Eating well can improve both your physical and mental health

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In this week’s Ask the Nutritionist column, Nonie De Long answers a reader’s question about how nutrition can impact anxiety, depression

Dear Nutritionist, I and some members of our family suffer from anxiety and depression. It can be severe. We have tried various medications and also some lifestyle changes but we still struggle a lot. I want to know if nutrition can really impact this and how much of a change we can expect if we change our diet because to be honest, it’s a lot of work. Thank you for the wonderful column and the no nonsense answers. — Annastasia 

Dear Annastasia,

Thank you for reading! I’m happy to address your question. I think it’s even more relevant after the year we’ve had.

Let me just share a few stats that I think highlight why this is such an important and timely issue.

  • In any given year in Canada, 1 in 5 people will experience mental illness.
  • By the age of 40, 50 per cent of Canadians will have experienced mental illness at some point in their life.
  • Roughly 4,000 people die of suicide in Canada every day.
  • Mental health care in Canada costs us $51 billion per year. That’s greater than 1.5 times the cost of all cancers combined.

And these are pre-COVID-19 numbers.

Current Treatment Protocols

Current treatment protocols focus on pharmaceutical symptom management. When a person is in an acute state and unable to function, these protocols can be lifesaving. But data on their long term efficacy isn’t nearly as promising. Research has shown that as many as 33 per cent of people that felt antidepressants worked for them initially eventually reached a place where they were no longer effective. Some studies suggest that long term they are no more effective than placebo.

In addition, there are now concerns about the safety of long-term antidepressant use. Even the most rigorous studies on their long-term use do not extend past a couple years and data is now emerging to show that there are serious concerns.

Some recent studies have suggested serious potential risks. People who used antidepressants had a 14 per cent higher risk of heart attacks and strokes and a 33 per cent greater risk of death, according to findings in a meta-analysis of 17 studies that was published in 2017 in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics.” Read more here.

One such concern includes post-SSRI sexual dysfunction. SSRIs are the most popular type of antidepressant today, widely claimed to be the most safe. Almost 100 per cent of people taking antidepressants have reported some sexual dysfunction. There are now class action lawsuits for the multitudes who have experienced this impact from antidepressant use. For more information on this issue, readers can go here.

There are also a number of lawsuits against these medications for causing patients to committ suicide, as is the case with Lexapro, Celexa, Paxil, and others. By 2009, there had been over 800 lawsuits for Paxil-related birth defects, with a verdict against the company. SSRI litigation continues to unfold internationally.

Some side effects we now know about include: 

This isn’t even getting into the problems with benzos, the leading class of anti-anxiety or sedative drug in Canada today. These include drugs like Xanax, Clonazepam, Ativan and Valium, which are commonly prescribed for anxiety, grief and insomnia.

Conservative estimates claim that 23 per cent of people who use these drugs become addicted within three months. Other professionals insist addiction can happen in as little as two weeks. In fact, patients report that heroin is easier to kick. The problem is just how horrible the withdrawal is, requiring incredibly long tapers and intense support. This was highlighted in recent news by Canada’s own Jordan Peterson, who almost died trying to come off of benzos after using them to cope with grief and stress. To learn more, you can google #prescribedharm for literally thousands of first-hand accounts.

So, while there are pharmaceutical treatments for anxiety and depression, there has been a tremendous lack of transparency from drug companies about the risks associated with the use and, in particular, the long-term use of these drugs. It’s understandable that people are seeking a safer and more natural alternative.

Nutrition for Mental Health

I specialize in nutrition for mental health issues, or as it’s now called, psychiatric nutrition. I prefer to call it orthomolecular nutrition because the gentleman who founded it, Dr, Abram Hoffer, dubbed it orthomolecular. For more about him and that story, go here. To read how Dr. Hoffer transformed my son’s mental illness and my life, go here.

The short answer to your question is yes, nutrition can have a huge impact on mental health and can even transform a diagnosis, as it did with my son. Watch this video of a Manhattan psychiatrist explaining the impact of nutrition on his clients and go to this link to see how it’s transformed his practice.

Or go to Dr. Amen’s website to learn about the brain imaging he uses to detect abnormalities in brain function and matter, and how he uses nutrition and supplements as treatment, with imaging, to confirm his results.

I don’t use expensive imaging in my practice. Instead, I rely on simple bloodwork and hair analysis to guide me. There are several factors I’ve found that play a role in mental health: 

  • Food intolerances 
  • Gluten intolerance 
  • Gut permeability 
  • Gut biome health 
  • Blood sugar imbalances 
  • And nutritional imbalances/ deficiencies

Almost always with anxiety, there are nutritional deficiencies or a higher than normal need for specific nutrients. With depression and bipolar depression, there is blood sugar dysregulation and hypoglycemia, often paired with addictive behaviours. With psychosis, there is always gut dysbiosis and an auto-immune type reaction to certain foods, as well as a reduced ability to detoxify.

But you’re right, changing the diet is a difficult thing to do, especially when you’re not feeling well to begin with. It’s hard to be consistent when you’re already overwhelmed. This is why I feel coaching is superior to simple clinical care because clients need weekly check-ins and help with meal prep. All the knowledge in the world makes no difference if you can’t implement it!

Clients need help to learn the steps to implement the changes they need to make. This is why I meet weekly with 1:1 clients and focus on meal planning and prepping. When there are options in the fridge already made for the bad days, consistency becomes easier. And consistency gets results.

Where to Start?

My advice for anyone is to remove added sugars from the diet. Sugar has no nutritional redemption and damages our health in so many ways, including our mental health. If kicking sugar is too hard for you, reach out and join my Stop the Sugar 30 Day Challenge. We will do it together, as a group, to help one another with the challenges that come up, with video discussions and support. Readers who are interested can send me an email for more information.

Focus on proteins, even adding a quality protein shake every day to help ensure you are getting the nutrients you need. Neurotransmitters are made from proteins. Anyone who has gas should consider taking digestive enzymes at meals to ensure that food is being properly digested and used by the body. If you eat it but can’t get nutrients from it, it’s not going to have much of an impact.

As always, readers can reach out with their own questions by writing me at info@askthenutritionist.ca. If you feel you need more 1:1 help you can reach out by going to hopenotdope.ca or sending me an email. Readers can find my blog with many of my past articles here.

Namaste!

Nonie Nutritionista

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