There are many clear benefits to talking therapies in improving our wellbeing, understanding our internal selves and helping us to deal with the more difficult moments in our life.
However, there is a relatively new area of development in the field of mental health, which I have become increasingly interested in – that of Nutritional Psychiatry. Focusing on a shift in thinking around the role of diet and nutrition in mental wellbeing whilst developing a comprehensive, scientifically rigorous evidence base to support these ideas.
The use of anti-depressants has more than doubled in recent years. In England 64.7m prescriptions were issued for antidepressants in 2016. This is an increase of 3.7m on the number of items prescribed in 2015 and more than double than the 31m issued in 2006. Sadly, our approach at the moment suggests that poor mental health caused by social, environmental or personal conditions is primarily treated by dispensing drugs.
Of course, there is no doubting that drugs can be very effective and have a necessary place in the treatment of mental health. However, there are potential side effects and many people are understandably reluctant to become reliant on medication. As with all medications they may help in some situations, and not in others; shown to be effective for moderate, severe and chronic depression, but less so for mild depression.
The link between poor mental health and nutritional deficiencies has long been recognised by nutritionists working in the complementary health sector. However, psychiatrists are only now becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of using nutritional approaches to mental health,
It is now known that many mental health conditions are caused by inflammation in the brain, which ultimately causes our brain cells to die. This inflammatory response starts in our gut and is associated with a lack of nutrients from our food such as magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics, vitamins and minerals that are all essential for the optimum functioning of our bodies.
Research has found an inverse association between healthy dietary patterns (those with high intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, fish, and minimal intake of processed foods) and the risk of depression.
Since the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids from fish and other sources has declined in most populations, the incidence of major depression has increased proportionally. Epidemiological data and clinical studies already show that omega-3 fatty acids can effectively treat depression.
In addition to omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B (e.g., folate), and magnesium deficiencies have been linked to depression. Randomized, controlled trials that involve folate and B12 suggest that patients treated with 0.8 mg of folic acid/day or 0.4 mg of vitamin B12/day exhibit decreased depressive symptoms.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibits pain. Since about 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, and your gastrointestinal tract is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, or neurons, it makes sense that the inner workings of your digestive system don’t just help you digest food, but also guide your emotions.
When people take probiotics (supplements containing the good bacteria), their anxiety levels, perception of stress, and mental outlook have been shown to improve, compared with people who did not take probiotics.
As the days grow shorter and for many of us, the colder, darker months feel more difficult navigate, it may be worth supplementing our diets with these additional vitamins and minerals to maintain our gut health and help our minds and bodies function more effectively on both a physical and emotional level.