Mental health and nutrition: an undeniable link

On Saturday, I made my way to the Vancouver Convention Centre to attend Mind Alive, a one-day conference focused on exploring natural medicine for mental health. This conference brought together health practitioners from all professions, mental health sufferers and people like me who want to learn more about solutions.

The information was sobering. And hopeful.

It was a good reminder -in the most simplistic of terms- that nutrition is directly related to normal brain function.  Forty to 50% of nutrients derived from our food goes directly to the brain. Imagine the fall-out with today’s nutrient-sparse, ‘cardboard’ Standard American Diet – our brains are literally starved of necessary nutrients! As a result, we are likely bringing a mix of cognitive issues to the next alarming level – from anxiety disorders, depression, ADHD, and bipolar  disorder to memory problems and simple, but exasperating ‘foggy brain’. And worse.

The exciting news is that there is a growing body of of scientific literature that recognizes the importance of nutrients for mental health and cognition. Psychiatry, psychology, psycho-pharmacology and other medical journals are presenting more and more research studies that underscore a direct relationship between brain function –mental health– and micronutrients. There is a definitive shift afoot wherein treatment outside of popping pills is being carefully examined (yes, even in the allopathic world!) and put to the test, with positive results.

Holistic practitioners believe a healthy gut – healthy digestion- is the basis for optimal overall health of the body. Consider this: most of your immune system exists in the lining of your small intestine. If the health of this lining is compromised (which is the case in many North Americans due to poor diet), you are likely subject to the undesirable effects of decreased immunity – catching endless viruses and infections. Low fiber, high-sugar, processed foods, overuse/abuse of NSAIDS (aspirin, Motrin, Aleve, etc), and low-grade microbe imbalances (yeast, parasites, bacterial overgrowth) contribute to intestinal lining damage and inflammation.

Further, undigested food particles and other toxins may cross through the rips and tears in an unhealthy gut lining and enter the blood, causing systemic inflammation throughout the body. Eventually, these toxins may travel far enough to breach the blood-brain barrier, with the woeful effects of brain fog, decreased cognition and memory issues.

Did you know that there are more neurotransmitters produced in our gut than in our brain? Most of our serotonin, for example, is produced in the gut and speaks directly to the brain to promote the ‘feel good’ mood. If our digestive system is not functioning at par, our levels of serotonin are profoundly and negatively impacted, possibly leaving us feeling blue, moody, or anxious.

Our gut microbiota – the  good and so-called ‘bad’ bacteria – must be balanced to promote optimal brain health, and essential overall health. There is also direct communication between this beneficial bacteria and the brain. We need to have a symbiotic ecosystem of good bacteria in our bodies – this is directly linked to the production of neurotransmitters, immune and anti-inflammatory actions, hormone regulation, and digestion. What a complex system!

Let’s bring it back to basics. Your body consists of billions of cells. These cells are meant to receive proper food in the form of nutrients, in order to perform optimally. Optimal performance means optimal health. Both physical and mental.

Please eat healthy. Feed your body and your mind.