Editor’s Note: The thoughts and opinions in this blog post are intended to help promote a continued conversation concerning Mental Health and its connection to Nutrition and Wellness. Please understand we are not medical professionals, nor Behavioral Health experts, and the content offered is research-based opinion merely to promote discussion and education.
Interestingly this is the month for Mental Health Awareness which comes at a time when we are experiencing a global pandemic that is affecting physical and mental well-being in our collective community. Let’s talk openly about this sensitive topic with the hope to lift the stigma surrounding neurophysiological disorders such as mood, anxiety, obsessive, panic, and depressive disorders, and insomnia.
It all starts with the brain! Yes, that organ responsible for controlling our quality of life sits right between our ears and behind our face, yet we’re so unfamiliar with how it works. The brain controls thoughts, perception of reality, memory, emotions, movement, organ function—the things that make us human. Overlooking our brain health can lead to serious problems.
Statistics show the world is facing a mental health crisis. Yet, the quality of information about mental health, and misinformation due to lack of research, is staggering. One in five adults experienced mental illness in 2018 — a record-breaking statistic that increases every year. Yet the cloud of mystery and stigma surrounding depression, anxiety, mood disorders, etc., conditions many of us live with, remains. We are told, “You might not be able to control your circumstances, but you can control your response to your circumstances.” (Foster Friess)
But what if a mental illness disables your control response? The most upsetting part about mental illness is the lack of control over the one thing you feel that you should be able to control: your own reactions. It’s much easier to accept the unpredictability of life than an unpredictability within ourselves.
Many studies show the comorbidity of neurophysiological disorders such as anxiety disorders, Tourette syndrome (TS), autism, Sydenham’s chorea, trichotillomania, dissociative disorders, depressions, eating disorders, and OCD with mood disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, as common phenomena. Clinical depressions also can arise in response to extreme perceptions of control.
Source: Bridgestone RecoveryThese co-occurrences are attempts to combat the horrifying lack of control resulting from trauma or neurophysiological disorders. Exercising extreme control over how to dress, eat, look, feel, act, or experience something through OCD rituals, suicidal behavior, disordered eating or self-harm, provides a misdirected sense of autonomy.
Many who are diagnosed with mental illness opt for psychotropic medicine which creates an artificial perception of control but often worsens the problem in the long run. Out of the one in five adults diagnosed with mental illness in 2018, forty-three percent were treated with psychotropic medication. Research shows that there is a way to take control over mental health and lives in a healthy, holistic manner.
Did your grandma ever tell you that if you ate watermelon seeds you would grow a tree in your stomach? She was onto something. Imagine your insides as a tree: the roots are in your gut and intestines, fertilized by your microbiome, the trunk stretches upwards along the gut-brain axis, and the branches spread across your brain. A healthy, fruitful tree needs healthy roots.
The gut, which takes root at the bottom of your torso, has even been named “the second brain” because of its influence over the rest of the body. Mental health starts in the gut.
A line transporting millions of neurons and microbes, called the vagus nerve, reaches from the brainstem to the lowest viscera of the abdomen, touching most major organs along the way, so that the health of one “brain ” is communicated to the other.
Just like a sudden change in the weather directly affects plant life, a change in the diet affects the atmosphere of your gut, therefore altering which kinds of microbiota will flourish in the microbiome.
Probiotics are live bacteria that help cultivate a healthy gut environment. They reduce inflammation in the gut, maintaining a healthy habitat for essential microbes to thrive.
An inflamed gut causes a stress response in the body. This stimulates the brain to produce precursor chemicals to depression and anxiety. A healthy gut leads to the production of serotonin and dopamine, the mood-regulating, and “happiness” neurotransmitters.
Gastroenterologists have found that all children with autism suffer from inflammation, maldigestion and malabsorption, intestinal brush disorder, or enzyme deficiencies.
Gut microbes transmit information about their health to the vagus nerve, which controls the “fear” response. Someone with either a damaged or overactive fear response will either not feel fear or will experience a much longer, intense feeling of fear than required. The absence of gut microbes results in much riskier behavior, elevated stress, and an increase in BDNF: the brain chemical linked with anxiety, depression, and personality and mental disorders.
Symptoms associated with the brain such as autism, OCD, Tourettes, anxiety, depression, various eating disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and insomnia, showed incredibly reduced or even eradicated symptoms when treated with probiotics and a gut-friendly diet. For this reason, probiotics work just as well—and sometimes better—than the commonly-prescribed synthetic antidepressant psychotropics, without the scary side effects.
Just like all other life forms, probiotics need proper sustenance to survive and thrive. Prebiotics are soluble fibers that pass undigested and unabsorbed through the gastrointestinal tract. Once they reach the colon, they ferment. Probiotics extract energy from the fermenting carbohydrates of indigestible fibers, resistant starches, and other types of prebiotics. This energy leads to the growth and flourishing of a healthy gut colony. Less than three percent of Americans get even the recommended minimum adequate intake of prebiotic fiber.
Prebiotics are essential to holistic health and easy to incorporate through a varied diet. Onions, chicory, artichoke, yucca, dandelion greens, flaxseeds, garlic, and asparagus are all wonderful sources of prebiotics. Powdered prebiotic fiber, like acacia fiber or cassava flour, or green banana flour are easily added to smoothies or baked goods for an extra serving of prebiotic support.
Probiotics live in fermented foods, such as kefir, yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, miso, pickles, etc. It’s most beneficial to consume a variety of different probiotics, as each probiotic culture contains different characteristics that support a broader range of health diversity. Because your gut health is so important, supplementing with a good probiotic is optimal for a healthy, thriving gut environment. Super Healthy Probiotic Fermented Food SourcesWe are such fantastically intricate creatures. No symptom or disease happens in isolation, and nothing we eat can be separated from the entire network within us. Mental health is related to physical health, and one must be regarded in treating the other. While psychotropic prescriptions can be very beneficial in the right situations, it’s vitally important to recognize the holistic nature of health to understand how to treat a person correctly. As a person; not as a list of symptoms.
Is it time for pre- and probiotics to enter the mental health conversation as a way to take control over our second brain?
Disclaimer: The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.