“It is amazing how often a mental diagnosis such as bipolar turns out to actually be a food sensitivity that causes immense fluctuations in mood!” So says Heather Schrock, a Certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner at Portland’s Amenda Clinic.
Schrock specializes in the effects of diet on emotions and well-being – and she plans to share her expertise in two upcoming classes this summer (see below for details).
Want a taste? I caught up with Schrock by email and asked her some questions.
Jenny Westberg: Many people get their mental health care from conventional psychiatrists who believe the problem is in the brain, and should be treated with medicines that target the brain. Should doctors be looking at digestive organs too – and why or why not?
Heather Schrock: I do think that the new research supporting the connection between the gut and the brain should not be ignored by conventional psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. There is even a relatively new field of study called Neurogastroenterology, and doctors like Michael Gershon, MD and David Perlmutter, MD are leading the way in such research to show that this connection is irrefutable. The enteric nervous system located in the gut, also called the second brain by some, is also a relatively new discovery.
I am not here to say that all mental illness is caused by nutritional factors. I am here to be witness to the fact that nutritional factors may be a piece of someone’s mental health picture.” – Heather Schrock
So much more research is needed to illuminate all the nuances of its role in mental health. Digestive organs and the microbiome within them are clearly affecting and being affected by brain activity via the vagus nerve, other afferent nerves (nerves that send messages to the brain), chemical messages being sent by the microbiome itself and neurotransmitters produced IN THE GUT, to name just a few reasons to look at the digestive system more closely in relation to mental health. The first brain – the one in our head – is still of course a key part of the picture, but the approaches to mental health being exclusively neurotransmitter-targeting psycho-pharmaceuticals should, in my humble opinion, be reevaluated by all mental health professionals.
JW: What is an example of how a change in diet made a noticeable, positive difference in a person’s mental health?
HS: Every person is a bio-individual, so the examples I can give are not to be taken as the answer for everyone or as a treatment for any diagnosis. That said, one of the most common underlying causes of some mental health issues such as anxiety and depression can be food allergies and sensitivities. There are several reasons for this connection, which I could spend an hour talking about all by itself (in fact I do have a one hour presentation on this very subject!).
Without proper digestion, you are unable to access all the invaluable nutrients that support great overall health and, of course, mental health!” – Heather Schrock
I have worked with several clients whom I have suggested getting tested for these sensitivities and then removing the foods that come up positive. It is amazing how often a mental diagnosis such as bipolar turns out to actually be a food sensitivity that causes immense fluctuations in mood! Simply removing the guilty food, or foods, completely resolves the issue for some.
JW: To get real benefit from dietary changes, do you have to have a lot of discipline, be hungry most of the time, pay more money for organic groceries, and never eat your favorite foods again?
HS: It all depends on how deep the nutritional connection is and what the client is ready for. I am not here to say that all mental illness is caused by nutritional factors. I am here to be witness to the fact that nutritional factors may be a piece of someone’s mental health picture. There are always other factors to consider such as genetics, trauma, brain injury, and flow of chi just to name a few. So the depth of nutritional change that needs to be made is completely on a case-by-case basis and is partially led by the client themselves and what they are ready for.
Any of these diets could also cause mental health issues too, if they are executed inappropriately or are not the best type of diet for that person’s individual nutritional needs.” – Heather Schrock
If the stress of strict dietary changes outweighs the benefits, I have to consider that and move at the client’s pace. However, I am happy to share that when these issues are addressed, sometimes healing can happen that can allow for folks to eat some of their favorite foods again if it was even necessary to remove them in the first place. Although most people have a new perspective on food and new favorite foods come out of the process where the old favorite foods may taste less appealing to them!
JW: Are there mental health benefits to any of the popular diets, such as paleo, low-carb, vegan, gluten-free?
HS: These types of diets can be useful templates to start with for any client depending on their particular issues. If, for example, there is a blood sugar imbalance that could be affecting their mental health, a low carb, low glycemic or Paleo diet could be very useful, especially since there are so many resources out there to support these diets.
Drink at least half your body weight in ounces (up to 100 ounces) per day. There is no question that water is an important factor in cellular health.” – Heather Schrock
If however, food sensitivities are an issue, getting tested and using those results would be more appropriate. Any of these diets could also cause mental health issues too, if they are executed inappropriately or are not the best type of diet for that person’s individual nutritional needs. It would be dangerous to say that any of these diets would be good for mental health as a general rule because it would not take into consideration each person’s bio-individuality.
JW: What are three easy changes a person could make today to get started on better eating for mental health?
HS: Even though there is no one diet out there that could possibly account for every mental health issue taking the bio-individual factors into account, I could definitely recommend a few things that certainly couldn’t hurt on the path to better mental wellness.
- Remove all fake foods from your diet. This may be easier for some than others, but if you remove fake foods, that is foods that have been heavily processed and preserved with unnatural or harmful ingredients, you will definitely be removing something that does not in any way contribute to good health.
- Drink at least half your body weight in ounces (up to 100 ounces) of water per day. There is no question that water is an important factor in cellular health and without good cellular health, you are looking at multiple potential breakdowns in your physical and mental health.
- Eat in a relaxed state. Digestion starts in the brain and if you are not preparing your body for the meal to come by switching your body to it’s “rest and digest” (parasympathetic) state, you will not be able to digest your food properly. Without proper digestion, you are unable to access all the invaluable nutrients that support great overall health and, of course, mental health! So take a few breaths before that first bite and try not to eat on the go or when you are overly stressed.
Want more? Check out these upcoming classes with Heather!
LIFTING OUR SPIRIT WITH NUTRITION
WHEN: Sunday June 28th
TIME: 9am – 5pm
WHERE: Wellspring School of Healing Arts
ADDRESS: 2440 NE MLK Jr Blvd, Suite 202, Portland, OR
“Lifting Our Spirit with Nutrition” will explore the world of nutrition and mental health and its many and sometimes surprising connections. This class will cover some basic anatomy and physiology of the gut and the brain to help you understand the connection between what we eat, what we don’t eat, and how it affects our emotions.
- Click HERE for more information or to register.
NUTRITION AND MENTAL HEALTH 3 PART SERIES
WHEN: Sundays, August 9th – 23rd
TIME: 11am – 1pm
WHERE: Unfold Yoga Studios
ADDRESS: 3249 SE Division, Portland, OR
Mental health is a part of our whole health as a human being, and now we are starting to uncover the many and various connections between the mind, body and spirit, including nutrition that can help or harm our whole selves.
- Click HERE for more information or to register.