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Mental Health: Where Nutrition Meets Psychiatry

Research from the emerging field of nutritional psychiatry indicates that mental disorders will continue to rise globally in the future.
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"Mental disorders -- major depression and anxiety in particular -- have been described as an impending global epidemic." -- Nutritional psychiatry research: an emerging discipline and its intersection with global urbanization, environmental challenges, and the evolutionary mismatch.

Research from the emerging field of nutritional psychiatry indicates that mental disorders will continue to rise globally in the future.

As a mother, I am most concerned for my children, afraid that I won't recognize the signs of a problem and wonder if I am doing everything I can to foster their emotional strength. As a nutritionist, I am heartened by the strides science has made in understanding the role nutrition plays in mental health.

The article reviews the shift in dietary patterns due to urbanicity (conditions that are particular to urban vs. non-urban areas), climate change, and the globalization of the food industry. It emphasized the urgency for bringing attention to the multi-nutrient factors that can influence mental health. Although the relevance of diet to psychiatry has long been understood because the brain relies on nutrients (amino acids, carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals) to operate, it often takes a backseat to other forms of treatment.

According to an article in the U.K. Medical Journal The Lancet in January 2015, "Nutritional Medicine as Mainstream in Psychiatry":

The article by members of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research provides the growing evidence of addressing nutrient deficiencies to preserve mental health. The report cites epidemiological studies, including prospective studies that have shown associations between healthy dietary patterns and a reduced, prevalence, and risk for depression and suicide.

Global initiatives should ensure that high quality nutrient-dense foods and a balance of macronutrient and micronutrients to support physical and mental health should be accessible to all members of the general population, regardless of socioeconomic background.

As a nutritionist trained in biochemistry-specific nutrition, I understand that our bodies uniquely respond to different nutrients. Emerging research indicates that we must not only look at the nutrients taken in through diet and supplementation but discern how the body is able to metabolize and utilize those nutrients. Based upon ongoing research, here are some of the components that can help us to understand how nutrition impacts brain function.

1. Address deficiencies
Individuals with depression often have low levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline and gamma-aminobutyric acid. Nutrients are the raw material required to formulate neurotransmitters in the brain. Nutritional deficiencies associated with depression include omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, magnesium, B vitamins and minerals (zinc, selenium, iodine, iron, calcium) and amino acids that act as precursors to neurotransmitters.

Blood work should be taken to determine individual deficiencies and develop a nutrition and supplement plan to enhance formulation of neurotransmitters.

1. Check for heavy metal overload
Heavy metal overload can interfere with normal physiological functions.
High levels in the brain can disturb your brain chemistry and cause anxiety and depression. Copper overload is indicated in brain disorders.

Hair, blood and urine analysis can be done to detect heavy metal toxicity.

2. Address gut health
Production of neurotransmitters and absorption of nutrients is also dependent on gut health and the state of the intestinal microbiome. Gut health needs to be addressed.

3. Test for genetic variants-
Genetic variants are alterations in the normal sequence of the gene. Understanding the genetic variants that exist can help to understand what is going in the body. Genetic variants can affect how we respond to nutrients. Modifications to diet, environment and lifestyle can impact gene expression. It is also important to understand just because we possess a genetic variant does not necessarily mean we are being affected by it.

Blood tests can provide information on genetic variants.

4. Indicators of methylation status --
Methylation is a biochemical process in the body that effects almost every organ, cell and tissue in the body. Methyl groups are formed to perform critical reactions in the body. Critical functions along the methylation pathway include switching on and off genes, detoxification, synthesis of neurotransmitters, fighting infections and eliminating toxins from the body. Stress, poor diet, genetic mutations and environmental factors can all disrupt the methylation process. Disruptions in methylation effect how we utilize nutrients. The inability to properly metabolize B12 and folate is a common methylation disruption which can have a direct impact on mood disorders.

Blood tests can be used to identify methylation status. When identified, nutrients can be part of the protocol to support methylation processes.

5. Reduce high oxidative stress --
Oxidative stress has also been implicated in mental disorders. Antioxidants are our best defense system against free radical damage in the body (zinc, vitamin E, vitamin C , precursors to production of glutathione).

Blood tests can determine deficiencies.

Nutrition is becoming recognized as a key element in treating and preventing mental health disorders. Given the increasing evidence that nutrition has a fundamental role in promoting mental health, it should be a standard inclusion to any psychiatric practice. The marriage of the two disciplines is a critical component of the effort to bring awareness and enhance treatment of mental health disorders. I am confident that expanding research in this area will help us gain control over this rising epidemic.

As far as my concerns for our children: It takes a village. Our schools, parents, and health professionals all need to join hands and tackle this challenge together. Hope for our children and their future is dependent on it.

If as a parent you suspects your child is suffering from depression, please take immediate action and seek professional treatment from a qualified mental health professional.

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If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.