Nutrition and Mental Health - The Starvation of a Nation

In all the hype written about our shocking New Zealand stats on suicide I am constantly dismayed at the lack of forethought about digging deeper as to what is causing us to be so damn un-resilient in the first place. We talk a little about relationships, connection, we talk a lot about depression and anxiety and people are very happy to share on social media about their experiences of the same, but nowhere oh nowhere do I ever see what I believe is a contributing fundamental issue being addressed..

What are we feeding ourselves?

Of course what are we feeding ourselves mentally and psychologically - trash TV, gossip, celebrity bullshit, misaligned goals (richer/faster, material goods) - but what are we feeding ourselves physically?

Below you see a simplified diagram of how food is converted into neurotransmitters in our body and brain. It's simplified because it doesn't include the many many other variants which might contribute to our health, such as the state of our microbes (1), the ability of our guts to digests and absorb these nutrients and the many other variations which occur within us individually to contribute to our nutritional intake. It doesn't take into account genetics, malabsorption and other disease states which may interfere with our health. But you get the picture.

The diagram shows how amino aids (the building blocks of protein) in this case tryptophan (found in eggs, nuts and seeds, cheese, red meat), metabolises with the help of folate (green leafy veges), B6 (beef, advocado, tuna) and zinc (lamb, pumpkin seeds, beef, chickpeas) to become serotonin. It also shows other amino acids and their conversions and the co-factors necessary.

You would have heard about serotonin - it's known as the happy, feel good chemical often thought to be deficient in those suffering from depression and is the primary neurotransmitter that many of the modern antidepressants target (they help to keep levels of serotonin higher in the brain). Dopamine is less known - but is known as the motivating, reward neurotransmitter - often suggested to be enhanced in when people satisfy cravings and low levels are implicated in addictions. GABA - is a calming, relaxing, chilled neuro-transmitter. There is more to the story of course - but you might notice something quite interesting...

For all of these processes to take place - you need the entire cascade to be working properly. Ie, you need the intake of amino acids (most predominately found in meat, egg and dairy - but can also be found in vegetarian based protein sources such as legumes and nuts - quinoa and soy products provide all of the essential amino acids you also need). You need adequate magnesium (found in spinach, yogurt, almonds) which supports the enzymes to transform the process. You also need Zinc, Vitamin C, Vitamin B's, Vitamin B12.... the list goes on.

Serotonin is also converted into melatonin, which is necessary for sleep. Dopamine is also converted into adrenaline and noradrenaline for the get up and go response we all need from time to time.


When a person is depressed/anxious and they first present to their GP or other health professional - does the health professional question, examine or support the persons diet? Do they look at the quality or nutrient dense food intake, perhaps offer to work with this, offer extra supplements as we all know that even if we eat very well we are unlikely to get all the nutritional requirements - especially if we have been deplete for sometime.

Do we ever discuss the diet of the nation? The diet of young people? Whether they suffer from orthorexia, malnutrition - even though they may consume and overabundance of calories? Do we hold companies who promote an awful lot of junk food responsible for the demise of the health of the nation?

I know it's not as simple as 'eat good food and you will feel better'. But actually, maybe it is. Just this year a study was published to answer the question "If I eat better, will I feel better?". It was aptly called the 'SMILES' study (2) and it turned out, that for over 30% of depressed people, the answer was "YES, it does". 30%! This information, coupled with other studies (3, 4) which suggest that simply increasing probiotic foods has the possibly to decrease anxiety and depression is information which all organisations and politicians who care about the suicide statistics in New Zealand should be clambering to distribute to the masses. But no. Little is known about these studies by the general population. We carry on, feeding ourselves low calorie artificially flavoured, artificially sweetened food and drinks, allowing major fast food companies to sponsor sports and other nationally held events and stay concerned about 'producing more' and 'growing the economy' while we are - nutritionally speaking - starving ourselves to death with.

Anecdotally, I have seen an enormous positive response in people who chose to 'nutrify' their diets (with food and supplements), cut out the poor quality, nutrient deficient food. I've seen how anxiety reduces significantly and mood improves substantially when this is done.

And now we have the science to prove it. But seriously - do we really need a randomised controlled study to show that if we eat better we will feel better? I think not.

Rant over. Go eat some food.

(1) axis How the microbiome influences anxiety and depression_Tran .pdf