharmaceutical companies revealed nearly half of these drugs didn’t work, at all. When all data was combined, antidepressants failed to show any advantage over placebo sugar pills. In other words, improvements in mood may have actually been a result of the patients belief in the power of the drug rather than the drug itself.(1) Further research reveals how antidepressants may actually make people more likely to become depressed in the future. Not to mention the common side effects of significant weight gain, insomnia, and nearly 3 out of 4 users having sexual dysfunction.(2)
This treatment approach fails to integrate current science about the gut brain microbiome connection and its interplay with the enteric nervous system.(3) It ignores the importance of the microbiome in supporting the nervous system and all the growing research revealing a spectrum of psychiatric conditions associated with microbiome imbalances.(4) It even lacks consideration to nutritional deficiencies as a potential source of pathology.(5)
Nutritional Psychiatry is an emerging (and exciting) field that uses food and nutrition to help treat mental health and neurological conditions. Addressing underlying disturbance of the physical body can have a powerful impact on the health of the nervous system, and our experience in the world. By using the nutrition strategies I outline below, you can work towards improving your mental health aka your nervous system. By preventing inflammation, cultivating your microbiome, correcting nutrient deficiency, and encouraging DNA methylation- you can heal at the source.
Cultivating the Microbiome
The microbiome is the largest endocrine organ in the human body composed of ~ 40 trillion microorganisms living dominantly in the large intestine. With over 1000 different species, these microbes communicate with the brain by way of our vagus nerve, a superhighway directly connecting the gut to the brain. Messages from the digestive tract get to travel up to the brain along this pathway, forming a direct highway from gut to brainstem.
We continue to discover more about how the bacteria in our gut plays a big role in how we think, handle stress, and feel. Mental health and psychiatric conditions are becoming increasingly viewed as disturbances of the gut microbiome. Through the work of beneficial bacteria and the prebiotic plant fibers they feast on, neurotransmitters can be produced and inflammation mediated. Having a diverse and thriving bacterial ecosystem may be the most important contributor in nervous system health, if not human wellbeing.
Prebiotics: Fermentable Fibers
Fiber is not one size fit all. There are14 different forms of fiber and they are all processed at different regions of the intestinal tract; some metabolized by bacteria in the beginning of the intestinal tract versus towards the end in the large intestine where there is greater bacterial density. Fiber that is fermentable will produce different bacterial species than fiber that is non fermentable. What makes prebiotic fibers special is how they remain intact, undigested until they reach the large intestine where 90% of your microbiome lives, hopefully (small intestinal bacteria is tough). Here these fibers are munched on and broken down creating the fermentation process. Through this process they produce metabolites called short chain fatty acids called acetate, propionate, and butyrate shown to influence feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. (5) They act as little messengers, communicating between the gut and the brain, improving intestinal integrity, mucosal production, and protecting you against inflammation.
Here is why prebiotics are particularly special (6)
Increases diversity and composition of gut microbiome
Produces butyrate, acetate, propionate
Enhances mineral absorption
Inhibits pathogenic bacteria like e coli, salmonella, campylobacter
Improves intestinal integrity and mucosal production
Improves immune system defense
Alliums: onion, scallion, shallot, leeks, garlic, chive Root Vegetables: sunchokes, chicory, jicama, cassava root, cooked potatoes, beets Non Starchy Vegetables: globe artichoke, asparagus, cauliflower Leafy Greens: dandelion greens, endive, radicchio Legumes: chickpeas, split peas, black beans Fruits: avocado, banana, Grains: oats, bran, barley Nuts/Seeds: flaxseeds Mushrooms: reishi, shiitake, oyster Honey: raw honey Milk: human breast milk, goat milk
Probiotics: Fermented Foods
Bring *actual* bacteria into the digestive tract and microbiome in attempt to repopulate any good bacteria lost from exposure to antibiotics, viruses, harsh chemicals, and stress. I consider this a secondary approach to supporting your microbiome. Most probiotics do not make it past hydrochloric acid and other digestive juices.(7) Endospore probiotics, however, show capability to survive acidic digestive juices and reaching the large intestines where they can exert their healing effects.(8) Psychobiotics are specific strains that enhance the growth of intestinal bacteria found to reduce stress responses and symptoms of anxiety and depression.(9)
Including fermented food daily is a key part to the health of your nervous system
Fermented Food Sources
Cultured dairy like yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, Fermented beverages like kombucha Fermented grains Fermented vegetables like sauerkraut Kimchi Miso Natto Tempeh Apple cider vinegar (with the mother)
Inflammation from any metabolic source like poor detoxification or frequent dietary exposure to inflammatory foods, will have downstream effects upon the nervous system. Inflammation becomes a feature in all chronic diseases like psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders. Individuals suffering from anxiety, depression, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress, have elevated levels of inflammatory markers in their circulation and cerebral spinal fluid like C-reactive protein (CRP), IL-1β, IL-6, and TNFα, all promoting neurotransmitter imbalances in the brain. (10)
Inflammatory foods are prolific throughout the United States and synonymous with its food supply. A plethora of processed foods with refined sugars, preservatives, and chemically processed vegetable oils contribute the greatest influence. These offenders also generate advanced glycation end products (AGEs) in the brain, increasing neuro inflammation and adding to metabolic issues.(11)
Vegetable and seed oils, such as corn, sunflower, safflower, and soybean, are abundant in omega 6 fatty acids or linoleic acid. In the right proportion, omega 6 is essential and healthful for the body. The high prevalence of linoleic acid in the food supply, however, interferes with our body's omega 6:3 ratio encouraging the inflammatory process.(12) Taking it one step further, when processed these vegetable oils become stripped of their antioxidants allowing its fatty acids to quickly oxidize creating a vicious cycle of oxidation and inflammation, only perpetuating metabolic and inflammatory diseases from the gut to the brain. Oh and did I mention how hexane was used to process these oils? Always buy unrefined, cold pressed oils.
Environmental toxins also contribute to inflammation. This increases the toxic load in the body and burden upon the liver, lymph, lungs, colon, kidney, and skin to excrete from the body. This burden in detoxification leads to inflammation, specifically neuroinflammation. (13) Be mindful to your exposure and risk levels.
Bad microbes (bacteria, fungi, parasite, viruses),
Heavy metals (mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, nickel)
Toxicants (BPA, Pthalates, Parabéns, Glyphosate, PCBs)
Air pollutants (benzene, asbestos, toluene)
On a cellular level, methylation is the process of repairing and making new DNA when it's injured, so that every cell is functioning at its best. Your genetic variability, along with what you eat, your lifestyle, and microbiome diversity, determines your genetic expression where genes are turned on or off.
Some people carry variations in gene structure called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) which influence the function of these genes. If present, we can support our system by providing the nutrients it needs to do all the those things for you! Two such genetic variation are the MTHFR and COMT SNPs which affects the methylation cycle involved in brain and heart health. Up to 60% or people may have at least one genetic mutation in their MTHFR gene which prevents them from making full use of the b vitamin folate for all their nervous system needs. (14)
Folate is an essential nerve nutrient that takes a key role in the methylation process. It creates DNA and RNA, it is necessary for neurotransmitter production, and the development of the nervous system during pregnancy. Without this nutrient, neuropathy and blood disorders like anemia begin knocking at the door. This was a big one for me personally and a missing link to truly push past anxiety and depression. Upon discovery of the MTHFR mutation, I made some changes with food and supplements to ensure b vitamins are absorbed and used as intended.
Addressing Nutrient Deficiencies
With everything it is designed to do, your brain and entire nervous system, need specific and diverse nutrients. Essential Nerve Nutrients are a collection of vitamins, minerals and other bioactive compounds essential to nervous system health. There are10 nutrients considered essential for the nervous system, holding key roles in having a happy, motivated, focused, yet calm mind. B vitamins like thiamine, pyridoxine, folate, cobalamin, and choline. Antioxidants like vitamin c and d. Plus two important minerals, magnesium and zinc. Eating foods that are rich in these nutrients is a paramount to healthy nervous system function. (15)
You Cannot Heal the Mind Without Healing the Body
These are a few of the nutrition strategies that I use as a part of an integrative program to heal the nervous system. I take a deeper dive in my program, Nourishing Mind. An integrative wellness program combining nutrition therapy with mind body healing practices to address mental health, psychiatric, and neurodegenerative conditions. It offers a whole person approach to address the collective drivers impacting you. Using nutrition to combat inflammation, support neurotransmitters, and encourage methylation, are all essential avenues we can explore together.
A Personal Note
Integrating these nutrition strategies has brought an immense change into my own life. Discovering this path to personal freedom has empowered me to help others heal at their root so they can feel themselves again. For more than ten years now, I have helped people heal, transform, and restore themselves back to their balance. I have been mentored by and worked with some of the best functional medicine doctors and nutritionists in the world. Through my own experience and clinical training, I am here to show you how to heal yourself. Through healing foods and supplements personalized to you paired with mind body practices, I will guide you on your path back to personal freedom. Are you ready?
2 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20962066/ 3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4367209/
6 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6041804/ 7 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6041804/