Mental Health: The Critical Role of Nutrition and Lifestyle
My brother used to live in Melbourne. He was there for many years, including during 2020 when it was besieged by lockdowns and boundaries, masks and 1.5 metre distancing (which still continues to this day in parts).
Thank goodness he lived on the Mornington Peninsula because he was just 1 km from the bay and near oceans, parks and bush walks.
Despite this, towards the end of the lockdowns I could see my brother’s usual upbeat attitude and personality start to turn down. I was concerned.
I thought if he is like this, when he’s usually upbeat, what were other people like?
So, I looked up the statistics for mental health in Australia
Eight people take their lives each day. Of these, approximately five are men and three are women. One in five people have a mental or behavioural condition, an increase of 17.5% since the last stats in 2013-2014. For young men and women, this is an increase of 21% and 30% respectively. I can’t even imagine what the figures will be like for 2020 and 2021.
Last week I went to a mental health talk put on by my local MP. The newly appointed minister with the new portfolio for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, who is the assistant to the Prime Minister, was one of the speakers. The portfolio and his role have only been in existence since December 2020, but this was inevitable with what is happening in the world today.
The COVID-19 crisis can be quantified by the escalating jump in prescription medications. In June 2020, not long into the lockdown, anxiety (diazepam) and depression medication (SSRI’s) rose substantially. Anti-anxiety drugs soared 31%, while antidepressant prescriptions have steadily risen by between 13% and 22% for the 8 weeks ending 6th June 2020.
The minister mainly talked about the statistics in Australia for his portfolio and the $2.3 billion budget he has been given and how it is allocated – $1.4 billion would be on treatment, with just $300 million on early intervention.
After the talk, we were given the opportunity to ask questions of the speakers.
My questions were to the minister. I asked him if any of the budget was being spent on WHY we have had this unprecedented increase in mental health, eating disorders and suicide over the past decade, and, also, was nutrition going to be a part of the new “Head to Health Clinics”.
His answers were less than satisfactory. He didn’t answer my first question (he skirted around the issue saying social media was the main driver), and when he answered the question on nutrition, it was only with regard to eating disorders.
Does that mean that our newly-appointed minister may not understand the science behind how lifestyle and nutrition can be critical drivers in the prevention of mental illness and all that goes with it?
I don’t want to underestimate the significance of trauma in mental health issues as this can be a huge driving force. But I believe that lifestyle and nutrition are put on the back pedal when it comes to mental illness.
Seventy percent of all prescriptions for mental illness are written by GPs. These doctors may know how to diagnose a disease and treat with medication but their studies are seriously lacking in the prevention of disease with diet and lifestyle.
My question to the minister was pointed. I wanted to know if he understood the microbiome, the gut-brain connection and the importance of a healthy microbiome for mental health.
I’ve just listened to 35 specialists, doctors, nutritionists and researchers on a major summit on diet, lifestyle and mental health disorders, including autism, ADHD, depression and anxiety. Every one of them talked about the gut-brain axis, the integrity of the microbiome through less chemical and drug exposure and better nutrition choices. Yet I can’t find anything at the local GPs highlighting this information.
The gut-brain axis is connected via the vagus (Latin, meaning wandering) nerve. This is the longest cranial nerve that begins in the brain and is connected to many organs in the body including the gut.
The gut-brain axis is also connected via the microbiome. A diversified healthy microbiome is imperative in the manufacture of 90% of all neurotransmitters (these are chemical messengers that keep the brain and nervous system functioning). The right neurotransmitters like GABA, acetylcholine, serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, to name a few, are important for communication between brain synapsis and nerve cells. It is these that determine what we think, help with movement, adaptation and resilience. Without these messengers we will not only see mental health issues, but also physical diseases like Parkinson’s and Ataxia.
It is really only in the past decade that our knowledge of this has exponentially grown. Many of the speakers in the summit believed that we really only knew the tip of the iceberg when it came to the metabolites of the microbiome and their significance in human health including brain function, immunity, physical health and our relationship with foreign bacteria and viruses.
So, let’s talk about what our government and newly appointed mental health minister is not talking about here, and what we know makes a difference via experience, research and clinical practice.
10 Steps to Improve Mental Health and Physical Resilience
1. Remove interference to the health and diversity of the microbiome.
This can be done in many ways but most importantly by watching the chemicals you are exposed to including agricultural chemicals (glyphosate, chlorpyrifos, paraquat, animal antibiotics, etc), cleaning products, unnecessary medications, GM foods, ultra-processed foods, skincare products, aluminium and generation X non-stick (once Teflon) cookware and plastics. Once all this is removed, then the microbiome has a chance to be healthy. And if you think they wouldn’t put anything on our foods, in our foods, in our cleaning products or in our personal care products that could be dangerous to human health, then it’s time to change how you think. The issue here is that the safety assessment from 1987 is still being done on every new chemical entering the market. This assessment only tests mammalian cells and doesn’t test the impact the chemical has on the microbiome. Considering we are 10% genetically mammalian cells and 90% genetically microbes, and that we need a diversified microbiome to exist and be healthy, then with our current knowledge you would think that that safety assessment would have changed, but sadly it hasn’t. The impact all safety-assessed chemicals have on our microbiome is unknown, therefore it would be prudent to reduce your risk as much as possible. As we know better, we live better.
2. Eat real foods grown ethically.
Read my book Lab to Table and become informed about how they are growing, processing, what they are adding and doing to many foods in the grocery store. At the end of each chapter, there are action steps to make changes to your pantry, fridge, cooking and thus health.
3. Move every day.
Walk, hike, run, swim, stretch, lift weights, go to the gym, to the Pilates studio, to the yoga studio or get online and start some sort of movement program.
4. Sunshine not only gives you vitamin D but has properties that go far beyond the scope of this article.
Without the sun we would be dead. The fear of the sun was a poorly-directed marketing campaign, but now that we know how important the sun is for many functions in the body, including energy production, circadian rhythms (for not only sleep cycles but eating cycles), and so much more. See the sunrise, see the midday sun, see as much sun as you can throughout the day being aware of course not to burn your skin – and this does not mean staying out all day with toxic sunscreens.
5. Grow your own food and play, walk, sit and hike in nature or your garden.
Did you know that exposure to some soilborne bacteria (mycobacterium vaccae) can reduce stress responses and anxiety levels as well as affect immune status? This bacteria can be eaten, touched or inhaled for its therapeutic effects. I personally love to hike in as many environments that I can, through rainforests, waterways, deserts and oceans in order to get a healthy exposure of microbes that improve mood and health. If you are not able to get out into the great outdoors, then your back yard is the place to be. Create an edible garden, get your hands dirty in healthy soils (do not use Roundup or other chemicals) and reap the benefits of growing your own foods. Begin with herbs, then tomatoes and lettuces and onward to sweet potatoes and pumpkins. It’s a step-by-step process and The Nutrition Academy has a course to help you create healthy soils and then grow your own food.
6. Sleeping is an important part of mental health.
If you are not a good sleeper, then manipulating your diet to eat carbohydrates at dinner (as opposed to protein) may increase your serotonin in order to sleep more soundly. When your microbiome is healthy, your sleep will improve, so be gentle on yourself, taking all the steps that are needed in order to increase diversity of your microbiome and strengthen your physical healthy in order to improve mental health.
7. Write down 10 things you are grateful for every day.
This not only helps me concentrate on what is good in my life, but as I look back over the years, it has become a reminder of what I was doing on that day. When you are upset or depressed or have anxiety it can be hard to find 10 things. Then I put down that I am grateful that the sun rose, that I woke, that I’m physically okay, that I have a family, that l have friends and so on. Mind shifts are really important in preventing and treating mental health issues – this may be small but it is something that can lift spirits. When I lost my mum and sister five months apart, this was what kept me thinking that my world had not completely collapsed. I remember wondering how no-one else knew they were gone and were continuing on life like nothing had happened. Of course, no-one else knew, just friends and family, but it can be all-consuming. Writing in my gratitude journal was important, because although I knew I’d lost them, I still had many things to live for and be happy about.
8. You may think that this is just what we do, but the information and research that is coming out about the power of conscious breath is quite incredible.
Last year when the whole COVID-19 pandemic blew up and I didn’t have enough information to understand it, I found myself becoming anxious. Insanity is continuing to do what you are doing and expecting a different result, so I decided I needed to do something different. I read James Nestor’s book Breath, did Wim Hof’s fundamentals breathwork course and began doing conscious breathing everyday for 40 minutes. I noticed that my anxiety disappeared, my happiness increased and my energy went off the charts. Needless to say, because of these results, I have persisted with it every weekday morning for the past 15 months. It’s a game changer. Studies have shown that breath practice increases norepinephrine levels, normalises cortisol levels, decreases inflammatory markers IL8 and IL6 and has the ability to decrease flu-like symptoms. Couple breath work with ice baths and there is an increase in dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins with a 200% increase in norepinephrine. You can do breath work by yourself, but when you start ice baths, I suggest you do it with a qualified instructor, especially if you have health issues.
9. Turn commercial television off.
If something is important, someone will tell you. But mainstream media for the past 15 months is filled with scaremongering and half-truths. I’ve chosen to turn it off, and instead I’ve educated myself with courses. like manifesting, nutrition (of course), breath work, the Wim Hof method, transcendental meditation and any summit that takes my fancy. I don’t even listen to commercial radio anymore; instead I have podcasts, independent newscasts and audio books playing in my car. It’s up to you, but it’s what I’ve chosen to do for my own mental health and wellbeing.
10. Check-ups with your chosen health professional.
Chiropractic is my chosen health profession. I make sure that the nervous system in my skull and spine is functioning and transmitting without any interference. Yours might be a myotherapist, acupuncturist, masseuse or anything that helps you be the best and healthiest version of yourself.
We do not have modern-day bodies, we have evolutionary bodies that require certain ingredients for health. If we deny these ingredients, both our mind and body will become sick. All I’ve done in these 10 steps is to give you the ingredients your mind and body yearns for, so that you can be the healthiest version possible. Many of these steps are free, no exchange of money required, so if finances are an issue, you can begin with those, then as you begin to feel stronger in your mind and body, more things will be possible.
Author: Cyndi O'Meara
Cyndi is about educating. Her greatest love is to teach, both in the public arena and within the large corporate food companies, to enable everyone to make better choices so they too can enjoy greater health throughout their lives. Considered one of the world's foremost experts in Nutrition, Cyndi brings over 40 years experience, research and knowledge.
Cyndi is the founder of both Changing Habits, which has been recognised by the Australian Organic Annual Awards 2019 as a finalist for Best Organic Influencer, and The Nutrition Academy.
Connect with Cyndi:
Changing Habits: Website
Changing Habits: Instagram
The Nutrition Academy: Website
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