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Functional Nutrition Approach to Mental Health

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Functional Nutrition Approach to Mental Health

Mental health struggles are becoming more and more recognized, as well as prevalent. Over 50% of adults will be diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point. Also, it has been estimated that about 1 in 9 people 65 and older have mental health symptoms and cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer's.

While many factors influence one's mental and cognitive health, such as genetic predisposition, life experiences, environment, chronic stress, and other lifestyle factors, nutrition is a significant component and one that has been gaining recognition in the literature.

A functional nutrition approach to mental health recognizes that mental health symptoms can arise from imbalances in the body in conjunction with other factors contributing to its etiology. This comprehensive approach to health recognizes nutrition's role in influencing health, including brain health. 


What is Functional Nutrition?

Functional Nutrition looks at the role of nutrition and lifestyle in modulating and optimizing different processes and systems in the body. Nutrition provides the body with the raw materials it needs to function as a cohesive, synergistic system. When the body doesn't have adequate nutrition, the systems of the body can become compromised and work less efficiently. Stress and other lifestyle factors can also impact the balance of the body's systems, and our mental health can suffer as a result. 

Functional Nutrition is a root-cause approach to a range of health conditions as it addresses restoring underlying imbalances in the body that could contribute to the presenting symptoms. Functional Nutrition relies heavily on laboratory testing to determine imbalances in the body. 

Benefits of Functional Nutrition

The benefits of functional nutrition include restoring health and well-being with a root-cause approach to health. Restoring balance in the body with sufficient nutrition and lifestyle approaches is a healthy and natural way of addressing foundational health. Once the balance is restored in one system, it also profoundly affects the other body's systems. For instance, neurotransmitter concentrations may be out of balance due to inflammation. By addressing the inflammation with nutrition and lifestyle practices, we can therefore impact the neurotransmitters. 

How Diet Affects Mental Health 

The nutrients from the foods we eat directly influence how we feel. This is because nutrition and lifestyle factors can regulate different processes in the body, such as digestion, metabolism, inflammation, hormones, and even mood. Sufficient nutrition is essential to the functioning and synchronicity of the body's systems from a cellular level. When we don't have adequate nutrition, the raw materials needed for many of the body's processes concerning mental health are compromised. 

For instance, an anti-inflammatory, whole foods, nutrient-dense diet has been evidenced to support mental health, specifically when containing omega-3s, polyphenols, and phytonutrients. A diet like this can reduce inflammation, quench oxidative stress, and provide adequate nutrition or material necessary for optimal mental functioning. 

The gut's functioning and microbiome's composition also significantly influence mental health. We rely on the functioning of the gut to effectively digest, absorb, and assimilate our nutrients. The bacteria that comprise our microbiome are also responsible for producing many vitamins, neurotransmitters, and hormones, all vital for our mental health. 

How Nutritional Deficiencies Cause Cause Mental Health Disorders

Integrative medicine acknowledges that mental health disorders have multiple causes, and these causes can vary from person to person. Below is how nutritional deficiencies play a role in mental health disorders according to integrative medicine:

Brain Function 

The brain requires specific nutrients to function properly, and a deficiency in these nutrients can lead to mental health problems. For example, omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain function, and a deficiency in these fats has been linked to depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. 

Mood Regulation

Certain nutrients play a role in regulating mood and emotions. A deficiency in certain nutrients, such as magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and B vitamins, can affect brain function, reduce specific neurotransmitters, and lead to mental health problems.

Energy Levels

Nutritional deficiencies can also affect energy levels and contribute to mental health problems such as fatigue and brain fog. For example, B vitamins are essential for energy production, and a deficiency in these vitamins can lead to fatigue, irritability, and other symptoms.


Nutritional deficiencies can contribute to chronic inflammation, which has been linked to a range of mental health disorders. For example, a diet high in processed foods and low in nutrients can lead to inflammation in the body and brain, contributing to depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems.

Inflammation can arise from compromised digestion, hormonal and gut microbiome imbalance (dysbiosis), metabolism, and immunity. Nutrition and lifestyle are influential factors relative to cognitive function and dysfunction. Amino acid and micronutrient deficiencies can contribute to cognitive dysfunction and oxidative stress in the body. 


Issues with methylation owing to biochemical variation and insufficient nutrition among environmental factors can contribute to increased levels of homocysteine, inflammation, and cognitive dysfunction.

Gut Health 

Dysbiosis has been linked to depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems. Several neurotransmitters, hormones, and vitamins vital for mood health are synthesized in the gut. Over 90% of Serotonin, an important neurotransmitter relative to mood, is synthesized in the gut. GABA, an inhibitory, calming, and uplifting neurotransmitter, is produced in the gut, as is Dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in reward and mood. When the gut microbiome is imbalanced, these neurotransmitters can not be made at adequate levels to keep mental health balanced. 

Functional Medicine Labs to Test for Root Cause of Mental Health Disorders Due to Nutritional Deficiencies

The following functional labs may be recommended to assess the root cause of mental health disorders. Based on the results, practitioners are able to provide therapeutic nutrition to address the root cause. 

Comprehensive Stool Test

Our gut and brain are connected via the gut-brain axis. Food provides energy, nutrients, and neuroactive metabolites, such as neurotransmitters, throughout our bodies. A properly functioning microbiome is crucial to our mental health. This test assesses key markers of gut microbiome imbalance as well as the presence of diversity. This test also measures digestion, absorption, and inflammation markers, which are vital to our mental health.

Neurotransmitter + Micronutrient Panel

The Neurotransmitters + Micronutrients test is one of the most comprehensive tests for assessing neurotransmitter function and levels. This test analyzes the status of neurotransmitter levels needed to make Serotonin, GABA, Dopamine, Acetylcholine, Norepinephrine, Glutamate, their precursors, and their derivatives, allowing the patient and the practitioner to take a more holistic approach to treat imbalances. 

Amino Acids

This test evaluates amino acids in the urine. Amino acids are necessary for neurotransmitter production, among other important bodily processes related to mental well-being, such as nervous system function. Deficiencies can exist from insufficient diet or alterations in metabolism. 


This test measures homocysteine in the blood. Increased homocysteine levels can raise our risk for metabolic health conditions related to inflammation and oxidative stress. Elevated levels of homocysteine 

have been associated with depression.

Integrative Medicine Treatment for Mental Health

Integrative medicine recognizes the importance of addressing all of these potential causes in treating mental health disorders and takes a holistic approach to treatment, incorporating both conventional and alternative therapies.

Conventional Treatment for Mental Health

Conventional treatment for mental health addresses and manages some important symptoms. However, it often neglects underlying contributing causes from a whole-body perspective.

Conventional treatment for mental health often consists of a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Psychotherapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), in addition to Psychodynamic Therapies and Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), may be used depending on the practitioner's skill set and the diagnosis/symptoms presenting. 

Therapy and medication are primarily determined by DSM-V diagnosis, overall functioning, and medical history. 

Functional Medicine Treatment for Mental Well-Being

Nutrition, supplements, and complementary and alternative therapies help support mental and cognitive health.

Nutrition for Mental Health

A whole foods anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense diet has been well-researched for improving mental well-being with its antioxidant properties and gut and inflammation support. Specifically, foods rich in folate and other B vitamins are important since they are cofactors to several neurotransmitters significant to mood and brain function. For instance, Vitamin B6 is a cofactor to GABA, Serotonin, and Dopamine, all important neurotransmitters for brain function. Leafy greens such as kale and spinach are great sources of folate and other important B vitamins for mental health. 

Omega-3 fats are critical for cognition, immune and inflammatory function, and brain development. The brain needs omega-3 fatty acids to function optimally. Sources include seaweed, wild fish, wild-caught salmon, avocado, nuts, and seeds.

Seafood in general, is an excellent source of omega-3s, protein, B12, zinc, and vitamin D. Protein is necessary for amino acid concentrations, which have essential roles in all of the body's functions. 

B12 supports methylation, which is essential to our mental and cognitive health. Variants in some genes can also affect methylation, so foods like seafood may be even more beneficial based on your genetic test results. B12 is also a cofactor to dopamine and Serotonin and is also imperative for nervous system health. 

Zinc is an important coenzyme required for the conversion of 5-HTP to Serotonin. Vitamin D status is critical when helping to support mood as it regulates gut functioning, digestion, immunity, and inflammation. 

Increasing probiotic-rich foods such as kombucha, kimchi, and yogurt, as well as foods that are natural sources of digestive enzymes like pineapple, are also recommended to counteract dysbiosis.

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein that is mainly produced in the central nervous system that has an impact on modulating inflammation, as well as promoting neuroplasticity in the brain, all good things for our mental health. Apples, berries, and grapes are great sources of polyphenols that can support BDNF. 

Oxidative stress from toxicant status and other environmental factors can compromise the health of the body and brain. It is also important to ensure sufficient antioxidant support. Being mindful of exposures, such as alcohol intake, is important as it can contribute to nervous system dysregulation, inflammation, nutritional deficiencies, and dysbiosis. 

Supplements and Herbs For Mental Health Disorders 

Support BDNF with nutrients, including Magnesium, Zinc, B12, flavonoids in plants, and long-chain fatty acids. Consume foods that positively affect BDNF concentrations, such as berries, grapes, olive oil, dark chocolate, and fatty fish. 

Vitamin B6 helps to promote Serotonin and GABA synthesis, as well as regulate sleep cycles, in addition to supporting the body's methylation process. 

The production of nerve growth factor has been supported by the bioactive compounds found in Lions Mane, a medicinal mushroom. Improvement in cognition has been evidenced. 

Curcumin (Turmeric) helps with inflammation via several mechanisms, positively affecting our gut microbiome and cognitive health.

S-adenosyl-l-methionine (SAM-e) is a naturally occurring molecule in the body that assists with methylation, which is imperative for mental health. 

5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is the precursor to Serotonin. It is the intermediate metabolite of the amino acid, Tryptophan and can cross the blood-brain barrier, increasing the production of Serotonin, which supports brain health. 

St. John's Wort has been shown to reduce symptoms in people with mild-to-moderate depression. St. John's wort contains several chemicals, including hypericin, hyperforin, and flavonoids suggesting that the herb acts similar to an SSRI, increasing the availability of Serotonin, Dopamine, and Norepinephrine.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Mental Health

More and more research supports the interconnectedness of mental and physical health, illustrating the need to incorporate more complementary and alternative treatments for mental health. 

Several mind-body practices can help to promote balance between the body and mind, helping to regulate stress and utilize different areas of our brain, all of which can support our mental health.  

Exercise can be beneficial as it releases feel-good endorphins, increases BDNF, and helps reduce stress in the body and mind. 

The importance of sleep is also significantly beneficial to mental health and cognitive function. Among many factors, such as reducing inflammation, sleep helps to promote detoxification and restoration of the body and mind. 

Yoga is a practice that can support our relationship with stress. Yoga has been associated with increasing GABA, heart rate variability (HRV), and vagal tone, positively influencing our mental health. Mood, inflammation, and GI motility have been studied in terms of increased vagal tone, all of which further support mental health, encompassing our physical and brain health. 

Meditation can exert many favorable effects on the body and mind. Meditation has been found to have reductions in the brain regions involved in the stress response, which can help with inflammation. 

Chiropractic treatment has been found to have physiological and psychological benefits for mental health as it addresses many of the processes in the body impeded by stress and inflammation with vagal parasympathetic stimulation. This form of treatment releases neurotrophins such as BDNF, which promote neuroplasticity and anti-inflammatory benefits. 

Acupuncture consists of using thin needles at strategic points of the body to elicit beneficial physiological effects for the body and mind, with noted benefits for our mental health. 



Our physiology affects how we feel and think. Mental health can be described as encompassing our physical and brain health. A functional approach to mental health recognizes the interconnectedness of health from a comprehensive view, addressing the underlying factors that could be contributing to symptoms. Body system imbalances often stem from inflammation, making us more prone to mental health conditions and cognitive decline. Using a root cause and multidimensional approach to mental health can help formulate more efficient treatment plans by addressing the factors that influence one's mental and cognitive health. 

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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