As a naturopathic doctor who honors biochemical individuality and practices personalized medicine, including dietary recommendations, I recently provided an article series on healthism. I felt I needed to speak up regarding my concern that medicine, especially “holistic” experts, were placing way too much emphasis on food and exercise and paying way too little attention to everything else.
Last week, I concluded with a discussion on how striving for “perfect” health through diet and exercise could be contributing to more sickness and anxiety in our population and ignoring the bigger issues related to our healthcare crisis, including socioeconomic disparities and lack of social connections. Holistic health and wellness is inclusive, not only about the personalization of food, but also equally includes all aspects of nourishment: relationship, mental, emotional, financial, and cultural health.
As previously mentioned, however, I do not want to dissuade one from the healing power of food. In this article, I want to review some specific nutrients and natural interventions for supporting brain health and cognitive function. This should be placed within the context that one does not need to be fixated or on a ridged dietary protocol to receive benefits.
Personalizing the Diet for Optimizing Brain Health
In one of my articles on ending mental health stigma, I discussed how Dr. Amen was reframing mental illness as brain health issues. I agree wholeheartedly in this concept. By viewing mental health as a physiological as well as an emotional and behavioral imbalance, one will be more likely to get the proper treatment that addresses all the underlying factors.
Recently, I highlighted several resources that demonstrate how dietary interventions impact mood as they address physical problems. I stated:
It is a now-recognized and well-understood concept in conventional and integrative health communities that dietary and exercise patterns effect clinical outcomes, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and support healing. (source, source)
Rationally, this makes sense. On the basic biochemical level, our cells and organ systems need specific nutrients to function. (source, source) This alone is important; however, beyond metabolism, compounds found in our food also impact how our DNA, our cellular genetic code, will be expressed. This is the concept of nutrigenomics.
Dietary changes influence not just the physical domain of health, but also effect mental health. This makes food a healing modality that reflects the naturopathic medicine philosophy of “treating the whole person.”
Just recently the SMILES trial demonstrated that dietary changes can be a powerful intervention for changing mood and improving depression. Furthermore, there are countless publications devoted to how nutrition and lifestyle medicine can transform chronic health conditions and mood. The International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research has a wonderful library of studies that support “food as medicine for mood.” Exercise, similarly, is just as evidence-based for its benefits to the brain and body.
As a naturopathic doctor and functional medicine provider, I aim to personalize one’s dietary suggestions to optimize their body and brain. First, I will determine one’s specific nutrient deficiencies. Then, I will consider their genetic differences in nutrient utilization and the clinical symptoms they present. Finally, I will put equal emphasis upon all other forms of nourishment, whether it be ensuring adequate rest or advocating for reconnecting with loved ones and spending some quality time in play!
That being said, I know that many may not have access to a naturopathic and functional medicine provider, so I’d like to provide you with some general ideas of some natural ways you can optimize your brain.
Specific Foods for the Brain and Supporting Mental Health
In an older review article from 2008, the author goes into intricate details on how different nutrients impact brain functioning through neurotransmitter formation and provide building blocks for the brain structure. According to the author (bold emphasis mine):
The most common nutritional deficiencies seen in patients with mental disorders are of omega–3 fatty acids, B vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that are precursors to neurotransmitters.[20,23,24,27,28,30,33] Accumulating evidence from demographic studies indicates a link between high fish consumption and low incidence of mental disorders; this lower incidence rate being the direct result of omega–3 fatty acid intake.[23,31,32] One to two grams of omega-3 fatty acids taken daily is the generally accepted dose for healthy individuals, but for patients with mental disorders, up to 9.6 g has been shown to be safe and effective.[34–36] Majority of Asian diets are usually also lacking in fruits and vegetables, which further lead to mineral and vitamin deficiencies…
Most protocols for brain health often will include these key components to balance mood and emotions.
Other foods that have been shown in research that may be helpful for alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression include:
- Antioxidants, such as berries
- Probiotics and fiber for “minding your microbiome”
- Protein rich foods to provide amino acids
- Various minerals, especially magnesium.
You can also eat to balance your brain chemistry specifically.
This chart provides a list of different foods that support various neurotransmitters
I’ll continue with this topic of supporting brain health with natural methods. I will be discussing my favorite modality, essential oils.
Two of my Favorite Supplements for Mood Support
I started off my previous series on using natural modalities for mental health, highlighting the antioxidant N-acetylcysteine. Below is a brief summary on this supplement’s actions. It is one I often consider for my clients, especially for those with a history of environmental exposure.
Several mechanisms have been suggested on how NAC may modulate brain health and include: (source, source, source, source, source)
- Down-regulation of the part of the brain that is associated with “addiction,” the nucleus accumbens. This is via the cystine-glutamate exchange system which results in increasing extracellular glutamate and the regulation of dopamine (DA) release, two brain signaling molecules.
- Modulation of glutathione and oxidative stress. (see above)
- Decreasing inflammatory mediators.
L-theanine is another of my favorite supplements for generalized support to modulate mood. It has been shown to ease stress, calm the brain, and may increase serotonin and dopamine. (source, source, source)
These two supplements have few interactions with medications or other supplements; however, you always want to check with your doctor.
Next week, I’ll continue with this topic of supporting brain health with natural methods. I will be discussing my favorite modality, essential oils.
This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
Disclaimer: This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.
For additional safety and medical information, visit my essential oils database. It includes a full category on how to use essential oils safely and potential drug interactions that can occur.
Please be extra cautious and be sure to check with your doctor if you have a seizure disorder. The Epilepsy Society of the UK lists certain essential oils implicated for their antiseizure effect as well as those that have stimulating properties.
If you and/or your physician are interested in consulting with me to assist with supporting the integration of essential oils safely into a therapeutic protocol, essential oils consultations are available.