By Dr. Robert Kiltz
The link between diet and mental health is a relatively new discovery, but not all that surprising considering the way our bodily systems are all interconnected.
Interestingly, the majority (over 95%) of the body’s serotonin (a.k.a. the feel-good hormone) is produced in the gut. There’s a whole network of neural tissue lining our guts that make up the enteric nervous system. This is why the gut is often referred to as “the second brain” and is so intimately linked to mental health. There’s a lot more going on in the G.I. tract than just digestion. We’ve all seen this first hand. Anxiety and nervousness can produce “butterflies” in the stomach or a slightly nauseous feeling. This is the brain-gut connection at work signaling a physiological stress response. The gut responds to the brain, but it goes the other way too; our brain also responds to signals from our gut. Scientists have discovered that about 90 percent of the fibers in the vagus nerve, the primary visceral nerve, carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around. Our “second brain” also plays a huge role in immune response.
Inflammation is our body’s natural immune response to help protect and heal, but when it doesn’t turn off and simmers at a chronic level, inflammation begins to damage healthy cells, contributing to a long list of diseases, including infertility, which I’ve spent my career as a reproductive endocrinologist trying to defeat. Inflammation is often a direct result of the foods we eat—too much sugar, too many carbs and processed foods, not enough fat—and how frequently we eat them (which is why I recommend giving intermittent fasting a try).
Foods to Improve Mental Health
A high-fat, low-carb diet helps to reduce inflammation and balance hormones both of which can improve mental health. When the body is deficient in certain vitamins and proteins, it can disrupt moods and contribute to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Eating foods rich in vitamins and proteins is a smart choice because they are believed to play a role in the brain’s production of serotonin, dopamine, and other brain chemicals that contribute to and control moods. Foods rich in Vitamin B (like liver and red meat) help combat depression and irritability. Iron-rich foods help with the production of brain chemicals that regulate mood.
Here’s a list of diet mainstays that can improve your mental health and a lot of other medical conditions too, including infertility.
Liver & Steak
Liver and steak are great sources of protein and fat, and just so happen to be the best source of vitamins, packing an even bigger nutritional punch than traditional “superfoods” like blueberries or kale.
Liver is a premium source of vitamins B12, C, E, D, Co-Q10, Zinc, Folate, and fat. Steak is a close runner-up in nutrients.
Eggs are another superfood packed with nutrients in a perfect little package: protein, Vitamin A, D, E, K, B12, folate, and even the beneficial antioxidant lutein. Eggs are also a rich source of choline. The body needs to obtain a majority of its required choline from diet, as it can only naturally produce a limited amount.
Salmon, Sardines, and Other High Omega-3 Fish
Salmon is an oily fish that is packed with protein, omega 3s, and essential fatty acids. Interestingly, depression appears to be less common in countries where people eat large amounts of fish. Two omega-3 fatty acids — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) found primarily in fish oil — are thought to have the biggest potential to benefit people with mood disorders through two primary mechanisms: (1) omega-3s easily travel through the brain cell membrane and interact with mood-related molecules inside the brain; and (2) they have an anti-inflammatory effect that can help relieve depression. Children and adolescents with depression may also benefit from omega-3 supplementation.
Butter & Other Full-Fat Dairy
Natural fats from butter, cream, whole milk, and full-fat yogurt are needed to keep the lymphatic system running. Eating fat lubricates the lymphatics and filters out harmful pathogens to protect the body from illness-causing invaders. The lymphatic system is critical to maintaining optimal health. It is part of the circulatory system and the immune system. Besides being a rich source of cholesterol, full-fat dairy also contains many nutrients.
Berries are a healthy, sweet, and sometimes sour, tasty snack. They are loaded with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients that are known to combat inflammation. Berries are also high in folate and vitamin C.
Beans & Lentils
Beans and lentils have vitamin B, which can help improve depression and irritability. They also contribute to the production of serotonin.
Our Brains Need Fat & Cholesterol
Despite the popular misconception, our bodies need fat. It’s the building block for our brains, and our best source of cellular energy. Eating fat is one of the easiest ways to reduce inflammation and improve immunologic function. The human brain is nearly 60% fat and requires both saturated and unsaturated fats to provide a balance of structural integrity and fluidity to its cells. More specifically, our brains need EPA and DHA–neither of which exist in plant foods. EPA has an anti-inflammatory effect and helps with healing. DHA serves many functions. It helps with the formation of myelin, the white matter that insulates our brain circuits. It also helps maintain the integrity of the blood-brain barrier, which keeps the brain safe from unwanted outside influences. But most importantly, DHA is critical to the development of the human cortex—the part of the brain responsible for higher-order thinking. Without DHA, consciousness and symbolic thinking—essentially what makes us humans—would be impossible.
Cholesterol is essential too. It gives our cells the required stiffness and stability and is vital for the production and function of serotonin receptors in the brain. Low cholesterol levels have been linked to depression and aggression. Antidepressants often don’t work for patients who are eating a vegetarian diet. Cholesterol acts as a precursor to important hormones that help us deal with stress and protect the body against cancer and heart disease.
This is why fatty meats, fish, and full-fat dairy all top the list of foods that contribute to good mental health. These combined with other low carb and low-sugar foods are building blocks for good physical and mental health.
Foods to Avoid
And if you’re wondering which foods to avoid, I recommend limiting or removing the five biggest inflammation producers in our diets: plant toxins, vegetable & seed oils, carbohydrates & added sugars, trans fats, and too much alcohol. These foods expose people to high levels of known inflammatory compounds.
Don’t Forget Your Supplements!
It can be challenging to get all of the essential vitamins and minerals through diet alone. Even the healthiest eaters are likely low in some vitamins and minerals, particularly those who consume fruits and vegetables as the bulk of their diet. Supplements are a great way to support total body and mental health.
My Nutritional Solutions line of supplements was designed with just this purpose in mind: to provide a convenient, high-quality source for essential vitamins, minerals, collagens, proteins, growth factors, unique enzymes, and co-factors that only exist in tissue specific organs. We use superior, grass-fed cattle as our primary source. State-of-the-art freeze drying and hydrolysis processing techniques ensure optimal nutrient preservation and bioavailability. Dr. Kiltz’s Nutritional Solutions products are hormone, pesticide, and GMO- free and contain no fillers, flow agents, or other additives. I recommend my Grass-Fed Beef Liver, Grass-Fed Organ Meats, and Grass-Fed Connective Tissue supplements. These all come in capsule form to make getting the very best nutrients easy and convenient.
About Dr. Robert Kiltz:
Dr. Robert Kiltz is a board-certified OB/GYN and reproductive endocrinologist, and Founder and Director of CNY Fertility, one of the largest and most dynamic fertility centers in the country, featured in the Wall Street Journal, Today Show, and CNBC for helping shape the future of fertility medicine. Dr. Kiltz has earned recognition outside of the fertility world for pioneering the holistic health movement and the keto lifestyle. He is the author of several books including The Fertile Feast and Daily Inspirations, and his latest, Living Your Best Life: How to Think, Eat, and Connect your Way to a Better Flow which released April 2021. In addition to his own media outlets, Dr. Kiltz appears regularly on numerous popular blogs and has shared his views as a TEDx speaker.
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