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  • Writer's pictureKelly Johnston, FNTP, RWP

A Holistic Approach to Mood Imbalances

We categorize mental struggles as emotional or spiritual in nature, and certainly these are important elements not to be overlooked. As time goes on, though, research is finding that often there are also biochemical factors involved that don't begin in the brain, but in the most basic of body systems.

Depression, anxiety, and other mental struggles can have their root in nutritional deficiency and/or digestive dysfunction. In order to construct our feel-good brain chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine, our bodies need specific nutrients and enough digestive fire to break down these nutrients so they can be absorbed properly. Thus, a nutrient-dense diet and robust digestion can be viewed as first lines of defense to prevent/improve mood issues.

Our standard American diet is inadequate in providing the building blocks for our health, mental and otherwise. Omega–3 fatty acids, B vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that are precursors to neurotransmitters are the most common nutritional deficiencies seen in patients with mental disorders. A diet comprised of real food, such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, fish and animal proteins is a great start for providing the body with the components for building healthy brain chemicals. Processed, denatured, enriched, flavored, colored, sweetened, and preserved food-like substances not only do not provide what our bodies need, but they also rob the body of its nutrient stores.

Improving the diet is a huge step toward brain health, but we also must consider the ability of the body to break food down into nutrients that can be absorbed and used in the body. It is very common to produce insufficient stomach acid to get the job done well, especially as we age. Sometimes the pancreas produces insufficient enzymes as well. Gallbladders can become sluggish with thickened bile when we don't eat enough healthy fats to trigger it to squeeze as it does when fats are present for digestion. Small intestinal mucosa can become compromised when food is maldigested in the upper GI tract, leading to food sensitivities and a ramped up immune system. Constipation, diarrhea, IBS, and inflammatory conditions of the colon contribute to physical and mental distress and body-wide inflammation. And at the beginning of all of this is the way we approach eating, which can set off a cascade of glitchy digestion from the get-go. We only digest properly in parasympathetic state of the nervous system. This is referred to as "rest and digest" mode. How often do we really relax and anticipate our food, eating in an undistracted manner and unhurried, chewing thoroughly enough to not have to wash it down with what we're drinking (which dilutes our stomach acid!)? More often, our meals are an exercise in chewing just enough to get it down while hurrying to the next scheduled event on our calendars, sometimes in the car. When we eat in the "fight or flight" mode, the sympathetic state of our nervous system, we set ourselves up for digestive problems. This can contribute to all manner of chronic health issues, including mood imbalances.

I once had a client who changed her diet and began some targeted supplementation to increase her digestive fire in order to deal with indigestion, belching, stomach discomfort, and constipation. (Yes, sometimes the symptoms of reflux point to too little stomach acid rather than too much, where food sits undigested in the stomach producing gases that push what little stomach acid there is up in to the esophagus.) Three days later she called me, incredulous, to ask what she was doing that would cause her depression to lift. She felt better in ways she wasn't expecting, and had made no other changes. We were both elated! She was simply eating nutrient-rich foods and breaking down her proteins better and it appeared that her body was building adequate neurotransmitters with the resulting amino acids. What an amazing side benefit to improving her digestive discomfort, illustrating the body's innate ability to heal! And what a clear picture that digestion truly is foundational for good health.

The microbiome is another factor connecting gut health to brain health. Our gut bacteria participate in converting amino acids into brain chemicals. Imbalances in the gut microbiome and poor levels of beneficial microbes can interfere with this process. Our microbial residents do so much more than this, but working with what we give them to provide our brains with mood balance certainly is something to appreciate and support. Recent studies point to microbial imbalances in the gut and to digestive dysfunction as contributing to Parkinson's and other neurological diseases. There is no longer any doubt that there is a strong gut-brain connection, and the gut has even been called "the second brain". Finding and addressing gut problems is paramount to neurological and whole body health.

If you are looking for an adjunctive therapy alongside whatever treatment you are receiving for a mood disorder that can support your body and possibly target a root cause, or just looking to prevent the onset of issues like these, consider nutritional therapy. As with any chronic health problem, such as hormonal issues, cardiovascular concerns, immune system dysfunction, or problems with detoxification, getting to the root always involves supporting the foundations. This is where nutritional therapy shines! NTPs are trained to help you find nutrient-dense diet and lifestyle solutions by evaluating your nutritional assessments, food journals, and health history to find and support the foundations that your body is prioritizing. I have yet to work with a client whose chronic health complaints did not improve along with attention to the foundations. Finding where your body could use some functional nutrition support can lead to multiple benefits holistically - even in areas not being specifically targeted. It's about getting back to the basics to build a strong and healthy digestive system, a regulated blood sugar/energy system, finding what nourishes your particular constitution, and improving lifestyle factors such as sleep, movement, stress management, and self-care. Addressing issues with mindset and limiting beliefs can be of great value as well. If you or someone you love could use some guidance in these areas and are ready to move forward, contact me or share this post! I currently am accepting a few new local as well as distance clients and would love to explore whether nutritional therapy is an approach that could benefit you.


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