Today, nearly half of all U.S. adults will experience a mental illness during their lifetime, and about 18.9% of the population experiences a mental illness at any given time. While causality is complex, with interplay between rising levels of stress, isolation, genetics, trauma, and other factors, it is increasingly obvious to modern science that nutrition can and does play a role. Nutritional deficiencies result in mental-illness-like symptoms, can exacerbate existing symptoms, and can make it difficult-to-impossible to recover from a mental illness.
If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health, it may be important to seek out a dietician or to attend nutrition therapy as part of mental health treatment. Nutrition plays a huge role in your health, including mental health, and understanding that impact can help you to make better decisions for your body and your mind. The Gooden Center is a mental health treatment center offering a holistic approach to treatment and health. Our home-like environment offers welcoming care designed to help patients build a sustainable and healthy life.
How Nutrition Impacts Mental Illness
Most people have heard the maxim, “You are what you eat”, but few take it as literally as applying the nutrition from food directly to emotions and your capacity to think and regulate feelings. Yet, B vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and omega-3 fatty acids are precursors to neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and GABBA. If you don’t get enough of them, the body literally cannot develop enough of the neurotransmitters it needs to regulate healthy brain function.
People with mental illnesses commonly show deficiencies in these nutrients, either because they aren’t getting enough of them (causative), or because the brain is using more of them as it attempts to regulate hormonal and neurotransmitter production and use (symptomatic).
Amino acid deficiencies change how neurotransmitters function in the brain. Most people experience depression. B vitamin deficiencies cause anxiety and depression. And, Vitamin D deficiencies, which affects as much as 42% of the U.S. population, can cause depression, fatigue, and joint pain when it reaches severe levels.
Mental illnesses are, of course, caused by a range of complex and interlocking problems. Most people experiencing depression cannot clean up their diet and watch their problems magically disappear. However, correcting nutrient deficiencies will always make recovery easier in someone who is suffering from two problems. For this reason, blood panels and nutrient therapy are increasingly common in mental health treatment.
Mental Illness Impacts Nutrition
Mentally ill people struggle with taking care of themselves, with eating well, with hygiene, and with mustering effort beyond the bare minimum. People who are depressed aren’t thinking about eating a healthy meal, they’re often barely motivated to get up and eat something. When they do, it’s often not micronutrient dense. The worse you feel, the more likely you are to binge on salt, sugar, and fat-rich foods that often have fewer fruits and vegetables than you need to stay healthy. That’s understandable, because those foods can cause a serotonin rush and alleviate dopamine-based cravings, but over time, establishing that pattern of eating habits can make you feel significantly worse.
This means that individuals with mental illnesses are more likely to struggle with a poor diet, resulting in nutrient deficiencies, which could exacerbate symptoms. This means that even if you ate perfectly before you became ill, it’s highly likely that you might need supplements or a corrective diet to resolve nutrient levels on your path to becoming health.
Nutrient deficiencies can:
Exacerbate existing symptoms
Add new symptoms, such as fatigue and depression to anxiety
Make it difficult to concentrate or focus
If your eating habits have changed over the course of your mental illness, it may be important to check your nutrition and nutrient levels, even if you’re not going into treatment. This is especially true if you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms as part of your mental illness.
It’s difficult to offer a prescriptive diet without examining individual health and nutrient levels. Talk to your doctor or physician and always seek our proper medical advice before starting supplements or dramatically changing your diet. This is especially true if you’re already struggling with a mental illness and might not be able to manage the stress or difficulty of a difficult diet.
In most cases, you can follow general government-approved nutrition guidelines, like those available on MyPlate. If you have existing nutrient deficiencies, it’s crucial to seek out professional advice, which may include prescription supplements to correct issues before they result in major physical or mental health problems.
What is Nutrition Therapy
Nutrition therapy or Medical Nutrition Therapy is used to aid treatment for mental illnesses and substance use disorders. The therapy takes a personalized approach to nutrition for each patient, using blood panels to determine nutrient levels, and prescribing a diet and sometimes supplements to correct those deficiencies. Nutrition therapy can be used to boost energy, to correct existing problems, and to improve outcomes. In most cases, it’s accompanied by monitoring to measure ongoing nutrient levels, classes and courses to help you learn to eat well, and, sometimes, with courses and training on preparing healthy meals. Medical Nutrition Therapy is almost solely focused on correcting nutritional problems, but many mental health treatment centers will offer complementary courses and workshops for patients.
This is especially relevant for patients moving into mental health treatment who have co-occurring nutrient deficiencies. Patients with existing nutrient deficiencies show significantly worse outcomes in mental health treatment. Treating the nutritional deficiency alongside the mental health disorder helps to tackle both at once and prevents the nutritional deficiency from creating recurring problems resulting in relapse or lack of progress.
Mental health is complex, fully dependent on the health of the body as a whole, and ties into every aspect of your life. It makes sense that every aspect of your life, including nutrition, environment, physical heath, emotional health, and experiences would tie back into mental health. Taking care of your diet is just one part of maintaining mental health. Unfortunately, if you do have a mental illness, maintaining a healthy diet is difficult and maybe even impossible without help.
If you need that help, the Gooden Center is here to offer a personalized mental health treatment program designed around your physical and mental needs. We focus on offering individualized care, delivered by an experienced and empathetic staff ready to guide you through recovery so you can get your life back.