Depression is a pervasive health issue today. According to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 10 American adults report some form of depression.1 Eleven percent of the US population over the age of 12 is on antidepressant medication.2Just two years ago, Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, discussed how a shocking 46 percent of Americans fit a diagnosis for one form of mental illness or another.3 This problem is not limited to the United States, however.In fact, according to a recent study published in The Lancet,4 mental disorders and substance abuse combined were the leading cause of non-fatal illness worldwide in 2010, contributing nearly 23 percent of the total global disease burden!Data for the study was obtained from the 2010 Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study,5 which includes data from 187 countries. Depressive disorders were the most common, followed by anxiety disorders, drug use disorders, and schizophrenia.
Mental Health Problems on the Rise Across the Globe
The analysis6 also found that mental disorders and substance use disorders were the fifth leading cause of death and disease worldwide. Only China, North Korea, Japan and Nigeria had a statistically lower burden of death and disease from mental disorders and substance abuse. As reported in the featured article:7“The authors say that this difference in non-fatal illness compared with the cause of death and disease is supported by the fact that mental and substance use disorders caused a low death rate in 2010 at 232,000, relative to the overall illness they caused.”In all, mental and substance use disorders were responsible for higher global death and illness rates than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, diabetes, and car accidents. Females over the age of 14 had a higher risk of death and disease from mental disorders compared to males.Males, on the other hand, had a higher risk of death and disease from drug and alcohol dependence across all age groups. According to the authors:8“Despite the apparently small contribution of years of life lost to premature mortality—with deaths in people with mental disorders coded to the physical cause of death and suicide coded to the category of injuries under self-harm—our findings show the striking and growing challenge that these disorders pose for health systems in developed and developing regions.In view of the magnitude of their contribution, improvement in population health is only possible if countries make the prevention and treatment of mental and substance use disorders a public health priority.”This overall trend of rising mental disorders and drug abuse can also be seen in a 2010 US government survey9 in which 1 in 10 American children was found to have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—a 22 percent increase from 2003.A whopping 48.4 million prescriptions for ADHD stimulants were written in 2011 in the US,10 a 39 percent jump from 2007. Meanwhile, emergency room visits due to adverse reactions to such drugs rose by more than 400 percent between 2005 and 2011.
What’s Causing This Rise in Worldwide Mental Health Disturbances?
While I’m sure there are many contributing causes, from impoverished circumstances and poor health to poorly managed day-to-day stress and high-tension due to regional wars and strife just to name a few, I also think it’s important to consider massive recent shifts in food choices throughout the world.Countries across the globe have shifted to far more industrialized processed and devitalized foods that rely heavily on the use of genetically engineered corn and soy. This denatured Western diet has spread its pernicious influence into the developing world as well.I simply cannot overstate the importance of your food choices when it comes to your mental health. In a very real sense, you have TWO brains—one in your head, and one in your gut—both of which are created from the same tissue during fetal development.These two systems are connected via the vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve that runs from your brain stem down to your abdomen. It is now well established that the vagus nerve is the primary route your gut bacteria use to transmit information to your brain.Maintaining optimal gut health is therefore paramount when trying to address your mental state. In this regard, the modern “Western” diet has several things working against it:
- Genetically modified foods can significantly alter your gut flora, thereby promoting pathogens while decimating the beneficial microbes necessary for optimal mental and physical health
- Glyphosate—the most widely used herbicide on food crops in the world with nearly ONE BILLION pounds applied every year—has been shown to cause both nutritional deficiencies, especially minerals (which are critical for brain function), and systemic toxicity.According to the researchers, glyphosate is possibly the most important factor in the development of multiple chronic diseases and conditions, and this includes mental health disorders such as depression. Dr. Don Huber believes it is far more toxic than DDT
- High-fructose diets also feed pathogens in your gut, allowing them to overtake beneficial bacteria. Furthermore, sugar suppresses activity of a key growth hormone in your brain called BDNF. BDNF levels are critically low in both depression and schizophrenia.Sugar consumption also triggers a cascade of chemical reactions in your body that promote chronic inflammation. In the long term, inflammation disrupts the normal functioning of your immune system, and wreaks havoc on your brain. Last but not least, sugar (particularly fructose) and grains contribute to insulin and leptin resistance and impaired signaling, which also play a significant role in your mental health
- Artificial food ingredients, the artificial sweetener aspartame in particular, can wreak havoc with your brain function. Both depression and panic attacks are indeed known potential side effects of aspartame consumption
The Gut-Brain Connection Will Profoundly Influence Your Mental Health
The impact of your microflora on your brain function was recently reconfirmed by UCLA researchers who, in a proof-of-concept study,11 found that probiotics (beneficial bacteria) indeed altered the brain function in the participants. As reported by UCLA:12“Researchers have known that the brain sends signals to your gut, which is why stress and other emotions can contribute to gastrointestinal symptoms. This study shows what has been suspected but until now had been proved only in animal studies: that signals travel the opposite way as well. ‘Time and time again, we hear from patients that they never felt depressed or anxious until they started experiencing problems with their gut,’ [Dr. Kirsten] Tillisch said. ‘Our study shows that the gut–brain connection is a two-way street.’“Similarly, as explained by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, a medical doctor with a postgraduate degree in neurology, toxicity in your gut can flow throughout your body and into your brain, where it can cause symptoms of autism, ADHD, depression, schizophrenia and a whole host of other mental and behavioral disorders. With this in mind, it should be crystal clear that nourishing your gut flora is extremely important from infancy into old age. To do so, I recommend the following strategies:
- Avoid processed, refined foods in your diet.
- Eat traditionally fermented, unpasteurized foods: Fermented foods are the best route to optimal digestive health, as long as you eat the traditionally made, unpasteurized versions. Some of the beneficial bacteria found in fermented foods are also excellent chelators of heavy metals and pesticides, which will also have a beneficial health effect by reducing your toxic load. Healthy choices include:
- Fermented vegetables
- Lassi (an Indian yoghurt drink, traditionally enjoyed before dinner)
- Fermented milk, such as kefir
- Natto (fermented soy)Ideally, you want to eat a variety of fermented foods to maximize the variety of bacteria you’re consuming. Fermented vegetables, which are one of my new passions, are an excellent way to supply beneficial bacteria back into our gut. And, unlike some other fermented foods, they tend to be palatable, if not downright delicious, to most people.As an added bonus, they can also a great source of vitamin K2 if you ferment your own using the proper starter culture. We tested samples of high-quality fermented organic vegetables made a specific starter culture, and a typical serving (about two to three ounces) contained not only 10 trillion beneficial bacteria, it also had 500 mcg of vitamin K2, which we now know is a vital co-nutrient to both vitamin D and calcium. Most high-quality probiotic supplements will only supply you with a fraction of the beneficial bacteria found in such homemade fermented veggies, so it’s your most economical route to optimal gut health as well.