How can Holistic Nutrition Support Mental and Emotional Wellbeing?

Lesley Pierce

by Lesley Pierce

The Importance of Holistic Health

Is there really a link between what we eat & drink and how we feel? Can Holistic Nutrition really affect our mental & emotional well-being?

Our answer: “Abso-bloomin-lootely” it can. Here’s how…

We are often presented with the terms PHYSICAL, MENTAL, EMOTIONAL and ENERGETIC, as they are separate parts of us when everything is interconnected. It’s so important to regard the WHOLE of us when wanting to increase our health & well-being. No part of us works in isolation. 

Let us begin with perhaps the most fascinating part of this story, and perhaps one that some of us may not have considered before. When we talk about the purpose of food and the nutrients which comprise our diet, we likely tend to focus on feeding our physical body. Yet, our digestive process begins with the thought, sight, and smell of the food we are about to eat. Every stage of digestion, from chewing through to the secretion of enzymes, is towards breaking those foodstuffs down into their basic building blocks. Simplified, these are amino acids from proteins, monosaccharides from carbohydrates and fatty acids from fats. 

These building blocks are then quite miraculously put together in myriad shapes and sizes to produce our skin, organs, tissues, muscles, blood cells and so on, in essence, to keep replenishing ourselves! 

Our cells are constantly dying off to be replaced with new ones; in fact, in approximately seven years’ time, there will be not one of our current cells (of which we have around 75 trillion!) left.

Another important point to highlight here is to understand that we are also creating hormones, neurotransmitters, endorphins, prostaglandins and ‘molecules of emotion’ from these building blocks…our physical and emotional/mental health is entwined. 

The body/mind connection with Holistic Nutrition

“A feeling sparked in our mind or body will translate as a peptide being released somewhere. [Organs, tissues, skin, muscle and endocrine glands], they all have peptide receptors on them and can access and store emotional information. This means the emotional memory is stored in many places in the body, not just (or even primarily) in the brain.” Candace Pert.

As the connection between ‘food and mood’ starts to become clearer, let’s look at some specific areas:

1. When we are STRESSED.

Stress can, of course, be from an external source, such as money or relationship worries. It can also stem from an internal stress. Examples of internal stresses include dehydration, constipation, the regular intake of stimulants such as caffeinated drinks, alcohol, damaged fats and sugar etc., plus negative thoughts, bottling up our emotions. When we experience chronic stress, we experience ongoing physical symptoms. The most relevant one here is that our ability to think straight is impaired. When stressed, the blood supply to our frontal cortex within the brain is reduced. The blood goes mainly to our limbic brain (Nature’s way of helping us to simply react rather than think, when in an acutely stressful life-threatening situation.) Clearly, we would benefit from learning how to reduce internal stress using a naturopathic, real food diet & lifestyle in order to be able to access our frontal cortex, think straight and be able to make good decisions about our lives with the intention of improving our mental & emotional health.

2. When our BLOOD SUGAR is low. 

When blood sugar crashes, we can feel tired, irritable, depressed and ‘hangry’. Foods that are absorbed extremely quickly into our bloodstream, we call ‘high GI’ (Glycaemic Index) foods, eg. white flour, crisps, white sugar, white rice etc. When we consume high GI foodstuffs, blood sugar rises rapidly but then drops again. This is due to the intelligent actions of our bodies. Refined white sugar, for example, is a toxin to the body. As soon as it ‘hits’ our blood, our body responds magnificently by secreting the hormone insulin, which speedily stores excess sugar away as glycogen in the liver and muscles. Our blood sugar then crashes, and we can feel very ‘hangry’ again. Many people know what it feels like to be at the mercy of their blood sugar as they yo-yo through the day with their blood sugar up and down, up and down. It’s exhausting.

Eating foods that release energy slowly can help keep blood sugar levels steady. Low GI foods include whole foods such as whole grains, nuts and seeds, green vegetables, legumes etc.

Ultimately though, the main way to maintain stable blood sugar is through adequate hydration

We can hydrate using both fluids and foods. Here, at The Nutritional Healing Foundation, we put a huge emphasis on the importance of hydration. We learn how to switch off ‘dehydration alert’ which is an intelligent protective mechanism in the body. We learn about the importance of the best quality water we can drink, when/when not to drink it, what temperature is best, how much to drink and more because as with everything, we need to understand WHAT to do, WHY to do it and HOW to do it, so please do not rush off and simply down too much water without understanding the potential consequences! 

We learn about swollen foods (such as well-cooked, short grain, organic brown rice), soaked foods (such as the correct preparation of nuts and seeds), and water-rich foods (meaning all our beautiful berries, whole fruits & vegetables) and all of these contribute to switching off ‘dehydration alert’ and address the dehydration in the cells of the body. Our blood wants to be approximately 90% water, but when we have thickened blood and keep piling in the high GI foods, it is not easy to regulate our BS! Find more on the Naturopathic Diet here.

3. ‘Happy’ chemicals.

A) Our neurotransmitters are the chemicals that pass messages along our nervous system. They pass the message from one nerve cell to the next through a gap called the synapse. Examples of neurotransmitters are dopamine and serotonin, often described as ‘Our Happy Chemicals!’ Dopamine and serotonin are molecules that send signals throughout the body, and these chemicals affect how we feel. When dopamine is released, we feel a sense of temporary pleasure. While similar to dopamine, serotonin creates a long-lasting feeling of happiness or well-being. They are both involved in many of our body-mind processes, with dopamine notably known for pleasure, motivation and learning, whilst serotonin is associated with mood and sleep. So obviously, we need to be able to manufacture adequate amounts of dopamine and serotonin to have the ability to FEEL GOOD! 

Many of our neurotransmitters are made by the flora within the gut.

We manufacture 90% of serotonin in our gut; therefore, everything we can do to improve gut health will impact our mental and emotional health! There is no quick fix for gut health, as with all cellular health. It really is a ‘Marathon and not a sprint!’ Everything we teach in our courses is about healing at the cellular level. 

Nothing heals in isolation, so once our cells begin to heal, then everything starts to heal! For our cells to heal, they need to be provided with a constant supply of good-quality water and the ability to let go of their waste and cleanse. This will help restore the health and integrity of the cell membranes, and then the nourishment from the foods we eat and the fluids we drink will reach the cellular level more easily!

The gut is an interesting subject because, technically, everything inside our gut is still ‘outside’ us and does not become ‘inside’ us until it has been absorbed across the mucous membranes lining the gut (our internal skin!).  It is within this ‘internal space which is outside us’ that our best friends (our microbiome) live.  Creating the best possible environment within our gut to enable our beneficial flora to thrive is not as simple as just taking some probiotics. As every gardener knows, seeds will not grow on dry, baked soil, and cactus cannot grow in a swamp!

‘Most studies on the human gut focus on the composition of the gut microbiome, variations in gut microbiota with changing diets or medication, the role bacteria play in digestion and immune responses, and regulation of entero-endocrine signalling pathways. The more we discover about the gut microbiome, gut–brain axis (GBA), hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPA), cognitive behaviour and neuropsychiatric disorders, such as autism, depression, and schizophrenia, as reviewed by Dicks et al., the more questions arise concerning the influence that gut bacteria have on the production of prominent neurotransmitters, such as γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA), dopamine (DA), norepinephrine (NE, also called noradrenaline, NAd), serotonin (5-HT), and histamine.’

Dicks L.M.T., Hurn D., Hermanus D. Gut Bacteria and Neuropsychiatric Disorders. Microorganisms. 2021;9:2583. doi: 10.3390/microorganisms9122583. 

The raw ingredients needed to produce our neurotransmitters are amino acids from good quality proteins, along with B vitamins and some extra co-factors, such as vitamin B12, to facilitate the metabolic processes. B12 also benefits the central nervous system, maintaining the health of nerve cells, including those needed for neurotransmitter signalling. When B12 is low, almost every cognitive function can suffer.

B) SAM-e (S-Adenosyl-L-methionine)

SAM-e is made naturally in the body from the amino acid methionine. Again, it can only be produced when the body has the raw ingredients to facilitate the metabolic pathway. It is said to be a natural anti-depressant…another HAPPY chemical. It seems that SAM-e is gaining notoriety and being sold as a supplement; however, we doubt the manmade version will ever be as amazing as making it ourselves!

A review published in CNS & Neurological Disorders Drug Targets found that numerous studies show SAM-e affecting critical components involved in the pathophysiology of major depressive disorder, and several randomised controlled trials have supported that S-adenosylmethionine is superior to placebo and tricyclic antidepressants. Researchers also indicated that recent findings demonstrate SAM-e’s efficacy in non-responsive patients to selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors and serotonin-norepinephrine re uptake inhibitors. N.B. Always remember this is a substance we can naturally make ourselves!!!

C) Endorphins – our pleasure-enhancing, pain-reducing chemicals.

Endorphin comes from the words ‘endogenous’, which means within the body, and ‘morphine’, an opiate pain reliever. Put together that means endorphins are natural pain relievers. They are feel-good chemicals because they can help us feel better and put us in a positive state of mind. Released from two endocrine glands, the hypothalamus and pituitary (though not classed as hormones); they are made from proteins. 

D) Oxytocin and Prostaglandins.

Oxytocin is a hormone secreted from our endocrine glands. Hugging, kissing, cuddling, and sexual intimacy can all trigger oxytocin production.  During the birth of a baby, oxytocin both stimulates the muscles of the uterus to contract and boosts the production of prostaglandins, which also increase uterine contractions. Oxytocin has been shown to decrease stress and anxiety levels and is said to be our LOVE hormone! Made from proteins.

Prostaglandins are often called ‘tissue hormones’ as they are not the hormones produced by our endocrine glands but are produced within the body’s tissues to support the endocrine system. They are responsible for countless processes in the body-mind, including being involved in the production of our feel-good chemicals. The raw ingredients needed for prostaglandin production are; Omega 3 & Omega 6 (in the correct ratio), the minerals magnesium, zinc & selenium, along with the vitamins B3, B6, C & E.

In summary, we can manufacture chemicals within us that produce feelings of happiness. Whether they be classed as hormones or neurotransmitters, endorphins or prostaglandins, the bottom line is that our incredible body-minds know how to make them and many others too. Like any good recipe, the quality of the raw ingredients is key, and the same can be said for producing our own happiness.

In this modern world, when so many of us have become more & more dehydrated, more & more stuck & stagnant on every level, there has never been a greater need to learn how to find the way to the successful and natural production of these chemicals daily. Surely, it once again boils down to living as close to a natural, holistic lifestyle as possible. This includes a diet rich in whole foods, local, seasonal and organic/wild. At the same time, we work towards mitigating excess stress through exercise, meditation, breath work and mindfulness. 

To your great health,

Lesley and all the NHF team.

How can Holistic Nutrition Support Mental and Emotional Wellbeing?

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