Latest posts by Joey Doherty, MA, LPC, CWC (see all)
- What’s Missing from Conventional Mental Healthcare - April 17, 2016
- Nature Deficit Disorder - March 9, 2016
- 12 Psychological Benefits of Houseplants - January 31, 2016
If you’re following the much-needed trend toward holistic healthcare, you’re likely frustrated that western medical doctors aren’t taught nutrition in medical school. We certainly should be bothered by this, but we should be equally as upset that mental health therapists (counselors, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists) aren’t taught nutrition, either, despite numerous studies showing the impact food has on mental health.
Since the mind and body are interconnected, any healthcare professional who has only been trained to treat the mind, or only the body, has received sub-optimal training.
I attended one of the most prestigious graduate programs in counselor education and still only received a one-hour lecture on diet and mental health. I had to research for myself the relationship between diet and mental well-being and receive additional certifications in order to feel confident that I could effectively help clients reach long-term wellness.
An Overlooked Reason Therapy Might not Work
If you’ve received mental health therapy in the past that didn’t seem to work, there could be several reasons for this. Maybe you weren’t quite ready to change. Maybe your therapist’s style didn’t resonate with you. Maybe your therapist only helped you manage your symptoms, instead of treating the root of the problem. Maybe you stopped therapy too soon. An often overlooked reason, however, is that you likely weren’t eating a nutrient-rich diet.
Let’s imagine you come to me for counseling. I could be the most effective therapist in the universe, but if you’re eating a nutrient-deficient diet of processed foods, there is only so much I can help you with. Period.
Don’t get me wrong, therapy can be incredibly beneficial and even life-saving. A therapist could certainly improve your mental wellness by helping you think more rationally, cope more effectively with change, manage emotions more effectively, and/or process your insecurities. But, if you aren’t eating whole, unprocessed foods, no amount of talk therapy can help you achieve optimal wellness, because much of your mental health difficulties are rooted in your body, not your mind.
What I Wish I Learned in Graduate School
When people are suffering from a mental disorder such as depression, it isn’t because their system is lacking enough Prozac, or even enough neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, GABA, norepinephrine, etc) that these psychotropic medications are supposed to influence. Rather, they’re depressed because they’re lacking the nutrients that their mind/body needs to create a sufficient amount of those neurotransmitters. This is supported by research showing that over 95% of our serotonin is actually created in our gut. So, when we eat enough nutrient-rich foods and limit processed foods, our minds/bodies receive the necessary nutrients to create enough serotonin to keep us well.
Taking psychotropic medications may seem to help initially, but you will need to continue taking them to keep feeling well, which isn’t ideal because no psychotropic medications have been tested for long-term use. In other words, we have no idea the impact that long-term use of psychotropic medications can have on us. Why not eat turmeric, which has been proven to be as effective as Prozac at fighting depression, without the scary side effects? It would be more ethical for mental health professionals to supplement talk therapy with helping clients get the nutrients their mind/body needs through their diet, so that their mind/body can heal itself of its mental health issues.
The mind and the body are interconnected. Something that’s beneficial for your body is also beneficial for your mind, and vice versa. Eastern medicine (Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda) has known this for thousands of years. In the west, we have generally accepted that the mind can influence the body. For instance, we recognize that when we’re nervous, we often get a stomach ache. However, we’ve been much slower to accept that the body can influence the mind, despite research about the gut-brain axis proving it to be true. The gut-brain axis reinforces the importance of nutrition in our mental health.
Nature vs Nurture
Sure, if depression runs in your family, you are more likely to develop depressive symptoms than those who don’t have depression in their family. But, this certainly doesn’t mean that you will struggle with depression or that your only option is to take an antidepressant.
Rather, we have much more control over our mental health than we realize. Our genes are not fixed. According to the field of epigenetics, your lifestyle choices, such as the foods you eat, have the power to literally alter your DNA. In other words, if depression runs in your family, you may have genes that are associated with depression, but your lifestyle is what determines whether or not those genes are turned on. Amazing! Each bite of food can either bring us closer to mental illness or mental wellness. Our mental health is truly in our hands.
Our minds/bodies are incredible. They’re able to fight off mental and physical illnesses on their own when they receive the necessary nutrients and care. Our natural state as humans is wellness, and we all deserve that.
Until mental health therapists are required to learn and practice nutrition, I recommend that everyone who is seeing a therapist also sees a nutritionist.