Mental Health and Nutrition

POSTED BY Dr Emma Kirke, Date :

How can we use our daily food and fuel to our advantage? Are there any tweaks you can make to your diet and meal plans to avoid certain foods and include others to reduce symptoms and assist with positivity?

Perhaps! I am not suggesting a cure but if some improvements can be gained from making a few tweaks it could be worth giving it a go.

Anxiety, depression, and stress are becoming increasingly discussed topics, on one hand, this is improving public awareness and hopefully reducing the taboo status, whilst on the other hand it means that waiting lists to have access to counselling are lengthening, and there appears to be a lack of help and advice whilst you are waiting.

In our modern society, anxiety and stress are indicated in many disease processes and negative clinical states. As a short-term status they are reasonably manageable, long-term, however, they can lead to the body developing secondary conditions. Symptoms of stress and anxiety can include palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath, hyperventilation, dizziness, feelings of fear and worry. If you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms you could be suffering from stress or anxiety. You should monitor yourself, and where possible enlist the help of a close friend or family to alert you to changes in behaviour or symptoms that you may not have noticed yourself. If the symptoms worsen or persist you should seek the help of a specialist.

I have met many people that are suffering, within my job and as a trustee for State of Mind, and they have a commonality of the description of their feelings. “I feel as though I am in a minefield with limited and confusing information”. Where can they turn to and how can they help themselves if they find themselves lacking a direction?

I have lived with my father who developed severe depression post redundancy, and my husband who has clinical depression and manic-depressive bouts. I have had bouts of extreme lows myself as a consequence of spinal and neurological damage resultant from a car accident.

It is as a result of these experiences that I began to look at the possible self-help processes.

Nothing I write in this article is in anyway suggesting that you negate the advice or medication supplied by your specialist, and consulting a counsellor or specialist medic is part of the essential treatment.

However, there is a substantial amount it appears that you can do for yourself, either alongside or if you choose as an alternative to taking medications. If you are trying to manage things holistically, natural supplementation and dietary changes can be fantastically effective. I have seen remarkable results in both my husband and father’s demeanours, and within patients, in my clinic, they have reported marked improvements.

A mass of research is currently being undertaken specifically in America in relation to wheat, gluten and severe clinical depression. In certain clinical trials whereby they removed wheat and gluten from the diets of those taking treatment in a rehabilitation facility, their conditions including symptoms as severe as schizophrenia showed improvement. They noted reduction and in some cases abolishment of their symptoms with no medications.

With this grain revelation in mind, the thought of a dietary tweak having such a marked effect set me on an experiment with myself and my husband (my father was initially less optimistic!). I began my hunt for foods and supplements that may be able to help my family, my patients and possibly other sufferers.

What can I do for myself by tweaking my diet?

There is no absolute guarantee that tweaking your diet can completely relieve your symptoms, and I will reiterate that you should not think that diet can replace the help of your counsellor or medical professional, but it may be worth giving a go for the sake of making a few changes to your shopping list and meal habits.

If you have been prescribed medication please do not stop taking it straight away, you should monitor your symptoms with your healthcare professional before reducing any medications. Dietary modifications will work alongside medications and is completely safe to compliment other methods.

I feel at this point that it is prudent to include some science. Understanding how your body responds to stress and anxiety and the reactions this creates and how this, in turn, leads to the creation your symptoms can be useful.

In truth certain types of stress can be useful, in fact, some stress is necessary for functioning. However, frequent high levels of stress can lead to an elevated circulation of hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol (liquorice can help remove this short term!). These hormones are designed to increase your blood pressure and the rate at which your heart beats. They also encourage the body to secrete insulin, which makes the body’s cells take up sugar. The body is ensuring that the cells have enough energy available to respond in an emergency, or a dangerous situation. These responses are normal, and indeed vital in the correct circumstance, but can be negative in the long term. This situation can permanently elevate the blood pressure and heart rate. The white blood cell count will begin to diminish, which affects the immune system. The digestive system has reduced function as in an emergency digestion is considered unnecessary, this, in turn, leads to poor gut function, which in turn leads to a reduced nutritional status and consequential negative health effects. The nervous system and adrenal glands can become overworked, which can bring about symptoms of anxiety and exhaustion.

Can I do anything to help reduce these effects?

When managing stress B vitamins are vital as they support a healthy adrenal gland and nervous system. Increasing your zinc intake will help support a depleted nervous system and stave off colds and coughs, which are often easily contracted when stressed. Zinc also helps the bodies white blood cells regulate the way it responds to bacteria and viral infections. It helps regulate the effect of the chemical in the brain called serotonin, low zinc, low mood, and depression are strongly linked.

Fast release carbs such as processed sugar and white bread cause a surge of adrenalin and can increase your symptoms, your body then has to deal with this increment in sugar and it has to do this quickly. This creates a blood sugar drop, which leads to a “come down” and slump, this can cause a mental fog and/or a low mood. A basic low GI format to your diet can help to stabilise your blood sugar and consequently alleviate mood swings. The basic principle is to cut out refined carbs including, white rice, pasta, bread and sugar. Slow release foods like black rice and quinoa are useful stabilising foods, and you should try to include high-quality proteins in your diet.

Omega 3 essential fatty acids have been studied in respect of mental functioning and have shown remarkable improvements in symptomology. It is thought that the EFA helps to release “feel good” chemicals in the brain. Oily fish is a strong source for the full omega 3 range which is necessary for general brain health. Salmon, mackerel, and tuna are the fishes you should include, vegans and vegetarians may be at greater risk consequently, and should, therefore, include flaxseed as a supplement as it is the strongest plant source.

Magnesium is an important mineral specifically involved with anxiety, clinical research has shown it is involved in physical relaxation, including the skeletal muscles, this effect alone assists in making us feel relaxed. I take a hot almond milk decaf drink loaded with magnesium before bed to help me unwind and sleep. Foods that contain magnesium are green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds.

Depression is something extremely difficult to understand, especially if you have never experienced it for yourself. It is sometimes viewed as a state you should just be able to “snap out of”, however, there is significant clinical evidence to show that there is a biochemical element as well as the psychological. I feel that when I am treating a patient one element cannot be considered without the other as they are usually interlinked. Environmental, circumstantial, emotional, physical and biochemical changes could all be solely responsible, or contributory in the development of a depressive state. As with stress and anxiety, it is paramount to maintain steady blood sugar levels. Combining protein with complex carbohydrate is an excellent way to do this. The body digests the two food types in differing acidic environments and uses differing enzymes within the Gastro-intestinal tract to perform the processing. The digestive system copes better and can perform more efficiently when they are consumed separately allowing the body time to break each one down, this is of greater significance if the digestive system is being impaired by a medical condition. For example, you could eat nuts and seeds as a mid-morning snack (protein), with sweet potato or quinoa salad for lunch, then salmon fillet or chicken as a snack, and chickpea curry for tea.

Protein contains an amino acid called tryptophan which is in high quantities in turkey meat. This is the substance that is converted to serotonin helping mood elevation. Eating small meals at regular intervals helps regulate blood sugar levels and serotonin levels.

If you avoid eating oily fish you will not only miss out on omega 3, but also EPA which cannot be found in a plant source. It is strongly indicated in studies concerning depression that it is a mood elevator and assists with concentration.

Amount of EPA in 100g (3oz)

Mackerel – 1,400mg

Herring/Kipper – 1,000mg

Sardines – 1,000mg

Tuna – 900mg

Anchovy – 900mg

Salmon – 800mg

Trout – 500mg

Vitamin B increases the production of neurotransmitters in the brain which aids the transportation of signals. Eating wild black rice, quinoa, mushrooms, asparagus and eggs helps with this as they are leading sources of vitamin B.

Supplying proper levels of chromium to certain depressed patients can make a big difference. Chromium is essential to assist insulin in regulating blood sugar levels. These particular patients with “Atypical” depression respond well to boosting chromium. Ask yourself the following questions and if you can answer yes to one or more it may be that you will react well to this type of treatment.

Do you crave sweets or other carbohydrates?

Do you tend to gain weight?

Are you tired for no reason?

Do your arms or legs feel heavy?

Do you tend to feel sleepy or groggy much of the time?

Are your feelings easily hurt by the rejection of others?

Did your depression begin before the age of 30?

      Sub-optimum nutrition, disturbed blood sugar, and excessive histamine production can all cause depression. Adrenal exhaustion brought on by stress, over-use of stimulants, as well as allergies can bring on depression. Some people can react with depressive symptoms and feelings if they unwittingly eat a substance they are sensitive to. Although individuals have sensitivities to different foods, the most common allergens appear to be wheat, gluten, and other grains (including oats, rye and barley), as well as dairy products.

      Allergy testing is available but can cost up to £200 depending on the type of testing you undertake and where you go. Once the sensitivities are identified the foods should be avoided for a period of at least 3 months. If you wish to try avoiding the stated foods without a sensitivity test, you should be aware that a significant difference may be noticed as early as 2 weeks, but may also take up to 3 months to be completely effective.

      How I personally approach the management of these symptoms within my clinics

      Mental illness is a complex situation and a multifaceted approach is often necessary. Personally, I give a physical treatment through Osteomyology, which works directly on the musculoskeletal and neurological system, I am a clinical nutritionist so utilise this alongside the physical treatment. I provide a dietary analysis and food plan with vitamin and mineral adjustments. I work with a psychotherapy counsellor and the individuals GP to take a complete care approach. I also actively encourage the patient to undertake some exercise, even if it is only very light. At least 15 minutes a day can have dramatic effects. Another gadget that you may consider is an ioniser. They give off negative ions which are more naturally generated by churning flowing water (think waterfalls, the seaside and fountains). These ions are thought to be good for you, whereas positive ions which are generated by electrical equipment such as computer screens, laptops, air conditioning and TVs. In clinical trials, patients saw significant mood elevation from reducing positive ion activity and leaving an ioniser on overnight.

      A medical care approach to these conditions can be confusing, they admit there is an imbalance of chemicals, but do not test to discover where the deficiency lies. A trial and error system of prescribing medication to find one that “suits” the patient is frequently employed. Even without testing, if you can perform an analysis of the individual patient’s diet can give clues to the areas of deficiency.

      Are they taking in significant sources of omega 3?

      Are they taking in significant sources of Vitamin B?

      Are they taking in any sources of EPA?

      If this small amount of analysis could be considered, it may be of significant help. Unlike drugs which often have individual side effects and interactive side effects, you are unlikely to experience this with food.

      A very simple test you can ask your GP to carry out for you is to test your homocysteine levels. You can get a home test kit if you come up against some difficulties. If your level is above 9mmol/l, take a combined supplement of B2, 6, 12, folic acid, zinc and TMG, it should provide at least 400mcg of folic acid, 250mcg of B12, and 20mg B6. If your level is above 15mmol/l double this amount. Also eat Vitamin B rich foods such as – nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables.

      Dietary supplements you could consider...

      Black cohosh – may alleviate depressive symptoms during menopause. (Can relieve symptoms of stress and anxiety related to the menopause)

      5HTP – boosts serotonin production to relieve depressive symptoms.

      Omega 3, 6 & 9 – extensively used to treat mild depression.

      Royal jelly – eases mild depression. (Boosts energy levels)

      SAMe – helps soothe depressive feelings.

      St John’s Wort – a beneficial daily treatment for mild to moderate depression.

      Vitamin B12 – can be used to ease mild depression. (Essential for energy production)

      White willow – can relieve the pain and anxiety and in doing so prevents the onset of depression. (Helps prevent stress and anxiety whilst also alleviating pain)

      Gingko Biloba – sharpens mental acuity.

      Ginseng – increases cognitive function. (Increases the body’s resistance to stress).

      Lecithin – supports brain health.

      Zinc – required for proper brain function.

      Echinacea – used as a pick me up during times of emotional stress.

      Multivitamin – with at least 10mg zinc, 200mg magnesium, 5mg manganese and 100mcg chromium included. 2 1000mg vit C and 500mg Pantothenic acid (according to Patrick Holford is the perfect combination).

      Helpful herbs and spices

      Turmeric – there are over 500 uses for this spice, brain function and mood elevation are among them. – Broccoli Chicken stir-fry – 1 pound of chicken breast cut into strips, 4 cups of broccoli, 4 cloves of pressed garlic, 2 inches of grated ginger root, 1 onion chopped, 1 tbsp turmeric, 2 tbsp coconut oil. In a large wok melt the coconut oil and brown the garlic and onion add the ginger, add the broccoli and chicken, stir and cook on medium until the chicken is cooked through. Note turmeric will stain if you get it on your clothes and fingers, in fact, anything it comes into contact with.

      Nutmeg – the ancient Romans used it as a brain tonic with modern studies reveal that it contains a compound called myristicin which has been shown to improve memory as well as inhibit an enzyme in the brain that contributes to Alzheimer’s. It can also help limit fatigue and stress, as well as help, improve concentration. It also has a relaxing property and can be used as a sleep aid. Nutmeg can be toxic if taken in high doses. I nut or less than 1 tsp at a time. Cauliflower nutmeg soup – 1 cauliflower cut into pieces, 2 pints vegetable stock, 3 ½ oz. almond cream or coconut milk, 2 oz. coconut oil, 2 chopped onions, 1 tsp nutmeg. Melt coconut oil and sauté onions and cauliflower, add vegetable stock and bring to the boil. Reduce heat, add nutmeg, cover and simmer or transfer to the slow cooker. Blend if you wish then add the cream or coconut milk.

      Saffron – used to treat many disease conditions including depression and insomnia. Saffron contains crocin which has been shown to help with learning and memory retention. Saffron cauliflower rice – use a food processor to grate the cauliflower head into rice sized pieces. In a wok melt a little coconut oil, add 1 tbsp dried onion, 1 clove garlic (minced), ½ tsp turmeric, and ½ tsp crushed saffron threads. Add the shredded cauliflower to the wok with the warmed spices and quickly fry whilst stirring constantly. It takes no more than 5 minutes to cook this. Overcooking will lead to the cauliflower becoming mushy.

      Lemon Balm – helps improve mental performance as well as mood. It is very calming and can be helpful in treating insomnia and anxiety. Combines with chamomile and valerian can help reduce anxious feelings. – microwave lemon balm vanilla pudding – ½ cup honey, ¼ cup xanthum gum, 2 cups unsweetened almond milk, 2 eggs lightly beaten, 2 tbsps coconut oil, 1 tsp vanilla, 3 tbsp fresh lemon balm. (This is great for just before bed to help you sleep too!) whisk together the xanthum and honey, stir in the milk slowly, cook on high in the microwave stirring every 2 minutes, keep cooking for about 7 minutes. Don’t let it boil, beat half of the hot mixture into the egg mixture, then add the rest of the hot mixture. Microwave further for 2 ½ minutes stirring every 45 seconds. Stir in the coconut oil, vanilla and lemon balm. Pour into pots cover and put in the fridge.

      Skullcap – traditionally it is used as an effective stimulant for the nervous system, it is particularly effective in helping the nervous system when a person undergoes mental and physical stress and strain. In fact, it has been used historically as a treatment for all kinds of disturbed mental states, be it tension, anxiety, insomnia, panic, fatigue and depression, as well as melancholy.

      Vervain – has been regarded as a consecrated and blessed herb. The Druids or Priests in the ancient Celtic religion regarded the herb as approvingly as the mistletoe. The Egyptians had dedicated the herb to their goddess of birth Isis and used it in love potions. It may be taken to alleviate tension, get rid of depression, lethargy, irritability and all other problems associated with stress.

      Lavender – in a double-blind test lavender worked as well as valium like substance lorazepam for the treatment of depression. Generalized and persistent anxiety is a frequent problem and is treated usually with Ativan & Valium which are benzodiazepines or downers. They can make you feel constantly hungover and have a high addiction rate. Ativan certainly reduces anxiety, but in the tests so did lavender. By the end of the study, you couldn’t tell which group was which, as among those that responded to treatment at all the lavender actually seemed to work better.

      St John’s Wort – This has a vital active ingredient called hyperforin. Experts suggest a dose of 900-1800mg a day with a concentration of 3%. This dose can be altered in accordance with the severity of the condition and should be adjusted by your healthcare expert. Ironically it is classed as a toxic weed because it adversely affects the central nervous system of some animals. It is demonstrable in some animals but humans seem to be immune and in no way affected and the herb has been conversely positive in its effects for the treatment of depression. Studies have shown it inhibits the release of serotonin which is the result that prescribed medications aspire to also achieve. Some of my patients find that this naturally occurring product is more acceptable than a drug prescription and have achieved good results in the treatment of their depression.

      Passionflower – The ancient Aztecs were noted as having used this as a sedative and pain reliever. Today it is used as a sedative and anti-spasmodic. It calms muscle tension and twitching. It has been used for anxiety, insomnia, restlessness, and hyperactivity. In Europe, the flowers are added to numerous pharmaceuticals to treat nerve disorders, heart palpitations, anxiety and high blood pressure. It is also included in many pain formulas when discomfort is caused by muscle tension and emotional turmoil.

      Hawthorn Berries – Hawthorn berries are used by many alternative healing practices. Loaded with a range of vitamins and other nutrients, hawthorn benefits range from easing the emotional stress of depression and various anxiety disorders. It is available in most health food stores as an extract and also in capsule form.

      Rosemary – since ancient times it has been it has been used for insomnia nervousness and as an anti-depressant. Studies have shown it can enhance memory due to the carnosic acid which may protect the brain from free radicals. It is said to help with depression as well as to refresh and energise the mind. It has a calming effect and can help to reduce nervousness. Rosemary Roasted Chicken – 1 whole chicken, ¼ chopped rosemary, 1 small onion cut into 8 pieces. Place the chicken in a slow cooker, rub some walnut oil into the skin and sprinkle the rosemary over the chicken. Place the onions around the chicken and cook on low for at least 6 hours or until cooked thoroughly.

      Liquorice – has been showing excellent results in the treatment of depression. It is a natural anti-depressant which contains 8 monoamine oxidase inhibitors. It can be drunk as a tea, taken as a capsule, or eaten as a naturally sweet form. However, if you eat too much of it or have too much of it there can be side effects like increased blood pressure, loose stools, increased bowel movements, headaches and lethargy. Take potassium supplements and ensure you take on enough water if you decide to use this spice. Liquorice root tea – 3 cups water, 1 ½ tsps dried liquorice root, ½ cinnamon stick, 1 tsp dried chamomile (optional) 2 tsps honey. Bring water to the boil, stir in liquorice, cinnamon and chamomile, remove from heat and steep for 10 mins, strain out the herbs, add the honey, pour into cups and serve either hot or cooled over ice.

      Borage – Borage oil helps stabilize the adrenal glands, which produce adrenalin. The adrenalin brings the body out of a depressed state by encouraging proper stress response. The continual use of borage oil can be beneficial in suppressing symptoms of depression for the long term.

      Foods you definitely should try to avoid

      Anxiety – Sugary foods, white rice, pasta, bread.

      Stress – as with anxiety.

      Depression – sugary refined foods, cut down on stimulants such as tea, coffee, fizzy drinks, alcohol, cigarettes. A minimum of two weeks should be undertaken to trial a diet without wheat and dairy as well as the above documenting your symptoms.

      Dr Emma Kirke