Natural Solutions for Mental Health
Why they work and what’s best for you.
Mental health is one of the biggest burdens on our health care system, with at least 45% of the Australian population suffering from some type of mental health disorder during their lifetime, anxiety being the most prevalent. Antidepressants are one of the most commonly prescribed medications: this year, 1 in 8 of us are taking them in one form or another, and this number is increasing. In 2018, it was 1 in 10. Between 2015-2016, an estimated 18 million visits to the GP were because of concerns regarding mental health (1).
Despite these gloomy numbers, awareness of the symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mood disorders are at an all-time high. This is a good thing, because it results in more people recognising the symptoms and seeking help. This may be partially responsible for the increase in the number of episodes reported. However, there is no doubt that mental health in Australia, and throughout most of the Western world, is declining.
Why natural solutions have a clear advantage.
Prescribed medication is useful and even necessary in many circumstances. I like to think of it as ‘first aid’ for the brain. But when that initial treatment is not useful or becomes problematic (e.g because of side-effects), what then? Natural medicine has a lot to offer in this case and can also be very effective when taken alongside prescribed medication (when provided by a qualified natural health practitioner). Herbal medicine and nutritional supplements have the benefit of working in harmony with the body’s own natural biochemistry and have virtually no side effects. So, which of these are best, and how do you know what’s right for you?
How to support your mental health, naturally.
Our modern lifestyle is largely to blame for the rise in mental health conditions. Poor sleep, stress, hurried meals that are nutritionally deficient, long working hours and endless streams of information constantly bombarding us from the myriad of electronic devices that run our life; this results in mental depletion, loneliness and disconnection.
However, it’s not all bad. We are better informed than ever before with plenty of resources at our fingertips with ways to reconnect and rebalance ourselves. Of course, it’s important to get the basics right and I can’t emphasise enough how effective eating well, sleeping well (switch off those devices 1 hour before bed!), exercising, and taking time out to do things we love can be for improving mental health, all within a relatively short space of time.
I won’t bore you with the statistics, but simple dietary changes can have a dramatic effect. So much so that there is an entire area of medical practice dedicated to it: It’s known as Nutritional Psychiatry.
Foods to support mental health.
The brain loves fat. It contains 25% of the body’s total cholesterol, even though brain mass accounts for only 2% of body weight (2)! Coconut oil, avocados, eggs, organic butter from grass fed cows, nuts and nut butters, seeds – these are the foods that will make your brain happy. However, avoiding processed foods, excess red meat and sugar is essential to keep neuroinflammation in check. We need at least 5 serves of fresh vegetables and 1-2 serves of fruit each day, providing vital phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals that support our nervous system. Drink pure water (preferably filtered) and avoid soft drinks at all costs. Try herbal or green tea instead of coffee, and limit alcohol to 1 drink or less per day.
There is a fairly extensive list of nutritional remedies that support mental health. These are some of the nutrients well supported by research, all of which I prescribe regularly:
- B vitamins – especially B5, B6 and folate (in the form of methylfolate)
- Amino acids – n.acetyl cysteine, tryptophan, ornithine, tyrosine, glycine and glutamine
- Essential fatty acids – fish oils.
How I love prescribing herbs for mental health! Calming and relaxing without causing drowsiness, we are blessed to be able to access good quality and effective herbal liquid and blended formulations that consistently get great results, in clinical practice and research trials alike. Again, it’s an extensive list, but these are a few that have the weight of research stacked in their favour:
- St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
- Kava (Piper methysticum)
- Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)
- Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
- Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
- Californian Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
- Withania/Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
How do I know what’s right for me?
Good question. Depending on your individual circumstances, it’s always best to get a professional opinion before taking any supplements, especially if you’re currently taking prescribed medication. Your local qualified natural health practitioner will be able to point you in the right direction, with a personalised prescription just for you. I never recommend buying supplements off the shelf because you don’t always know:
a) Where they come from, what they contain, in what amount, and whether it reaches therapeutic levels.
b) Whether they are contraindicated if you suffer from a pre-existing medical condition or are taking medication.
Always try to get the basics (or what we like to call the 5 Pillars of Health) right. Get some help with personalising your nutrition if you need to, because everyone is different in terms of their requirements! Try to move daily, have a regular sleep routine that will help you wind down in time for bed, connect with others and the world around you, and maintain balance by doing something you love every day.
Would you like more information about this topic? Naturopath Ruth has a special interest in Mental Health.
(1) Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Mental Health Services Overview (2018). Retrieved from: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports-data/health-welfare-services/mental-health-services/overview
(2) Harvard Health Publishing. Cholesterol, the mind, and the brain (2007) Retrieved from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/cholesterol-the-mind-and-the-brain