As a Nutritional Therapist, I often bring my attention to a nutritional approach to stress and mental health. Mental health and well-being are becoming a subject we talk about much more. Many of us struggle with mental health, which is not “all in the mind”, but can also affect us physically.
Nutritional intervention can be incredibly impactful on the way the body responds to physical stress. Certain nutrients can help with managing mood and anxiety disturbances. During a stressful event the mind and body create a series of physical impacts activating the “hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis” (HPA axis). This system is designed to deal with a short-term stress, such as running away from a predator in the past or during an accident in modern times. When the system is activated, we release two stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin that trigger the “flight-or-fight” response. However, in the 24/7 lifestyle we tend to turn this system on chronically, worrying about relationships, mortgages and family. This is called chronic stress and many people around the world experience it on a daily basis. An acute stress is fine, it protects us in dangerous situations, but the chronic stress can negatively impact our mental health and well-being.
Chronic stress can suppress our immune system and
cause increased inflammation
compromise digestion and nutrient absorption
lead to hypertension
trigger blood sugar imbalances
lead to adrenal insufficiency and fatigue.
So, what exactly is a nutritional approach and why has it become more popular? People want to improve their quality of life using more holistic approach.
There are many nutrients that can be beneficial to the brain and mental health, through which we can boost circulation to the brain, thus increasing delivery of nutrients. Antioxidants can be beneficial at combating free radicals that our bodies produce on a daily basis in the process of breathing and digestion. There is an anti-inflammatory component of nutritional approach too since stress has been shown to be linked to inflammation in the brain.
Here are the nutrients that can help with mental health and wellbeing.
When it comes to mental health the evidence shows a robust link between vitamin D deficiency and depression. Most of us associate Vitamin D to the sunlight. Over 1 billion people worldwide lack Vitamin D. Why? Unfortunately, during the winter months in Northern Europe/UK between November and March the body is unable to produce it through sunlight exposure. Additionally, sunscreen usage can protect from UV rays and cancer, but puts us at risk of Vitamin D deficiency. Most dietary sources of Vitamin D are inadequate. In my practice I’ve not seen many people with adequate blood level of vitamin D who don’t supplement it. Older individuals, people with darker skin pigmentation or covered up for religious reasons, and individuals with malabsorption digestive disorders need more Vitamin D. There is a debate about Vitamin D2 and D3, but recently research shows Vitamin D3 is better absorbed by the body. What is the right dose? Many associations have various recommendations. I believe it is best to test your current levels to prescribe the right dose.
Magnesium shows an anti-stress and anti-anxiety effects. It’s fantastic at relaxing cramps and the condition of restless legs, it also contributes to good psychological function. Magnesium is used in over 600+ enzymatic reactions in the body and a decreased magnesium status is associated with various symptoms such as psychosis, depression, confusion or irritability as shown in EFSA report. Correcting deficiency can improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and migraines. Magnesium has been shown to improve sleep quality and duration. Poor sleep can lead to concentration issues, fatigue, low mood, and anxiety. Moreover, magnesium is needed to convert a stored form of Vitamin D into its active form. According to the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey, conducted by Public Health England:
“A substantial proportion of adults aged 19 years and over had intakes below the lower reference nutrient intake for magnesium”.
Magnesium intakes from foods have decreased in the past few decades as a result of changing in dietary habits (people consume less green leafy vegetables) and changes in agriculture (UK soil is poor in magnesium and selenium). In terms of supplementation, some types of magnesium have laxative properties so it’s best to seek a professional advice to tailor it for each individual’s needs.
Fish oil is a good source of long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) omega-3 acids, especially EPA and DHA. Most people in the UK and Ireland don’t get enough of it through their diet. Omega-3 has shown many anti-depressive and anti-inflammatory benefits. Consumption of omega-3 is associated with many health benefits, including contribution to normal brain function, vision, and function of the heart. Great sources of omega-3 are wild salmon and mackerel (NOT TUNA), but supplements can be more practical and cost effective too. Plant-based sources are flaxseeds, walnuts and chia seeds. However, the marine sources contain a better absorbed form of omega-3. The brain contains a high proportion of fats. Lack of omega-3 reduces the ability of brain cells to renew. A meta-analysis from the Journal of the American College of Nutrition shows a “significant antidepressant effect”. Other research links fish oil and well-being and attention issues, including ADHD in children.
CoEnzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is a vitamin-like substance found in the powerhouses of our cells (mitochondria) and has an antioxidant effect. Without CoQ10, mitochondria can’t produce the energy needed for the cell to function. Our body’s natural CoQ10 production reduces after the age of 25, therefore as we get older, we may consider its supplementation to decrease symptoms of bleeding gums and migraines. Additionally, CoQ10 has been shown to increase athletic performance. Moreover, statin medications are known to reduce cholesterol, but they also inhibit the production of CoQ10 in the body, thus people who take statins should consider CoQ10 supplementation.
It’s also been shown that CoQ10 can be helpful at managing fibromyalgia symptoms. Trials so far have shown that supplementation can decrease some symptoms of fibromyalgia, such as depressive symptoms, sensation of pain, headaches and fatigue.
Another condition is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) also known as ME. There many similar symptoms when we compare CFS to fibromyalgia, but in CFS a profound symptom is severe and debilitating fatigue. A study conducted by Neuro Endocrinology found that patients of CFS had lower CoQ10 levels and suffered more from concentration and memory issues.
These nutrients have been shown to improve mental health and well-being. If you are unsure whether you are getting the right amount of nutrients through the diet, please speak to a qualified Nutritional Therapist who can help you analyse it and direct you accordingly. A healthy diet and lifestyle are a great start to bring your body to optimum health.
Kasi Walusiak, Nutritional Therapist, Bedford Integrative Health Centre