Nutrition and Supplements for Emotional Wellbeing
There are many more benefits to eating healthy than just a better physique. What if I told you depression might start in the gut? Or anxiety can be about which microbes are dominant in our intestines?
Science now tells us that emotional stability and mental health can be related to what we eat and the condition of our digestive system. There is more to mental health that just a change of attitude. Emotional stability, being able to avoid the extreme highs and extreme lows, is a whole body concern which involves more than just the brain.
The chemical balance of the body as a whole is affected by many factors, including the nutrients we consume which build and maintain this chemistry. While this has long been recognized by holistic medicine, science is starting to investigate the role of the gut, and the “microbiome” of the gut, in emotional health.
The microbiome consists of all the “non-human” microbes in our gut which help digestion and absorption, contribute to the maintenance of our immune system, and even produce some needed nutrients. However, developments in more recent human history have led to the conclusion that, “The modern microbiome is quite changed compared to our ancestral one due to diet, antibiotic exposure, and other environmental factors, and these differences may well impact our brain health” (1).
Given these changes, how do we keep all these little guys happy and in balance? Some clues which are beginning to emerge point to the role of diet in maintaining gut health. In my view, it is unlikely that one eating plan works for all people, all the time. One thing we do know is that sugars (i.e., carbohydrates in general) tend to feed the types of microbes that cause gut imbalances. This overgrowth of certain microbes crowds out other gut microbes that are needed to maintain our best health, with this potentially affecting emotional and mental health.
We also know that a healthy microbiome requires a lot of fruits and vegetables as fuel, especially fibrous vegetables. This allows the “friendly” microbes to thrive and keep the “unfriendly” microbes in check. So, boiled down to the basics, Michael Pollen’s advice — “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” — is an excellent place to start when it comes to gut health, and possibly even emotional health.
Imbalances in the gut are often made known to us through such symptoms as indigestion, gas, bloating, constipation or diarrhea. At this point, a consultation with a healthcare provider is necessary; functional medicine practitioners or naturopathic doctors are valuable resources for diagnosing problems and recommending treatment options. The Institute for Functional Medicine has a Practitioner Search Tool which can help you locate a practitioner in your area.
Beyond nutrition and gut health, what supplements can you use to help maintain emotional stability?
My preferred herb for managing everyday stress is Ashwaganda. Ashwaganda is known as an “adaptogen”, a member of a group of herbs that facilitate our efforts to adapt to stress in a positive way.
Ashwaganda has been shown to improve symptoms in people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, as well as improve cognitive functioning in adults (2). As with any supplement, consult with your healthcare provider before taking Ashwaganda, and make sure you purchase a high-quality product.
A lower level of Vitamin D has also been associated with a higher risk and severity of depression (3). Request that your healthcare provider check your Vitamin D levels. According to the Institute of Medicine, your levels should be at least 30ng/mL, with a level of 40-60ng/mL considered optimal by many researchers (4).
Most individuals will need to supplement in order to maintain these levels, especially in the winter, when our exposure to the sun drops, and we are less able to make Vitamin D ourselves. Have your blood levels checked and work with your provider to get the correct dosage for supplementation, since there are adverse effects of taking too much Vitamin D.
There are many ways to maintain our emotional welfare beyond a narrow focus on brain chemistry, with diet and supplementation being important considerations. As a bonus, when we take charge of our health by improving our diet and using supplements with discretion, we empower ourselves, and feeling empowered is itself a form of emotional well-being!