If you have been following the field of integrative mental health for a while, you know that changing your diet is one of the most important steps in recovery.
You might also be aware that there is a pretty solid consensus on what you should be eating (and avoiding) for mental wellness.
Step 1: Follow a healing mental health diet
A healing mental health diet is basically an organic, nutrient-dense diet that removes foods generally thought to cause allergic and inflammatory responses in the brain and body (as these are foods that research has clearly linked to depression and other mental health symptoms).
It encourages you to eat mindfully and at regular intervals (around every 4 hours) to avoid dips in blood sugar. These dips in susceptible people can result in hypoglycemia, which can cause or exacerbate many mental health issues.
Simply said, a healing mental health diet includes high quantities of the “good stuff” and removes as much of the “bad stuff” as possible.
So what’s the “good stuff?”
–High quality animal protein from pasture/grass-fed organic animals given clean water
–Good fats (from nuts, seeds, avocados, grass fed meats, fish oil etc.)
–Loads of organic vegetables and fruits (untreated with chemicals and non-GMO) – one caveat about fruit (and sometimes starchy veggies) is that some people with hypoglycemia can have trouble with these foods, because they can lead to blood sugar instability which causes mood/anxiety problems. It is important for people to find their tolerance for these foods. For a better understanding of hypoglycemia, click here.
-Drink filtered water and herb tea
What’s the “bad stuff?”
-Processed foods made with Inflammatory oils (vegetable oils, trans fats, margarine etc.)
For a more detailed explanation of the healing mental health diet, you can request my free “Nutrition For Mental Health Handbook”.
Step 2: Make your diet more restricted at the beginning
Some clinicians (including myself) find it helpful to start with a more restrictive elimination diet for the first month or two, similar to the Paleo diet. The additional restrictions include:
These additional foods are kept out, because in some people (especially those with chronic health concerns including mental health conditions), these foods can lead to the inflammatory response that makes symptoms worse.
The version of this diet I typically suggest is called the Whole30. It offers very clear guidelines on how to follow the diet and includes a structured reintroduction phase which allows you to test which foods are causing you trouble.
To learn more about the science behind the Whole30, you can find it in the book It Starts With Food. If you are a person who does not need all the science, there is plenty of information on their website to get started.
In many people, once the gut and body heal, some of these foods (like beans and non-gluten containing grains) will be better tolerated and can be reintroduced into the diet.
For the last 10 years, I have been using steps 1 and 2 described above with great success. Hundreds of my patients have tried it and more than half have had improvements in their depression and other mental health symptoms. Some have dramatic life-altering positive experiences.
There are many case examples in the literature in which removal of an offending food (often gluten or dairy) leads to chronic mental health symptoms just vanishing.
What I’ve learned in doing this work is that, the more information you have to understand your own unique biochemistry, the more you can create a diet that’s healing for you!
Step 3: Hone your diet based on your methylation status
It used to be that only biochemistry nerds knew about methylation, but now just about anyone curious about the roots of mental health issues knows about it.
In the words of nutritional mental health pioneer Bill Walsh:
“Methylation is a biochemical process of extraordinary importance in human functioning. It may be defined as the addition of a methyl group (CH3) to a molecule. Methyl groups participate in dozens of chemical reactions in the body and brain and are essential for physical and mental health.”
Though that quote might sound a bit dry, what’s important is that you understand that methylation has everything do with how you act and feel. In other words, methylation determines your personality.
So if you’re undermethylated, you are more likely to be:
-Driven and highly accomplished
-Experiencing obsessive compulsive tendencies
-Struggling with seasonal allergies
And if you’re overmethylated, you’re more likely to be:
-Social and extroverted
-Artistic or musically inclined
-Sensitive to chemicals and food
– Prone to high anxiety
Either of these sound familiar?
Click here to read more about the role that methylation plays in mental health symptoms and to see a more complete list of traits.
So how do you know if you have methylation problems?
Many people with depression (and other mental health issues) have problems with methylation. Research done by Dr. William Wash suggests that 58 percent of people with depression have methylation abnormalities (with 38 percent being undermethylated and 20 percent being overmethylated).
The only way to know your methylation status is to be tested. The simplest way to do this it to have your Whole Blood Histamine (WBH) levels checked. Understanding the effects of methylation status on your mental health is done by integrating information from the Whole Blood Histamine test with other clinical information.
Many doctors are unaware of the effects of methylation on mental health, so it’s best to find a clinician who does this testing regularly. Here’s a link to finding one in your area.
Here’s how knowing your methylation status can personalize your mental health diet
The base of the diet for both under and overmethylators is the elimination diet above.
The suggestions below are variations on that diet to suit your particular biochemical needs based on your methylation status. These variations will likely make the healing mental health diet more helpful because it will be tailored to supporting your unique biochemistry.
What to do if you are undermethylated:
–You should give special priority to getting adequate high quality protein and restrict foods that contain folates (e.g. beans, spinach, asparagus, avocados etc.)
Because you’re undermethylated, one of your main issues is that you have low levels of serotonin (the most important neurotransmitter for mood).
Protein will promote production of serotonin by providing the building blocks of serotonin and other neurotransmitters.
At the same time you need to avoid foods with folate (Vitamin B9) because folate increases serotonin reuptake in the brain, effectively decreasing serotonin concentrations.
Most people who are undermethylated do well on a Paleo diet with an awareness of restricting folates.
What to do if you are overmethylated:
–You will likely benefit from restricting to eating only moderate amounts of protein and eating lots of foods with folate.
Because of your overmethylation status you already have too much serotonin. Eating moderate amounts of protein will restrict the amount of new serotonin being made. Lower levels of serotonin will reduce symptoms.
For your constitution, you need to include foods high in folate because folate acts as a serotonin reuptake promoter (effectively decreases serotonin concentrations in brain), and your mental balance requires lower levels of serotonin.
You will likely do well on a moderate protein diet and even flourish on a vegetarian diet with lots of food with folate.
By the way, it’s pretty rare to hear of a mental health nutrition clinician advocating for a vegetarian diet. But, for overmethylators, it’s just what’s required for optimal brain function.
Do you see how a one-size-fits-all diet (even a really clean and seemingly well balanced one) can get you into trouble?
Learning about the different dietary needs of under and over methylators has made a big difference in my practice. Where I used to suggest a paleo diet to all my clients (and still find it helpful for many people), I have become much more focused on biochemical individuality.
Though we are talking about food in this blog, there are very specific supplements that can be helpful for under and overmethylators. For more information on testing and interpreting Whole Blood Histamine and supportive supplements for under and over methylators, check out this blog.
So what’s next for you?
If you have mental health symptoms or any chronic conditions, have you tried the Paleo diet (or the Whole30)?
If you haven’t, are you ready?
If you have, how were the results?
If they were less than you hoped, maybe it’s time to test your methylation status!
If you need help getting tested and coming up with a plan, feel free to schedule a phone consultation with me.
Feel free to comment or ask questions in the comment section below.
If you like this post and want to hear more information about the “root cause” of depression, sign up for my email list. As a bonus, you’ll get my FREE “Nutrition For Mental Health Guidebook”.
In good (mental) health,
Dr. Josh Friedman has more than 25 years experience in mental health as a client, psychologist, and functional nutrition practitioner. After working in the field for a few years, he realized how many people were still struggling with depression and other mental health issues even after years of therapy and medication. Over time he became increasingly uncomfortable with the limitations of standard psychiatric treatment and knew there had to be a better way. Over the past decade and a half, he has committed himself to learning as much as he could about the root causes of mental health symptoms. To share this information and to help people get unstuck, he started Alternative Mental Health Solution.