Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nutrition and Mental Health Part 1

I received a letter recently asking me if I take nutrition into account in treatment of common psychiatric disorders. Well the simple answer is yes and there are several facets here to consider. I will try sort this out and delineate the nuances of diet and supplements as it relates to a healthy mind.

The 1st consideration is that we as human organisms are defined as a biological and physiological system. In maintaining a healthy body through diet and exercise, we also keep our minds healthy. In keeping a healthy mind, we interact in our environment with good judgment, graceful movement and compensation with the world around us. We are less likely to be accident prone, put undue stress on our joints and spine, or take risks that are cause for injury. In past blogs I have continuously referred to this mind-body dualism, but it can not be understated. The health of one is innately tied to the other Therefore practices that promote the health of both body and mind are of the utmost importance.

A good example is the use of omega fats in the diet. Popular health nutrition has pointed recently to the importance of the use of unsaturated fats, with an emphasis put on omega 3's and 6's. Monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, have long been touted in improving cardiac and vascular health. So why are these fats so important in promoting physical and mental health? While referencing several valid overall biochemical reasons, I will highlight their importance in mental health.

Omega 3's contain DHA (decosahexaenoic acid), which is vital in cell replication and structural integrity for the entire body. Brain cells are no exception. Not only are they important in maintaining healthy brain cells, but these fats are highly concentrated in the the synapses, where brain cells communicate with one another. The smooth and consistent firing of neuropathways are profound in their benefit to mood. Cultures that have a high intake of Omega 3's such as Japan have statistically lower rates of depression. A healthy brain is a happy brain. These fats directly effect the structural integrity and functioning of brain and nervous system.

Omega 6's benefits are more indirect. They are significant in maintaining vascular health. So this lowers the risk of stroke and allows for increased circulation. The blood-brain barrier becomes more unrestricted and allows for oxygen and nutrients to pass, nourishing the brain cells.

Another aspect to consider in terms of the viability of these fats is that polyunsaturated fats can not be reproduced in the body. Consumption of plant or animal is the only way to obtain these. As soon as they are processed or taken out of their natural state (e.g. the plant is cultivated, the salmon is killed), they begin to degrade and dissipate. This puts and emphasis on freshness and simplicity in menu planning. Along with fish these healthy fats are found in high concentration in nuts, seeds and legumes.

Another consideration is a balancing the intake of the 3's and 6's in your diet. I believe this is a little overblown by nutritionist because both of these fats are good for you and what the body doesn't need it will metabolize. However, 3's are more difficult to obtain in modern diets, so reading labels or researching content may be beneficial, Additionally, these fats are also found in caloric foods and if you are trying to restrict your intake of all fats for this reason, composing a diet that has a 1:1 ratio of 3's and 6's is what is recommended by most nutritional researchers.

We have often heard to fish referred to as "brain food." This points to the high concentration of omega 3's in these foods. Fish has many other health benefits of course, as it is an excellent lean source of protein. In terms of nutritional supplements, however, please consider flax or hemp seed over fish oil. These supplements contain up to 7 times per weight more of the omega 3 and 6's than salmon oil does.

I will be writing more about specific nutritional treatment of mental disorders in part 2 of this blog module, but i wanted to kick it off by highlighting the importance of healthy fats in our diet, because they probably have the single most impact on the way we think, feel and adapt to the world around us.

1 comment:

extraordinary said...

I just started looking into healthy alternatives for treating depression and this blog came up. I really appreciate the information you've shared...It seems to be good advice, and you have a pleasant writing voice.

Thanks!