Monday 13 June, 2016 0 Comments

This week is mental health awareness week. It’s a topic that gets far less mainstream media attention than other health concerns. There’s a common belief that obesity is the biggest threat we face. While this is a pressing concern, I don’t work as a holistic nutritionist to help people lose weight. I do the work I do to help people find health. There’s a vital difference and one of the areas I see best results is the link between nutrition and mental health.

What we eat affects more than our physical appearance and physical fitness. These things are important, but there are numerous benefits to eating a nutrient-dense diet with supporting products that aren’t mentioned. Our mental health is something that affects every single interaction we have.

It’s a topic I’m extremely passionate about. I’m currently completing my PhD at the University of Canterbury on the topic of genetics, micronutrients and mental health. I have seen firsthand throughout my career how good nutrition and targeted nutritional support for treating nutrient deficiencies can change people’s lives.

The prevalence of mental health problems in the modern world is concerning. Dr Julia Rucklidge uses micronutrient therapies to treat mental health conditions at the University of Canterbury, she says “there is a very real danger of mental health care bankrupting our society in terms of cost and social implications.”

I’m going to shed some much needed light on things we can all do to improve our mental health. There is so much scope within the fields of nutrition, lifestyle strategies and stress reduction techniques to help improve our energy and mood.

The whole picture

One in ten New Zealanders are on antidepressants, an eight-fold increase in total prescription numbers from 1998.

There has been a four-fold increase in claimed disability financial support due to psychiatric disorders in New Zealand from 1991 to now. Both these figures are supplied through Statistics New Zealand.

In a period of time where “cutting edge medicines” have been developed and trialled on our population, rates of mental health disorders continue to rise.

The long term results from the National Institute of Mental Health’s MTA study found that children taking medication for ADHD for longer than 24 months showed “significant markers not of beneficial outcome, but of deterioration… medicated children were also slightly smaller, and higher delinquency scores.”

Food and stress

This increase in mental health conditions follows the same exponential rise of obesity and type two diabetes since the 1970s. I firmly believe what we are eating drastically affects our mental health. The good news is, there is so much we can do with nutrition to see incredible improvements.

For many people gluten, refined grains and sugar can cause problems affecting everything from digestion and eczema, to joint pain, weight gain, migraines, mental health disorders and behavioural issues such as ADHD.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Many nutritionists now believe many people - not just those with  Celiac Disease - should avoid gluten as it is contributes to leaky gut.

This is problematic for mental health conditions because if serotonin - our happy hormone which is largely produced in the gut - is not kept within your gut and digestive tract, it cannot engage in chemical reactions within your brain to increase your mood. Refined grains and sugar cause blood sugar spikes and energy crashes as insulin is produced to mitigate the quick rush of glucose and fructose.

Similarly, the stress of modern living has a huge impact on our mental health. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is activated by everything from traffic, worry, excessive caffeine intake and even exercise. This constant flood of cortisol prevents our “rest and digest” nervous system from operating. This also stops the production of growth hormone and serotonin as well as preventing sleep and digestion.

So what can we do?

  • Test for common micronutrient deficiencies such as zinc, Iron, vitamin D and B12. Work with a natural health profession - like our clinical consultants at the BePure clinic - to address micronutrient deficiencies with nutritional support.
  • Eat a nutrient dense whole foods diet, taking care to exclude gluten and refined sugars.
  • Practise stress management strategies such as deep belly breathing, meditation, journaling or getting a therapeutic massage.
  • Prioritise 7-8 hours sleep per night.
  • Get regular gentle exercise such as walking, yoga or swimming. These exercises will increase endorphins and serotonin without taxing your cortisols.
  • Get outside in nature. You will get the benefits of fresh air, exercise and vitamin D exposure. Vitamin D has been linked to increased serotonin levels which is an important factor in dealing with mental health issues.
  • Take a quality multivitamin to account for nutritional shortfalls in our diets due to soil quality, preservation methods and processed foods. We recommend BePure One and Three to everyone as a baseline level of support to ensure they are getting everything they need to hit their nutritional targets everyday.
  • Limit stimulants such as caffeine which can increase stress.


Micronutrients and mental health

Dr Rucklidge’s research suggests we need to ensure good nutrient-density in our diets and use therapeutic doses of micronutrients to support mental health conditions. Micronutrients such as zinc, vitamin D, Omega 3 Fish oil and many more have been used in open label trials for anxiety, sleep issues, bipolar disorder and ADHD.

All have shown significant reductions in psychiatric and psychological symptoms. Response rates range from 50-80% improvements. Speak to your natural health practitioner or contact our BePure clinic to talk about what micronutrients you could use.

The current medical model seeks to use medication first before addressing stress, food, sleep and nutrient deficiencies. I would personally love to see this equation flipped. If we can address dietary and lifestyle factors first, along with nutrient support, while using medication sparingly on a case-by-case basis, we can greatly improve the mental health of our nation.