Updated: May 29, 2021
More than ever, people are courageously coming forward to talk about their struggles with depression, anxiety, stress and mood thanks to stigmas being erased around mental health.
However, People often don’t realize mental health requires a whole body approach for prevention and treatment, and nutrition plays an important role.
Depression. Anxiety. Stress. Mood. All of these can be linked to the health of your Enteric Nervous System – also known as your gut, your digestive system or your “second brain”.
You see, the human body is so amazing that we actually have two nervous systems. The Central Nervous System is the one we are most familiar with. It includes the brain and spine, and is responsible for the majority of your conscious thinking as well as the automated functions of your organs, reflexes, body metabolism and more.
The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is found in your gut. Here, over 100 million neurons live within your intestines. Not only do they control the digestion of fats, proteins and carbohydrates, they also produce hormones like serotonin (a precursor to happiness), cortisol (stress), grehlin and leptin (hunger), insulin (blood sugar balance) and more.
When the ENS is out of balance, we can experience imbalances elsewhere in the body – including the brain – because we are not breaking down and absorbing vitamins/minerals/proteins/fats we need to thrive. The body enters a state of inflammation, which undermines our performance, our mood, our relationships and our ability to think clearly.
Symptoms of imbalances include a white coated tongue, bad breath, burping, gas, constipation, diarrhea, undigested food fragments in stool, weakened immunity, lack of energy, poor concentration, irritability, pain and inflammation, weight gain or loss and food or chemical sensitivities. Indicators of good digestion? One to two well-formed, chestnut-brown bowel movements a day (that don’t smell) and NO undigested particles.
The path and protocol to improving and supporting mental health is not straightforward – it differs from person to person, depending on your overall health history. Nutrition alone is not a substitute for professional counselling. Sometimes medication or natural supplements are absolutely necessary to keep us on track. However, good nutrition should be a no brainer for those looking to fuel their emotional well being.
• Opt for a daily tea over coffee. Recent studies show the natural combination of L-theanine and caffeine naturally found in tea improves mood and productivity. L-theanine has a calming effect while the caffeine provides a natural perk. Tea also reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s by up to 86% for those with genetic preconditions (National University of Singapore).
• Avoid processed foods and food marketed as “diet”. They can contain excitotoxins used as flavour enhancers, like MSG, hydrolyzed proteins, aspartame, cysteine, aspartic acid, and up to 65 other known substances. They basically “excite” neurons in our brains to death. Yes, neurons die all because we want the ultimate taste experience from mass marketed food, leaving the rest of our brain to pick up the pieces.
• Omega 3s (healthy fats) feed the brain and nervous systems, skin health, energy, heart and more. Good quality sources include cold water fish, flax oil, nuts/seeds, chia, hemp hearts, avocado, olive oil and leafy greens.
• Lean, quality protein provides the building blocks to essential amino acids – precursors to mood regulating hormones. Turkey, chicken, cold-water fish, Greek yogurt, beef, lamb, lentils, beans, etc. are all good choices.
• A diet high in vegetables, fruit and fibre keeps the “pipes clean” and avoids the build of bacteria and toxins in the gut that can hijack health and mood.
• Probiotics and probiotic-rich foods like sauerkraut and kimchi help keep the enteric system populated with good bacteria to ensure optimum health.
• Be mindful of HOW you eat. Digestion begins in the mouth, so slow down and CHEW your food to the consistent of peanut butter. If you swallow pieces whole, you are not setting yourself up for success – only digestive distress.
Want some specific help with issues of mental health? Please contact Dr. Ruth Anne Baron, ND for individualized support.