According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 adults, or 43.8 million adults experience a mental illness in any given year. Mental illness refers to depression, mood disorders, trauma related conditions, anxiety, addiction, and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. Most of these conditions are currently being treated with pharmaceuticals and hopefully a skilled therapist.
Because the health of the brain depends on the health of the gut, we need to examine the role that diet plays in maintaining the microbiome. The body is flowing with millions of microbes, some good, some bad. Good microbes help prevent disease and bad microbes are well known for their inflammatory effects. Holistically trained physicians such as David Perlmutter argue that inflammation in the body can lead to depression, anxiety, and dementia, as well as nutrient deficiencies. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is vital in regulating sleep, appetite, mood, and pain control. 95% of your serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. According to Dr. Eva Selhub (2015) of Harvard Medical School, the gastrointestinal tract is lined with millions of nerve cells which not only assist in digestion, but also help to guide the emotions. Selhub (2015) also asserted that “What’s more, the function of these neurons — and the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin — is highly influenced by the billions of “good” bacteria that make up your intestinal microbiome. These bacteria play an essential role in your health. They protect the lining of your intestines and ensure they provide a strong barrier against toxins and “bad” bacteria; they limit inflammation; they improve how well you absorb nutrients from your food; and they activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain.” A study out of Harvard also suggested that an animal based diet can trigger the overgrowth of bacteria, fungi, and viruses which lead to an altered microbiome, which can consequently lead to inflammation, bowel disorders, cancer, heart disease, and mental illness. The study further suggested that a plant based diet had positive effects on the moods of the participants.
If you are currently being treated with pharmaceuticals for your mental health condition, DO NOT stop taking your medication before discussing this with your doctor. Abruptly discontinuing psychiatric medications can have serious side effects. You also may not be ready to give up meat completely or dairy products completely. That is ok! Everyone’s journey to improved mental health is individual and every human body is different. Try experimenting by adding a few more grains, legumes, leafy greens, or nuts into your diet. These foods are high in omega-3, zinc, and magnesium which are crucial for optimal brain health. Try roasting some broccoli and sweet potatoes, or sprinkle some nutritional yeast on a bowl of beans and rice. These foods are high in B vitamins which also play a vital role in brain health.
As always, be kind to yourself. Change doesn’t happen overnight. Keep your intention in mind. Allow it to be your guiding light and your torch when things begin to feel overwhelming. Continue to educate yourself so that you can make an informed decision regarding how to bets manage your mental health.
Mental Health by the Numbers. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers.
E. Selhub (2015, November 16). Nutritional Psychiatry: Your Brain on Food. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626
N. Montuori (2015, May 20). Treating Mental Illness and Depression with a Plant Based Diet. Retrieved from https://ordinaryvegan.net/mental-illness/.