Nutrition and Mental Health

By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.

The science of psychopharmacology has made it possible for millions of people to reduce their suffering. Diagnoses that were more dire in the past are less of a problem in the modern era, with so many available treatments and psychiatric medications. Unfortunately, those medications can cause side effects that range from mild to severe.

Nutrition and Mental Health

We are excited to share information from a new and expanding trend in the treatment of psychological symptoms. In recent years, the benefits of scientific rigor are being applied to the ancient knowledge of nutritional healing and life habits. Natural interventions in the areas of diet, exercise, and sleep can reduce symptoms of psychological conditions without the often harsh side effects of pharmaceuticals.

Nutritional interventions in medical and psychotherapeutic settings are part of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), a modality that has been in existence for thousands of years. In recent years there has been increased awareness and research of the many benefits of CAM for promoting health and wellness. Many experts predict that CAM will be integrated more fully into mental health treatment in coming years. This clinical update is focused on the nutritional aspect of CAM.

For example, what can look like dementia may be a vitamin B deficiency. Omega 3 fatty acids from fish oil can quell mania in some people who suffer from bipolar disorder and restore vitality in depressed people. Chronic fatigue can be exacerbated by iron deficiency and can be effectively aided with a simple nutritional supplement.

There is danger in approaching pharmaceutical medications as the totality of mental health chemical interventions. For instance, in the case of CAM evaluation a practitioner would, before considering a medication intervention, recommend lifestyle interventions for an ADHD child who watches violent cartoons for long hours and eats a high sugar, processed food diet. Similarly, a depressed, inactive, adult, who eats poorly and depends on caffeine and alcohol to speed up and slow down, is most likely to benefit from a change in diet and exercise rather than taking anti-depressants while continuing an unhealthy life style. Addressing baseline health issues to remedy symptoms may result in sparing a client from the side effects of powerful synthetic medications.

View the free Resources Page and share with colleagues and clients

Research has shown:
  • Vitamin C deficiency can have a negative effect on mood.
  • Diets high in preservatives may contribute to instability of mood.
  • Vitamin B deficiency can cause problems that look like dementia.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids from fish oil can quell mania in bipolar people and restore vitality in depressed people.
  • Not all sources of Omega-3 fatty acids are equal – flaxseed may produce mania in bipolar people (fish oil is likely to be safer).
  • Iron and zinc deficiencies may contribute to chronic fatigue.
  • Krill oil can help reduce PMS-related depression.
  • The effects of vitamin supplements are relatively quick.
  • Magnesium can relieve chronic pain, fatigue, and insomnia.
  • Caffeine, sugar, and alcohol consumption can keep people trapped in a cycle of artificial energy and long-term fatigue.

We need to remember that:

  • Pharmaceutical interventions sometimes do more harm than good.
  • Nutritional intervention is usually safer and can be as effective as pharmaceutical medication.
  • Chemicals and preservatives used in processed food can affect neurochemistry.
  • Many prescribing professionals pay little or no attention to their patients’ diets and life style considerations and have minimal or no training in nutritional evaluation and intervention.
  • It is important that psychotherapists and counselors, like all mental health practitioners, operate only within their scope of practice and in compliance with the standard of care.

Therapists may want to consider:

  • Establishing referral relationships with qualified naturopathic doctors or other licensed practitioners, who are knowledgable regarding Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM).
  • Encouraging clients to explore educational material related to healthy lifestyle practices and natural and nutritional remedies for mental health conditions by referring them to web pages, such as our Resources Page.
  • Providing informative material to clients regarding the potential benefits of vitamin and mineral level testing.
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