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How does diet impact our mental health?

In her weekly column, Bradford West Gwillimbury licensed nutritionist Nonie De Long explores how food impacts depression
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Dear Nonie,

Thank you for your column. I enjoy reading it and find your approach refreshing. I was diagnosed years ago with depression and anxiety and have been on medication off and on. It’s gotten worse over the years and with this extended lock down. What do you offer for someone like me? Do these diseases respond to diet or supplements or herbs in a meaningful way?

Thanks,
Jenny

Dear Jenny,

I’m so sorry you’re suffering like this. I’ve also experienced depression and know how debilitating it can be. Yes, I’m living proof that the body can heal from depression. Just as the body can heal other dysfunctions - when it has the proper environment both externally and internally and when it has the proper nutrients and parts to do its job - it can overcome mental illness. Of course, if there are missing organs or parts of the body aren’t functioning optimally - say the thyroid or ovaries or pituitary gland, for example - it’s more difficult to overcome certain ailments. But, after almost 10 years in clinical practice, I have come to believe most dysfunction of the body and mind can be overcome or reduced to a manageable level if the body has enough vitality.

What do I mean by vitality?

In Traditional Chinese Medicine this is called Qi. In Ayurvedic medicine it is called Prana. In homeopathy we call it the Vital Force. In nutrition circles we often call it the Terrain. Think of it as the underlying energy and intelligence the body has to bring itself back into harmony when stressors come, as they always do in this life. When that is strong, the person can bring themself back into alignment and health relatively quickly and easily with minimal supportive intervention. When it’s weak - as in someone with chronic health conditions or in the elderly or those who have been weakly since birth - it is far more difficult to overcome stressors of any kind and health conditions manifest and take hold. Over time, these conditions weaken the person even more.

Stressors can be an infectious agent - some virus or bacteria - or a vaccination that requires the body to adapt. They can be mental or emotional stress. They can be toxins in the environment or food - pesticides and artificial ingredients, GMO foods, or fluoride-contaminated water. They can be toxic relationships or ways of interacting. They can be toxic view points or mindset. All of these will put strain on the body. This will be more pronounced when there isn’t a strong Vital Force.

So in holistic healthcare we don’t just work on addressing the virus or toxin or the symptoms of the illness - we also work on strengthening the underlying energy of the body to overcome illness. Sometimes this is taken out of context to debunk holistic medical practitioners by accusing them of not believing in germs. But that’s not accurate. We believe there are germs and viruses that can harm humans. But we also recognize they only harm some humans. As such, we believe humans have innate defenses against infectious agents and diseases, which we can put our powers to improving in order to help us overcome those assaults.

When this comes to mental health, it’s no different. We tend to think today that illness of the mind and emotions are not the same as illness of the body. They are often stigmatized. And they are routinely treated as though only mind-altering drugs can treat them. But this is inaccurate and simplistic.

When I once asked a psychiatrist if my son’s illness (juvenile onset psychosis) could be impacted by dietary interventions, she answered a definitive, “No.” I was expecting a, “We don’t know yet.” Or a, “It’s unclear.” Or maybe a, “There’s no data to support that.” No, to my mind, negated everything else she had to say. Why? Well, she was asking me to put pills in my son’s mouth (and thus stomach) to affect his brain. So wouldn’t it also stand to reason that the other things we put in our mouths (and stomachs) also have an impact on our brains?

This has since become my lifelong passion - exploring this link. How does diet impact our mental health? Let me share a few things I’ve observed. These express theories I have developed and continue to test for accuracy. 

  • Juvenile males become aggressive and argumentative or in rare cases - despondent - when they have not consumed enough complete protein, especially red meat. In adult males this more often presents as depressive states or weak immunity and energy. 
  • Juvenile and adult females develop hypoglycemia and mood swings under these same circumstances. In extreme cases they develop eating disorders more often than aggression. The aggression is turned inward. 
  • A diet high in carbohydrates exaggerates this in both. 
  • Males with deficiencies in combination with a lack of regular complete protein intake and excess carbohydrate intake can develop psychosis when there is the addition of an emotional mental stressor (death in the family, impending exams, first year of university familial separation, break up, divorce and/ or alcohol, drugs, or even psychotropic drugs. 
  • Females with deficiencies in combination with a lack of regular complete protein intake and excess carbohydrate intake can and often do develop anxiety and depressive related health issues. Often in combination with disordered eating habits. 
  • These are both more prevalent in families where there is a history of addiction behaviour. 
  • These are both more prevalent in families where there is an engineering or mechanical profession within a generation.
  • These are both more prevalent in people who have previously been treated with long term suppressive therapies (corticosteroids or antibiotics) for skin or breathing problems. 
  • These are exacerbated in women who have used oral birth control.

So, to answer your question, Jenny, yes. I (and others) have found that diet and supplement interventions can have a very profound impact on mental health outcomes.

Interventions I have observed to be effective in reducing symptoms and the prevalence to the tendency include: 

  • Identifying and addressing food intolerances 
  • Rebalancing and healing the gut biome 
  • Removal of all non-prescription drugs 
  • In all cases adopting an Ancestral diet 
  • In almost all cases, eating more frequent meat and fish, especially red meat 
  • In some cases, adopting a strictly ketogenic diet 
  • In all cases, removing all processed and unnatural foods 
  • In all cases, consuming organic as much as possible 
  • In all cases, targeted supplementation, according to your own biochemistry as determined by serum and hair analysis 
  • In all cases a healthy lifestyle with exercise and healthy sleep habits 
  • In all cases a reduction in external toxins and stressors wherever possible 
  • In some cases counselling 
  • In “stuck” cases that do not respond satisfactorily, homeopathic intervention by a qualified and adept homeopath using classical homeopathic methods 
  • In all cases, adopting moderate exercise 
  • In all cases, adding more unfiltered sunshine regularly 
  • In all cases, adding play and creativity into our daily lives

Many of these are things you can start today, at home. You can implement a routine bedtime and get more sunshine each day. You can implement a long walk to get you moving without increasing cortisol levels. You can find a fun hobby to engage your creative energy and boost your mood naturally. You can forgo breakfast cereals and take a morning protein shake or have some eggs. And you can research what an Ancestral diet is and how you can implement that. For that I highly recommend the work of Mark Sisson. And if you want to explore supplements or have personalized support you can reach out.

Thank you for the great question, Jenny. There are so many of us suffering from mental health issues with the changes in our society this past year. I encourage everyone to take good, loving care of themselves in times of stress, and this certainly meets that criteria. Just implementing these few changes can have a profound impact. I invite readers to try it and experience it for themselves.

As always, if readers have a health or nutrition related question for the column, I welcome you to write to me at nonienutritionista@gmail.com. And if you’re looking for more specific health information, check out my website and blog at hopenotdope.ca. Enjoy that wonderful sunshine!

Namaste!
Nonie Nutritionista