Nourish Your Mental Health with 14 Brain-Loving Herbs and Nutrients
We have just gone through an unparalleled year of severe stress with the pandemic. Many have lost their jobs or have had threats to their livelihoods as a result of bankruptcies, layoffs, sudden health challenges and various government mandates. The end result of all these stressful situations has been a loss of emotional wellness.
Many people have therefore turned to their doctors and prescription medications for anxiety and depression. I’m not doubting that this type of approach is helping some people, but those who prefer more natural strategies have some good options to consider.
Counselling and Therapy
There are numerous stress-relieving strategies that can work to lift your mood and nourish your mental wellness. These include mindfulness-based stress reduction, meditation, exercise (walking, skiing, swimming), as well as yoga, and of course psychotherapy. (See the Service Directory for an excellent variety of counsellors and therapists.)
“It’s not stress that kills us, it’s our reaction to it.”
There is also Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). Many of you may have already heard of EFT. It includes a strategy called “Tapping.” This is a simple technique for reducing the harmful effects of stress. You can download the technique for free (see references) from the internet and there are numerous web sites that have videos demonstrating how it’s done. Or you can consult a local expert such as Crystal Hawk. (See Resource List at end.) This may not be for everyone but it’s well worth trying as an alternative to more potentially harmful drug-based treatments.
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Hippocrates
As most of you already know, what you eat has a direct impact on your brain function. Processed foods that are high in sugar, white flour, and chemical additives can cause cravings for more leading to emotional highs and then lows. At one time not too long ago we used to label this as “hypoglycemia.” Years later, thanks to numerous books and theories, we then called it a “Candida” problem.
In any event, it’s best to focus on avoiding these hormonal disruptors and go for nutrient-rich foods instead, especially fruits and vegetables, preferably the organic type. Some very sensitive individuals will also have to avoid gluten and various other food triggers such as dairy products, eggs, and certain seeds or nuts.
Not only does consumption of processed foods cause one to become hooked on them, but they also lead to inflammation throughout the body and the brain. Mental illness of any kind, including anxiety and depression, is associated with inflammation in the brain. Stress then often leads to reaching out for a quick pick-me-up like ice cream, coffee, or a candy bar.
Although it may be difficult at first, try to avoid junk food temptations and reach for a tall glass of water or a healthy organic snack without sugar and chemicals. Have snacks of fresh fruits and vegetables handy or just some nuts and seeds. Your body will eventually kick the destructive food addiction habit. An excellent resource you can use for menu ideas and other healthy advice is Julie Daniluk’s book Meals that Heal Inflammation. As I’m sure she would tell you, she also has a new book out on how to kick the sugar habit Becoming Sugar-Free
There is a strong connection between the gut and the brain. What happens in the gut is often reflected by what goes on in the brain. It is the rare individual who has great mental health in spite of suffering from poor digestion, irritable bowel, chronic constipation, or other gut disturbances. The vagus nerve provides the link between the gut and the brain so it’s quite understandable how one organ can directly affect the other.
Gut bacteria produce a large number of neurochemicals that can regulate mood, mind, memory and behaviour. At least 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced by our gut bacteria. Our response to stress can certainly adversely affect our friendly gut bacteria, creating ever decreasing serotonin levels.
“I cannot always control what goes on outside. But I can always control what goes on inside.”
A healthy diet for the brain should therefore contain an adequate supply of complex carbohydrate foods like brown rice and starchy vegetables, sweet potatoes, quinoa, millet, and fresh fruits. Avoidance of high gluten-containing grains will be of help to many individuals. Lean protein from poultry, lamb, eggs, fish and seafood will provide the protein one needs for sharper thinking and reactions.
Be careful with fish and seafood because of its mercury content (I recommend no more than 4 servings a month at the most). For vegetarians, use various beans, nuts, seeds and hemp products for protein as well as essential fatty acids. Consume as much healthy fat as you can from sources such as olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil because they also support healthy brain function. (Avoid margarine, hydrogenated, and trans fats whenever possible.)
Top Supplements for Optimum Mental Health
1 OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS: Most physically healthy adults could supplement with approximately 4,000 mg daily of combined DHA and EPA from fish oil (salmon and herring) or plants such as hemp, chia seeds, walnuts, and flaxseed to improve depression and anxiety. At least 60% of the brain is made up of fat and omega-3 is the most important of these to help brain cell communication as well as to reduce inflammation.
2 VITAMIN D: Most physically healthy adults can get adequate amounts of D from sunshine exposure during the spring and summer months, but supplementation is usually required in order to have optimal levels – especially for Canadians and those living far north or south of the equator. The usual amount of vitamin D required during times of low sunshine exposure is 5,000 to 10,000 IU daily. Get a blood test done before engaging in supplementation and always take about 120 mcg of vitamin K2 with each 1,000 IU of vitamin D. This adds an anti-inflammatory benefit as well as preventing calcium deposition in your arteries and vital organs.
Depression, especially the type known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), can be helped – at least to some degree – with supplementation. Good food sources of vitamin D include cod liver oil, salmon, white mushrooms, fortified dairy products, and eggs. (Please note that a high intake of fish and seafood can raise the levels of toxic mercury in your system so limit these foods to a maximum of 4 times a month.) Also note that omega-3 supplements produced in Canada have had mercury and other heavy metal toxins removed from the supplement. This may not be true for omega-3 supplements sold by other countries.
3 MAGNESIUM: is a mineral commonly found to be low in those suffering from anxiety or depression. Most adults can get adequate magnesium from the diet if they consume a lot of spinach, kelp, almonds, pumpkin seeds, cashews, and other nuts. Magnesium is often needed by the body in higher amounts than food provides for most adults with the typical Canadian diet (400-800 mg daily). So supplements are recommended. The best absorbed forms of magnesium are bisglycinate and L-Threonate. These are also the least likely to cause loose bowel movements. The citrate and oxide forms of magnesium tend to loosen bowel movements and excesses can cause diarrhea; their absorption is poor but they are beneficial in cases of chronic constipation.
4 ZINC: is a mineral that is depleted by stress, aging, poor diet, inflammation, drugs, and alcohol. Deficiency leads to worsening depression, anxiety, and chronic inflammation. Low blood levels of zinc lead to less available serotonin, the hormone that causes feelings of well being. High amounts of zinc can be found in most animal protein sources including beef, oysters, seafood, lamb and organic eggs. Good plant sources are various legumes (beans) and fortified gluten-free breakfast cereals. For adults with nutrient-deficient diets, the usual recommended dose of either zinc citrate or picolinate is 50 mg twice daily with food.
5 B-COMPLEX VITAMINS: These vitamins can easily be depleted by a poor diet, stress, drugs and alcohol so supplementation is usually of great benefit. Our cells require them for energy and our brain needs them in the manufacture of neurotransmitters (the chemicals that allow communication between nerve cells).
Normal nerve conduction is also dependent on B complex vitamins. Low levels of B vitamins can create anxiety and irritability. The most important of the B vitamins are B1, B2, B6, B12 and 5-MTHF (5-methyl-hydro-folate, the active form of folic acid). A deficiency of any of these predisposes a person to chronic anxiety and depression. The best food sources of these are organ meats like liver as well as whole grains.
If you need more detailed information on the B-complex, in 2007 I wrote an article for Vitality on all the benefits of B vitamin supplementation and it’s still available online: https://vitalitymagazine.com/article/boost-your-brain-and-body-with-b-vitamins/
6 PROBIOTICS: These are basically known as friendly bacteria that both aid digestion and manufacture vitamins and numerous immune system modulators in the GI tract. As mentioned earlier, there is a strong connection between gut and brain health. Inflammation in the gut directly affects the brain. Probiotics regulate the production of serotonin in the gut and this feel good neurotransmitter is 95% manufatured with the help of probiotics. Therefore, probiotics can help improve anxiety and depression.
One can access these friendly bacteria from cultured dairy products (yogurt), soy products (miso), coconut products (kefir), fermented foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, kombucha and many others. Supplementation of a broad spectrum of these friendly bacteria is also available and swallowing a few capsules daily can be beneficial to many with chronic gut-related symptoms.
For more information on probiotics see my Vitality article: “In Praise of Probiotics” https://vitalitymagazine.com/article/in-praise-of-probiotics/
7 L-THEANINE: This is an amino acid commonly found in green tea. Taken as a supplement, it can increase alpha waves in the brain, allowing for a similar level of relaxation as that found with meditation. In doses of 500 to 1,000 mg before bedtime, it helps to relax a person well enough to fall asleep within 20 minutes. L-Theanine increases the production of GABA (gamma amino butyric acid) in the brain. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter capable of relaxing overactive nerves. The drug version of this amino acid is known as Gabapentin but it has significant side effects that GABA or L-Theanine supplementation does not.
With L-Theanine, there is no grogginess upon awakening in the morning. Taken during the daytime, L-Theanine is an excellent anti-anxiety agent that actually improves focussing while calming agitation and restlessness. There is no known toxic effect seen with this amino acid, and those who awaken frequently in the middle of the night can repeat their bedtime dose as needed without fear of overdosing.
8 ST. JOHN’S WORT: This is a very common herbal remedy frequently used with success for mild to moderate depression. If you are not taking any medications (birth control pill, heart medications, cancer treatments, antidepressants), St. John’s Wort could be an ideal remedy for your emotional distress. Unfortunately, it interacts with numerous prescription drugs so check with your pharmacist before using it. Dosing is in tablet or tincture form (empty stomach) and is variable, depending on the individual. Like many natural antidepressants it may take a few weeks to feel the effects, so some degree of patience is required by patients.
9 5-HTP: 5-hydroxytryptophan is an amino acid naturally found in the body. It is made from L-tryptophan which is found in certain high protein foods and is converted into serotonin and eventually into melatonin. Thus it is something that can regulate moods and the sleep cycle. 5-HTP can work to extend the time one spends in REM sleep, making refreshing sleep more possible. As a supplement it is superior to L-tryptophan because it goes through the blood brain barrier more easily and is more effective as a serotonin and melatonin enhancer. It usually takes about 2 to 3 weeks for the benefits of daily supplementation to be effective, but be careful if you are on antidepressants or tranquilizers due to drug interactions. This supplement is best taken with the supervision of a natural health care practitioner. The usual effective dose is between 100 – 500 mg at bedtime.
10 MELATONIN: is made by the pineal gland and allows for restful sleep. It is also a strong antioxidant that declines with aging. As little as ½ mg could be effective as a sleep remedy for many people, but doses of 5-20 mg might be needed by some to achieve refreshing rest. Stress can increase our need for melatonin so it’s easy to understand how sleep can be adversely affected by severe stress.
11 L-TYROSINE: This is an amino acid that raises the amount of dopamine in the brain which also influences healthy mood. It is also one of the building blocks of thyroid hormone. It’s generally found in high animal protein foods but many depressed people just don’t get enough of it in their diets, or are unable to properly digest and absorb this amino acid. Supplementation of 1,000 – 3,000 mg daily can improve energy and mood in many that take it. Once again, be careful using it if you are on any prescription antidepressants or thyroid medications. Work with a natural health care practitioner if using it.
12 SAMe (S-Adenosyl-Methionine) is another amino acid often recommended as a natural treatment for depression as well as osteoarthritis. It can be highly effective for some individuals because it helps boost the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. The usual effective dose is 400 mg 2 to 3 weeks for it to have beneficial effects on mood.
13 RHODIOLA is what’s known as an adaptogenic herb particularly beneficial for adrenal stress. Depression and low energy caused by stress can be helped by rhodiola supplementation. It can reduce overactivity or underactivity of the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis), thus enhancing energy and mood. Effective doses are between 500 – 1,000 mg daily depending on the individual. Other well known adaptogens with similar properties include ginseng, ashwagandha and astragalus.
14 NAC (N-Acteyl-Cysteine): is an amino acid that is a precursor for glutathione, the body’s most important antioxidant that protects us from inflammation and oxidative damage. Many of you will recognize it as a supplement that has been used to treat excessive mucous production, breathing problems, and viral infections. NAC can help reduce inflammation and lead to an improvement of depression. The usual effective dose is between 2,000 and 3,000 mg daily. I usually recommend people take it with high dose vitamin C (2,000 – 3,000 mg daily) for improved effectiveness.
As noted earlier some of these natural health products need supervision by health care practitioners, but most are safe and effective unless one is on certain prescription drugs. Check with your health care provider before using anything in high doses. Stay stress free!
“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
REFERENCES AND RESOURCES
- l EFT Manual: https://eftinternational.org/wp-content/uploads/EFT-International-Free-Tapping-Manual.pdf
l Studies on EFT for Depression: http://patcarrington.com/about-eft/eft-research/eft-studies-on-depression/
l Julie Daniluk. Meals That Heal Inflammation. Random House. 2011.
l Julie Daniluk: Becoming Sugar Free, Penguin Random House Canada, 2021.
l Health and Wellness Trends to Watch in 2022: https://curated-digital.com/4-health-wellness-trends-to-watch-2022/
l Emotional Freedom Technique: teacher and practitioner Crystal Hawk: https://ca.linkedin.com/in/crystalhawkeft
l Eating Well For Mental Health: https://www.sutterhealth.org/health/nutrition/eating-well-for-mental-health
l Natural Supplements for Mental Health: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/herbs-supplements-for-depression
l The Six Best Supplements to Help You Stay Mentally Strong: https://www.getthegloss.com/article/the-best-supplements-to-support-your-mind-and-mood
l 11 Herbs and Supplements to Fight Depression: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/herbs-supplements-for-depression
l Adaptogens: Nature’s Stress Relievers: https://heartmdinstitute.com/stress-relief/adaptogens-natural-stress-relief/
l The No BS Guide to Adaptogens: https://www.healthline.com/health/stress/smart-girls-guide-to-adaptogens
l Boost Your Body and Brain with B complex vitamins: https://vitalitymagazine.com/article/boost-your-brain-and-body-with-b-vitamins/
l In Praise of Probiotics: https://vitalitymagazine.com/article/in-praise-of-probiotics/
l The Amazing Benefits of NAC: https://vitalitymagazine.com/article/the-amazing-benefits-of-n-acetyl-cysteine/