Mental Health & Nutrition – The Missing Link


Currently, 1 in 5 adults are living with a mental illness. Addressing those concerns typically involves therapy, pharmaceutical intervention, or a combination of the two. As the medical community finally comes to terms will acknowledging that the brain and body are connected, it is time we also start paying attention to the role that nutrition plays in both physical and mental health.

Simply the acronym for the Standard American Diet (SAD) implies the impact that food and specifically our traditional diet have on our health. Diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke and cancer have all been attributed, at least in part, to biological dysfunction as a result of the food people eat. More specifically, a lack of balance of the nutrients within a diet lead to that dysfunction. 80% of the immune system and 95% of a person’s supply of serotonin come from the gut. That information alone makes it pretty clear that the gut plays a HUGE role in our mental health.

This also raises the question of why pharmaceuticals are pushed so hard, especially for things like depression. If your serotonin production is low and a majority of that production occurs in your gut then your gut is likely not functioning at its full potential. This leads to wondering if your gut is not functioning at its full potential then how likely is it that you will absorb the medication you’ve been put on properly? This is not to say that medications do not have a place in the treatment of mental health, but to say that the efficacy of those medications is going to be significantly decreased if a person’s gut health is not in check.

A study conducted by Sherwin, Dinan, and Cryan (2018) found that microbiota dysregulation was present in many diseases to include; depression, autism, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. Their study drew some preliminary conclusions about the use of prebiotics and probiotics to treat depression and anxiety. Prebiotics were shown to reduce activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis which improved both depressive and anxious symptoms. They also drew conclusions about prebiotics and probiotics improving autism, specifically behaviors, which is arguably often a disorder treated with medication. They also conclude that the SAD diet is linked to a greater risk of developing all of these disorders.

More recently, McEwen and Fenasse (2019) found that prebiotics and probiotics improve depression. They mention that not only do they do that by improving the microbiota in the gut but also by improving the gut-brain communication pathways. Their study also encourages addressing dietary concerns and nutritional deficiencies in conjunction with the addition of the prebiotics and probiotics. This makes sense because if you are repairing your gut health with the pre and probiotics and then eating poorly you are simply destroying what you’re working to improve.

Our diet and overall nutritional status impacts essentially all mental health conditions, even those often assumed to need primarily pharmaceutical intervention like substance abuse, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Substance abuse impacts metabolic changes, weight loss, constipation, a lifestyle that often results in inadequate food intake, and unhealthy eating patterns (Chavez & Rigg, 2020). Detox is also often correlated with malnutrition. Simply treating substance abuse with medication assisted treatment is not enough to solve the underlying concerns created by the substance use. I’d also argue that substance abuse has a high rate of correlation to trauma so therapeutic intervention is also important to provide a healthy support system and teach coping skills. Metabolic Syndrome is often comorbid with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The symptoms of both metabolic syndrome and bipolar disorder both lead to endocrine disturbances, dysregulation of the parasympathetic nervous system, and behavior patterns (Grover, Malhotra, Chakrabarti, & Kulhara, 2012). This brings up a bit of the chicken or the egg debate and makes you wonder which occurs first. This also identifies that the reason it might be so difficult to manage bipolar disorder with medications is because the person’s gut health is compromised.

Ultimately, again that doesn’t mean that medications are not required or helpful but rather suggests that they won’t be as helpful without addressing the nutritional aspects of the person’s care. Schizophrenia has similar concerns if nutrition is not addressed but also adds vitamin/mineral deficiencies that often need to be addressed too, such as folic acid, vitamin b6, vitamin b12, vitamin c, vitamin e, and vitamin d (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, 2020).

I provide this information not as a knock to modern medicine but rather as a wake up call to the other aspects of our health that are all intertwined. Even medications cannot be as effective if our gut health is compromised. It is easy to make excuses for why we don’t make dietary changes but if you’re suffering daily with crippling anxiety or depression (or any of the above mentioned concerns) that seems like a really good reason to start making some changes. Nothing has to happen overnight, but small changes one at a time can have a lasting impact. It’s also important to note that using supplements or pre/probiotics without making necessary dietary changes is a waste of time. You cannot absorb supplements properly if you have poor dietary habits and your pre/probiotics will all be for naught if you choose to continue to eat unhealthily.

This is literal food for thought! What changes might you make to take back your physical and mental health??


Chavez, M. N., & Rigg, K. K. (2020). Nutritional implications of opioid use disorder: A guide for drug treatment providers. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 34(6), 699–707.

McEwen, B., & Fenasse, R. (2019). Probiotics and Depression: the link between the microbiome-gut-brain axis and digestive and mental health. Journal of the Australian Traditional-Medicine Society, 25(3), 127–132.

Grover, S., Malhotra, N., Chakrabarti, S., & Kulhara, P. (2012). Metabolic syndrome in bipolar disorders. Indian journal of psychological medicine, 34(2), 110–118.

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. (2020). Nutrition Guide for Clinicians — Schizophrenia.

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