What if the way we treat anxiety, depression, learning difficulties and behavioral disorders is completely misunderstood? When you combine published and unpublished studies of antidepressants, the treatments we have today are no better than they were 50 years ago. How is it that in this day and age, we continue to chase after a cure for modern disorders that have their roots in deficiency and toxicity? It is the same line of thinking in agriculture, that if you keep spraying plants with pesticides or give animals antibiotics, the disease problem is solved without a thought as to why the plants and animals are sick in the first place.
The World Health Organization is projecting that, by the year 2020, depression will become the world’s second most devastating illness, after heart disease. This is alarming not only for our mental state, but the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that women who had long-term depression were 90 percent more likely to get cancer. Cancer is complex, but we have been completely ignoring the mental health and emotional connection. If you or someone you know have experienced anxiety, depression or other behavioral disorders, you understand how devastating these disorders can be.
What I hope to offer with this article is insight into understanding the biochemical nature of these disorders, which will hopefully empower you. Modern medicine points to the brain, not the gut as the target, but if we break down neurotransmitter production all arrows point to the gut, not the brain. The biochemistry points to deficiency of particular vitamins, minerals, and bacteria, not primarily a chemical imbalance that can only be corrected by a drug. Research is confirming that deficiency and toxicity are creating inflammation and excessive release of cytokines from the immune system; which can lead to depression and heart disease.
Two Brains are Better than One
Brain dysfunction is the number one reason people fail at school, at work and in relationships according to Dr. Daniel Amen, one of the world’s authorities on the brain. So when we break down how the brain functions, we have to look at the two nervous systems: the central and the enteric. The enteric is the nervous system of your digestive system. There, millions of nerves line the digestive system and communicate with the central nervous system via the vagus nerve road to the brain. Your gut bacteria also uses the same road to transmit information to your brain, and it turns out bacteria are transmitting more information to your brain than your brain sends to your gut.
Ninety percent of serotonin (the neurotransmitter responsible for well-being, happiness, memory, learning, and sleep) is made in the gut, not the brain. Anti-depressants work (or don’t work) by raising serotonin levels in the brain, not the gut. According to the highly popular book Gut and Psychology Syndrome, intestinal flora imbalance has been linked to autism, dyspraxia, A.D.D., dyslexia, A.D.H.D., depression, and schizophrenia.
Why Bacteria May Be a Major Key to Understanding Mental Disorders
Think about the last time when you got anxious, depressed or angry, and the emotions gave you an upset stomach. Guess what happens when your gut flora is altered or wiped out from antibiotics, sucralose (Splenda, 50% intestinal flora destruction found), pesticide-laden GMO food, meat laced with antibiotics, chlorinated and fluoridated water or a high sugar diet? Anxiety, depression, anger, confusion, frustration, stress, and even autism. Just recently, an article from the BBC/TV website reported a 67% increase in autism in northern Ireland. Boys are affected 5 times more than girls, and those in more deprived areas are more likely to be affected. It is time we start asking the right questions, starting with nutrition status and toxicity.
A study found that children with autism have altered gut flora “working as neurotransmitters or controlling neurotransmitter biosynthesis” and researchers “suspect that gut microbes may alter levels of neurotransmitter-related metabolites affecting gut-to-brain communication and/or altering brain function.” Furthermore, researchers from the California Institute of Technology found that some mice exhibiting autistic behaviors no longer showed signs of autism when given probiotics.
Bifidobacterium is capable of secreting large amounts of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter to glutamate, controlling an imbalance found in autism-spectrum disorders, hyper-active behavior,heart attacks, strokes, ADHD, OCD, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, mood disorders, IBS, Tourette’s syndrome and seizures. The Stanley Foundation Neuropathology Consortium found that levels of glutamate were elevated in individuals with Bi-Polar and Major Depressive disorder compared to controls. Another study shows that lactobacillus influenced GABA levels in certain brain regions, leading to lowered stress hormones, anxiety and depression. Could bacteria and GABA be one of the keys to the underlining cause of numerous mental disorders? Or better labeled, mental deficiencies?
Gluten and Mental Health: It Starts at Pregnancy
In gluten sensitive individuals, gluten can actually shut down blood flow into the frontal and prefrontal cortex, the part responsible for dopamine, serotonin, focus, managing emotional states, planning, organizing, consequences of actions, and our short term memory. This process is called “hypo-perfusion” and is strongly associated with ADHD, depression, and anxiety. WGA in wheat has also been found to perforate holes in the intestinal lining, affecting vitamin and mineral absorption, allergies, and bacteria.
A study from Sweden and Johns Hopkins found that babies born to women with a sensitivity to gluten appear to be at increased risk of developing schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders later in life. Children born to mothers with abnormally high levels of antibodies to gliadin (gluten) had nearly twice the risk of developing non-affective psychosis, compared with children who had normal levels of gliadin antibodies. This makes quite a strong case for avoiding gluten completely during pregnancy.
Choline Intake During Pregnancy and Mental Health
A study published in 2013 in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that 76 percent of newborns whose mothers received choline supplements had normal inhibition to the sound stimuli, while 43% did not. Those who do not have a normal inhibition to the sound stimuli have been found to have an increased risk for attention problems, social withdrawal and, later in life, schizophrenia. The results show that choline might steer the infant brain away from a developmental course that predicted mental health problems.
Research has also shown that 9 out of 10 Americans don’t get enough dietary choline found highest in eggs and liver. Choline is required for acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter of the vagus nerve that enervates multiple organs including the lungs, heart, liver, stomach, and temporal lobe of the brain (memory). One study found that women with higher choline intake have the lowest anxiety.
Your Brain’s Reaction to Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates
Refined sugar and refined carbohydrates are the reason for the spikes and drops that lead to hypoglycemia. Recently, a UCLA study found that high blood glucose due to fructose intake was found to result in brain shrinkage, impairing learning and memory in the hippocampus, the first areas damaged in Alzheimer’s disease. This is why both Alzheimer’s and dementia are now being called Type 3 diabetes. Interestingly enough, omega-3 fatty acids (DHA) help minimize the damage due to their brain protective powers.
A diet that is high in sugar and refined carbs without adequate protein, fat, and fiber will lead to hypoglycemia. Studies conducted in the 1970s actually looked at hypoglycemia as one of the major reasons for anti-social behavior due to the fact that hypoglycemia causes the brain to secrete excess glutamate. This excitatory effect can lead to agitation, depression, anger, anxiety, panic attacks and violent behavior.
The Neurotransmitter Link to Mental Health: The Top 7 Most Common Neurotransmitter Nutrient Deficiencies in the US
A Mayo Clinic study found that 70% of Americans are prescribed medications,
with antibiotics, anti-depressants and opioids as the top three. Anti-depressants attempt to target one or more neurotransmitters at a time (usually serotonin and dopamine), which may not be effective. The problem is that this system is incredibly complex, and this simplification seems almost medically primitive. Trying to isolate and manipulate one neurotransmitter will most likely cause a ripple effect in the system, and the body will try to override this glitch in the matrix. It makes much more sense to support all the neurotransmitters at once through – wait for it – diet and exercise. Both do just that.
SSRI’s like Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil cause a loss of libido, sexual dysfunction, suppressed REM sleep, headache, nausea, upset stomach, loss of appetite, agitation and insomnia. Hmmm, sounds like neurotransmitter imbalance. So they can affect sexual function, upset your stomach, give you a headache, make it hard to eat and fall asleep. These side effects may make you feel even more depressed. According to Harvard psychiatrist Joseph Glenmullen, no one really knows what the long-term effects are of these chemicals on the brain.
Antibiotics deplete probiotics, magnesium, vitamin B6, B12, folate, vitamin C and zinc just to name a few. Birth control depletes folate, vitamins B2, B6, B12, vitamin C and E, magnesium, selenium, and zinc. As you can see from the diagram below, every single one of these is connected to neurotransmitter health, hormone health – and therefore mental health.
The brain has more than a hundred billion neurons, close to the number of stars in the Milky Way. If we look at the brain, we can break it down into what it needs to function optimally, which starts in the gut. Poor vitamin and bacteria status affect neurotransmitter binding to receptors on neurons, thereby altering neurotransmission.
Vitamin and Mineral Precursors for Optimal Brain Function
A study done in the 1990s in the United States found that of 11,658 people, 91% of women and 71% percent of men were deficient in vitamin B6 using the RDA. An epidemiological study done from Tufts University in 2008 found that a substantial percentage of the population had inadequate B6 status.
Who are most at risk? Females at reproductive age, women taking birth control (current and past), teenagers, alcoholics, those taking pyridoxine-inactivating drugs (anticonvulsants), non-Hispanic blacks and people over the age of 65. In other words, a HUGE chunk of the population. Data suggests that oral contraceptive users have extremely low plasma B6 levels. Three-quarters of the women who reported using oral contraceptives, but not vitamin B6 supplements, were vitamin B6 deficient.
The most bioavailable version of B6 is called pyridoxine, and was so effective at inhibiting AGEs (toxic compounds) and slowing the aging process, the FDA banned it in response to a Machiavellian petition from a pharmaceutical company so pyridoxine could be classified as a drug. Luckily, another active form called Pyridoxal-5-Phosphate – another version found in food – has similar properties and is still available. Some people have trouble making the conversion from B6 to P5P due to gut issues, making P5P the ideal choice for those who may need it most. Of course, pharmaceutical companies have attempted to ban P5P as well. What does this tell you about its effectiveness?
B6 is also light, heat, and cold sensitive, making it temperamental and quick to vanish in foods, especially today. Tuna is considered to be one of the highest sources of B6. Who are the largest consumers of fresh or raw tuna? The Japanese. They also have the lowest rate of depression at 2.5%. This would give them a high intake of omega-3s, selenium, and iodine from their seaweed consumption. Iodine and selenium are needed for a healthy thyroid to assist serotonin and dopamine, and a deficiency is strongly correlated to the epidemic of hypothyroidism in the US (along with magnesium, vitamin C, and B2 deficiencies). Raw milk is a source of B6 but is destroyed during pasteurization. Liver is also one of the highest foods in B6. Americans have avoided tuna due to high mercury levels; we pasteurize all our dairy, and liver left the dinner plate one generation ago.
Raymond Francis, an MIT chemist, stated that the inventor of the anti-anxiety drug Valium later discovered that B-vitamins could produce exactly the same benefits as Valium, without side effects or addiction. (If someone could find the foreign journal this was published in, I would appreciate it). This, of course, got buried. While all of the B-vitamins are important, B6 is perhaps the most important nutrient for serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, GABA and even CoQ10.
What are the symptoms of B6 deficiency? Depression.
How could you be deficient? Sugar, refined carbohydrates, birth control pills, poor digestion, poor liver health, and excess alcohol will all lead to poor B-vitamin deficiency.
There has a been a huge focus on probiotics and for good reason. Not only are they responsible for up to 80% of your immune system, but they are consistently shown to improve mental health as well. Our Paleo ancestors first got our probiotics from eating food in the wild, food that was coated with good bacteria. Then we started fermenting foods and drinks in the agricultural age while still getting our hands dirty. Chronic antibiotic use, processed food and the anti-bacterial soap revolution put more evolutionary wisdom in the dark. There is a longer list as to why our intestinal flora is disturbed, so the important thing to remember is that daily sources of probiotics are essential.
Magnesium deficiency is not something that can be measured by food recall questionnaires due to the fact that it has virtually disappeared from our water and top soil. Government studies say that 68% of people are magnesium deficient, however, I would argue that percentage is actually quite higher. To activate vitamin B6, magnesium is required. So imagine how your mental health is affected by just low B6 and magnesium status. Women who take birth control, people with gastrointestinal issues, Type-2 diabetics, alcoholics and older adults all struggle with magnesium absorption on top of poor dietary intake. It is involved in serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine production, is a major muscle relaxant and constipation remedy. *I chose this brand because it is one of the few that doesn’t contain magnesium stearate.
What are the symptoms of magnesium deficiency? Anxiety and depression. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association, anxiety disorders are the number #1 mental illness in the US affecting 40 million people 18 and older, and every 1 in 8 children. Look at the diet of most Americans, especially children and teenagers. Should we be calling this a mental illness, or a deficiency?
How could you be deficient? If it is not in the soil, it is not in our food. It is also no longer in our water. In fact, if your water is fluoridated and you don’t use a reverse osmosis system, fluoride binds to the magnesium in your body, creating a further deficiency. Sugar and refined carbohydrates also deplete magnesium.
As we have seen, our seafood consumption has plummeted over the last few decades due to pollution and high mercury levels; we have also seen the highly coveted brain nutrient DHA drop drastically. DHA is a major building block of brain tissue and also a raw material for several neurotransmitters. A group of Belgian researchers found low blood levels of essential fatty acids (EFA’s) in depressed patients and concluded that depression “may persist despite successful antidepressant treatment” unless it is specifically treated with EFAs. Omega-3 fatty acids are believed to raise levels of the brain chemical serotonin in a way similar to anti-depressants like Prozac.
Cod liver oil contains vitamin A and D along with EPA and DHA. Vitamin A is important for those with gut issues. I recommend using cod liver oil during the fall and winter, then switching to just vitamin D or getting it from the sun during the spring and summer. This balances the A and D in the body. Or you can use the Nordic Naturals fish oil year round if you notice a big difference with DHA and do not require as much vitamin A. Wild fish and pastured eggs are great sources of omega-3’s in the diet.
The nerve endings in the brain contain the highest concentrations of vitamin C. I have explained in depth in the article, Is Vitamin C the Most Important Vitamin for You? and how the majority of us are most likely deficient. Vitamin C is modest and simple and is vital for our day to day health. The adrenal glands use vitamin C in high amounts. During times of stress, your need for vitamin C increases. Vitamin C also modulates dopamine levels. In fact, according to Dr. Ben Lynch from a lecture at Bastyr University, high dopamine levels can be normalized with vitamin C supplementation. I can confirm this to be very effective with my own clients at Nutrition Genome and research has shown that vitamin C modulates dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. To see the nutritional biochemistry of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, see this diagram (In the diagram, vitamins are in green).
A more complicated process is the copper/zinc balance, where too much copper or too little can be problematic. An excess buildup of copper is caused by low vitamin C and zinc among other things, which can lead to many mental disturbances.
Vitamin D, sometimes called the “sunshine vitamin” is involved in the production of serotonin. An increase in serotonin is one of the many reasons we feel so good after being in the sunshine for an extended period of time. When you look at our history, you see a pattern of foods high in vitamin D, low grain consumption until 10,000 BC, and plenty of sunlight. Today, we avoid most foods high in vitamin D due to a fear of fat, have made grains a major staple, and spend most of our time indoors. We also have been hoodwinked into covering ourselves frenetically with sunblock as if we hadn’t spent the last 2 million years out in the sun. We may have lost the photolyase enzyme that repaired our DNA from sun damage, but we still require its production from the sun in safe doses.
As we have continually seen in studies, vitamin D is implicated in mood and mental health (esp. SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, during the winter) and, we are reaching extremely high population levels of deficiency. In fact, sunlight going through the eyes produces serotonin. Maybe we need to re-think things our bodies didn’t come with, like sunglasses and excessive sunblock.
Zinc is used by our adrenal glands like vitamin C, crucial for keeping up with a high-stress society. It is crucial for the production of GABA. Zinc doesn’t seem like a mineral where a deficiency can take place, but when you find that the best sources come from eggs, liver, red meat and oysters – foods eschewed by the medical industry – you see why people become deficient in zinc. If you are following a low-fat diet full of refined grains and egg whites, and you rarely consume red meat and shellfish, in addition to taking birth control or other medications, you are deficient in zinc.