Long time readers of my blog already know, since I blogged about this almost a decade ago, that gluten is a neuro-irritant — meaning it causes inflammation in the brain and has been linked to cognitive decline, even dementia. I wrote this article for you back in 2014 to help explain how dementia could be considered a gluten-induced condition.
More recent evidence suggests that not only does the brain inflammation that gluten causes affect your brain, it might also be affecting your mental health, including causing or worsening mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
As someone who has struggled with anxiety her entire life, I am very interested to read up on medical studies exploring ways that our diet impacts our mental health (I’ve blogged for you in the past right here about foods that increase anxiety, and yep, gluten was on that list!) because this also provides natural, holistic ways to help reduce anxiety and depression — by simply reducing or eliminating gluten.
If this is the case, might a keto diet actually provide improved mental health?
A new study says yes. Research published in Frontiers In Psychiatry in Jul 2022 found that not only does a ketogenic diet (low carbohydrates and an emphasis on proteins and veggies) help with refractory epilepsy and other organic brain disease, but it also benefits psychiatric conditions. Patients with severe mental illness resistant to other treatments — who were not improving despite intensive psychiatric care, were placed on a ketogenic diet with a 20 grams of carbs a day limit. The patients studied had diagnosis of major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and/or schizoaffective disorder not responding to conventional psychiatric therapy.
The patients were followed for a period of up to 8 months on this diet and the results showed an impressive, statistically significant improvement in not only mental health parameters but also in metabolic health, with improved weight, blood pressure, blood glucose and blood lipid profiles. The ketogenic diet was well tolerated and provided sustainable and significant improvements in both depression and psychosis symptoms — very impressive in patients who could not improve despite the best in medical care off of this diet.
If a ketogenic diet, or even simply reducing the amount of carbs one consumes, can boost the mental health outcomes for very severe mental illness, I’m very encouraged to think what it might do for less extreme cases of depression, or for anxiety or OCD or agoraphobia or body dysmorphia or any number of other mental health concerns. Obviously I sincerely hope this study will be followed by bigger studies that include other mental health issues, and of course I will keep you posted when those results are published. If you are not already on my newsletter list, you can join it to stay updated on this an other uplifting, holistic health information right here.
If you, like me, tend to get anxious, or depressed, or seasonal affective disorder, or any other mental health concern, you might want to give a ketogenic diet a try. Diet truly does affect our mental wellness, and here are some other fabulous things you can do, along with any conventional therapy you are already on, to help. That’s one thing I love about the possibility of consuming a ketogenic diet to help boost your treatment results for depression, anxiety or other mood disorders — you can do this right along with any medications or therapies you might already be taking.
That’s the power of focusing on holistic health and combining it, or tailoring it, to what is already working for you from the best of conventional medicine as well.
7 Ways To Boost Your Mental Health Starting With Nutrition:
1. Try a Keto diet.
As discussed in today’s holistic medial research, keeping your carbs under 20 grams a day might do more to boost your mental health then all of the most intensive, in patient therapies have been able to do combined. The study was small and needs to be reproduced, but it was incredibly encouraging.
Interested in giving a Keto diet a try? Focus on:
- a high quality, high fat diet (coconut oil, olive oil, organic butter, avocado are all wonderful fats)
- high quality proteins (like grass fed beef, wild fish, eggs, nuts, seeds)
- and colorful vegetables.
Intimidated by going keto? Consider cutting your gluten and sugar intake in half for one month and see if you feel more clear headed, energetic, less depressed and less anxious. It’s been my experience that patients who are experiencing a brain fog or feelings of depression can feel dramatically better in just a few short weeks of reducing carbs and gluten.
You might also feel more confident if you snag some keto friendly cookbooks — Eat Happy, written by Anna Vocino, is the one in my kitchen right now!
2. Take high quality nutritional supplements.
Can something as simple as being sure you consume vitamins actually make a difference in our brain as we age? Yes. A new study, published Sept 14, 2022 in Alzheimers & Dementia, is the largest randomized clinical trial on multivitamin use in healthy brain aging. It’s a three year long trial following annual cognitive assessments on over 2,250 patients that were randomly assigned either a daily multivitamin, a 500 mg daily flavanol supplement (from cocoa extract) or a placebo supplement.
What researchers found was that not only did taking a daily vitamin help preserve cognitive function, but it actually helped significantly improve it over baseline (and over placebo) by the third year. Meaning it didn’t just help prevent cognitive function from declining with age, but it actually helped improve cognitive function long term. Cognitive tests included word list, story recall, verbal fluency, number span, digit ordering and more. The results show that the daily multivitamin improved memory, executive function and global cognition over time.
This is the first large, long term, double blinded placebo based study to show that multivitamins are effective at improving condition in older adults. The researchers conducting this study estimated that the multivitamins potentially slowed brain aging by about 60%. I hope even longer studies, looking at additional health benefits beyond cognitive benefits, follow. If they do, I’ll certainly keep you posted
Especially if you have difficulty sticking to a keto diet (or if you are already doing a keto diet and want the next step to add to your diet) focusing on essential nutrients that help support mental health is the next step. To help you find the highest quality supplements depending on your unique mental health goals, I’ve created different protocols for you and you can find them right here:
3. Focus specifically on gut healing.
Part of improving mental health through improved nutrition includes healing your gut so it works properly in the first place.
You already know that your digestion and your thoughts and feelings are directly linked. You know that sudden feeling when you are scared and you become instantly nauseous? As a mom I got that feeling all the time when my kids were younger and I lost sight of them for a moment in a public place. It’s a horrendous feeling… it doesn’t matter how hungry you were or how long since your last meal… in life-or-death situations, hunger immediately evaporates and the rest of your senses are heightened (heart pounding and ears and eyes on maximum alert) and you scan the crowd looking for your precious child.
Or… have you ever had nervous diarrhea before a big test, a blind date, a job interview?
Or… what about a dry mouth as you stand up to give an important speech to your peers, act in a play, sing your solo at a choir concert? Your dry mouth isn’t a true reflection of your hydration status… matter of fact you just drank two cups of water before stepping out on that stage… it’s your body’s immediate response to emotional stimulus.
While we all *know* on some level that our digestive state and our bowels are connected to our mind and mind frame, you may not know that your gut actually plays a big role in your mental health. What if it’s not just that our mind signals our gut to develop physical symptoms, but the other way around too? Is it possible that disease in our gut can cause a signal to our brain to develop physical symptoms, such as anxiety and depression?
Yes. Researchers looking into this studied over 1,900 individuals with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). The research (published in Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics in 2016) after following the participants for one full year, found that participants with higher levels of emotional distress (anxiety and depression) were significantly more likely to develop IBS and those with IBS at the start of the study were more likely to report new onset of anxiety and depression in the year following enrollment in the study.
- 1/3 of participants had the mood disorder first, and then the gastrointestinal disorder.
- 2/3 of the participants had the gatrointenstinal disorder (IBS or FD) first, and then the mood disorder.
- Researchers now believe there are two different types of functional gastrointesntinal disease pathways — not just one.
- One subset of patients experience gut symptoms (pain, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, etc..) first prior to anxiety or depression developing. This suggests that gut disease may signal the onset of a gut-to-brain disease pathway.
- Another subset of patients may have anxiety or depression signal to the gut and subsequently give rise to gastrointestinal distress… brain-to-gut signaling.
The bottom line: The more common pathway appears to be gut-to-brain signaling, being twice as common as brain-to-gut signaling! Gut disease occurred first, followed by the development of psychological symptoms in the majority of the participants during the study.
Clinical studies suggest that the gut microbes in depressed individuals are decreased in both amount and in variety. And that if the natural flora of the gut is diminished in depression, then restoring the natural vitality and variety of healthy organisms in the digestive tract might be a very powerful way to improve outcome in depression (and other mood disorders, such as anxiety.)
And indeed it is. Many studies now have shown improved mood after taking probiotics: one study showed decreased depression when participants received probiotic supplements for 30 days, and another study reported clinically significant improvement in mood when participants ate probiotic-containing yogurt for 3 weeks. Yet another study showed that participants with chronic fatigue syndrome who consumed probiotics three times a day reported significantly less anxiety compared to those who did not.
This might apply to other neurological conditions as well. A large meta-analysis examining the intestinal flora of patients with Parkinsons Disease, researchers found that there was widespread decrease in the microbiome of those patients. Published in the medical journal Parkinsons Disease in 2021, researchers found altered gut microbiome in Parkinson’s patients and suggest that intestinal inflammation is intricately linked to Parkinson’s disease. A follow up study, published in Nature Communications in 2022 found such widespread the gut microbiome had such a powerful impact on Parkinson’s diseases that they suggest Parkinson’s might actually START in the gut and then SPREAD to the brain. They found that up to 2/3rds of the metabolic pathways in the gut of Parkinsons patients are dysregulated, and urgently recommend future research in improving the gut biome to help treat Parkinson’s, and possibly even detecting Parkinson’s before it becomes symptomatic disease with gut biome analysis.
Ready to add probiotics to your supplements and see for yourself? Ready to heal your gut lining and improve your gut function to boost your mental health? I have a gut healing protocol for you right here with all of my favorite gut healing supplements and exactly how to take them:
4. Eat your flavonols
A new study (published in Neurology just a few weeks ago in Feb 2023) looking at dietary intake of flavonols and brain function, found that higher dietary intake of falvonols significantly slowed cognitive decline. The flavonols kaempferol and quercitin were the two that were specifically found to exert this effect. These two powerful flavonols are found in lots of different fruits and veggies, including:
- black tea
- red wine
5. Release old traumas
It’s 100% TOTALLY NORMAL to have brain changes in relation to having experienced life changing events. It shows that you are aware, open, experiencing life and responding to it. Your brain is ever evolving, ever-changing, ever adapting.
Some of the adaptations show up in the form of seeking relief from the stress… in the form of PTSD response patterns, cravings and addictions, and self soothing behaviors. These brain changes are all adaptations to unhealthy stressful life experiences that you’ve had to go through.
New research is showing that even if you do not have overt psychiatric signs and symptoms after big life transitions, even just experiencing a stressful event at all — no matter how well you feel you coped with it — affects your brain: stress is linked to a higher risk of dementia. In other words, stress on the brain has long term effects, not just the immediate effects such as PTSD or substance addictions. Long term effects like memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimers… showing up decades later.
One study estimated that each stressful life event you experience declines your cognitive function equivalent to about 1 to 4 years of aging. Presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference on July 16, 2017, the study looked at over 1,300 healthy adults and were assessed for 27 different lifetime stressful events (such as divorce, death, illness, bankruptcy, job loss, childhood trauma, war combat, physical assault, sexual assault, and many other universally stressful life events.) Every two years, researchers had these patients return for six domains of cognitive function to be analyzed and documented. Over time, results showed that patients with larger numbers of lifetime stressful events had worsening brain function later in life, with decreased thinking speed and decreased mental flexibility.
Here’s the important part: While you can’t prevent traumatic life events from happening to you, you absolutely 100% can minimize the impact it has on your brain and on your future cognitive ability. The largest meta-analysis to date on trauma recovery (looking at data from over 11,000 relevant medical studies) suggests that the best long term recovery after trauma is simply talking about it, no medication required. Published in JAMA Psychiatry on June 12, 2019, reasearchers looked at direct comparisons between talk therapy (psychotherapy) and drug therapy (pharmacological treatments) in patients with PTSD.
They found that in the long term, talk therapy helped more, being slightly superior to drug therapy both immediately following treatment and in long term follow up. The studies they looked at ranged from 2 months to 6 months long, and this meta-analysis showed there was no advantage to using drugs in recovering from PTSD.
While I am certainly not against the use of medications when they are needed, they should be used sparingly and either short term (as they do not show any long term advantage) or only for patients who don’t find improvement after talk therapy alone.
Be encouraged by this. This means that the vast majority of folks can be helped — and helped best — by talking about trauma instead of medicating it away. Connect with others. Reach out for help. Don’t feel like you are going crazy and don’t feel like you must go it alone. We all have trauma, we all do. And we can lean on each other and get through it.
The medical literature is clear… just communicating about trauma is every bit as healing (or even more healing) than all the best medications we have to treat trauma. In fact, as I blogged about here, PTSD can actually be significantly helped by something as simple and as accessible as repeating a mantra. It’s true. Simply joining a class, talking to a therapist, or connecting with others to heal can be just what you need to feel better than you have ever felt.
And did you know that folks who move through trauma can actually be healthier than folks who never went through any trauma at all? It’s incredible to believe that trauma can actually strengthen your health but it is true. In my Trauma Resilency & Recovery Class I go over the medical literature that proves that trauma is actually adaptive and empowering, and show you all the tools to use trauma to boost your own health in ways you never could have imagined possible.
My trauma healing class starts soon, and I would love to have you join in. I developed this class based on my extensive research into the best of what the medical literature has proven to us about how to release trauma once and for all and become mentally and physically healthier for it. No matter what you have gone through, you absolutely do have the ability to rebound from from it and create a new normal and a new health set point.
Your body naturally want’s to trend back to full and complete wellness… mind, body and spirit. I’ll give you the tools to get there and walk with you through it:
Researchers looking at how movement helps to boost brain function found that there are literally immediate benefits to your memory function after exercising just once. ONCE! Published September 2020 in Scientific Reports, this study finds that one session of exercising (cycling on a stationary bike was the exercise used in this study) significantly improved motor sequence memory — immediately!
This is super encouraging, because it was not looking at just the long term benefits from exercise but suggests that even if all you can do is one single episode of exercise, you will get immediate brain benefits, that very day.
And although just one session of exercising provides benefit, ideally it would be even better to sprinkle movement throughout your entire day. It could be as simple as standing up and walking around a bit every hour or two, getting in some gentle stretching routines in throughout the day, walking up and down your stairs if you have them, and/or doing a before-bed yoga routine to reap massive benefits.
So see if you can come up with a way to move your body:
- upon waking in the morning
- as a mid morning break
- as a mid day break
- as a mid afternoon break
- and end with a before-bed stretch.
So today try to use exercise as a way to focus before a mental task. Some examples might include:
- walking up and down a flight of stairs quickly before giving a presentation at work
- doing a few jumping jacks in the office before writing an important email
- playing a game of frisbee with friends just before settling down to study for college exams
- encouraging your kids to jump on a trampoline before hopping on the school bus each morning.
For this one, you need to be on my newsletter list because this will be next week’s free healing article — all about grounding and the mood boost that it provides. There has even been a recent medical study showing that grounding made a significant improvement to Alzheimer’s patients — I’ll tell you all about it next week. Sign up for my newsletter here.
To feeling your mood boost and your brain work better and better and better… all by taking a few all natural and simple steps — like reducing gluten, adding nutritional supplements, healing your gut, processing and releasing trauma, and as we will talk about next week touching the earth.
xoxo, Laura Koniver MD