Diet, Exercise and Mental Health:
Or how to manage your emotional wellbeing by promoting your physical health!
Copyright © Jim Byrne and Renata Taylor-Byrne
13th September 2017: Coming soon, our new book…
Here’s the foreword to give you a flavour of the content:
By Dr Jim Byrne
“Total health is the positive and vibrant state of physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual health that emerges from within when all major barriers to healing are overcome”.
Dr Mark Atkinson
Poverty and mental illness
(Draft cover, under development…)
It would be so easy, and so wrong, to begin this foreword with the idea that the dynamic relationships between diet and physical exercise, on the one hand, and both mental health and emotional wellbeing, on the other, can be address as a technical problem, related to understanding the scientific information available on this subject.
There is, after all, no longer any doubt that people who eat an unhealthy diet and fail to get enough physical exercise are in serious danger of developing not just physical diseases, but also mental health problems, and problems of emotional distress.
In his foreword to a recent book on nutrition essentials for mental health, Dr James Lake wrote this:
“In the face of widespread and often inappropriate prescribing of powerful psychotropic medications, accumulating research evidence supports the use of a range of non-pharmacological approaches for the prevention and treatment of depressed mood, anxiety, dementia, substance abuse, and other common mental health problems. Diet, exercise, and stress management fall under the broad heading of ‘lifestyle’ changes and, among these, diet is certainly the most important.” (Page xi of Korn, 2016).
What Dr Lake fails to say is this: We now know that drugs for depression and anxiety are no better than placebos; and that changes of diet offer a much better chance of helping a counselling client to regain positive mood and buoyant emotions. We know this because of the work of Dr Abram Hoffer, a Canadian psychiatrist who was one of the first to draw attention to the ways in which nutrient deficiencies made us emotionally unwell and potentially psychotic. (See also Part 4 of this book, below, which looks at the most recent research on this subject).
Diet and stress affect the central nervous system via the guts, and via the bacteria that live and work in our guts (the ‘microbiota’): (Enders, 2015, page 3). Diet and exercise approaches can be used to reduce and control stress, and to improve the health of the microbiota, which directly affects mood and emotions, like anxiety, depression and rageful anger.
But because much of our modern food is low in nutritional content, and because very few people know what they would need to eat, on a daily basis, to achieve a ‘balanced diet’, Korn and Lake advocate the use of high-potency nutritional supplements; but also foods high in the B vitamins, which includes leafy green vegetables, and whole grains (like gluten-free oats and brown rice). (Beware of gluten which can cause inflammation, and a leaky gut, which negatively affects mental health!)
Dr Lake ends by saying: “Optimal nutrition and the strategic uses of supplements should be included as a necessary and central component of integrative treatment addressing depressed mood, anxiety, bipolar disorder, substance abuse, attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia, cognitive decline, and dementia…” (Pages xiii-xiv).
This approach is very much in line with the emerging field of nutritional mental health approaches, which use improved diet and nutritional supplements to reduce inflammation, and to eliminate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The Enlightenment philosopher, Rene Descartes, was wrong to argue that body and mind are separate, and connected via the pineal gland. Much modern scientific research, dating back to the 1970’s, suggest that the body-brain-mind is a constant conversation, via biochemical substances called neuropeptides, and “…these neuropeptides are produced not only in response to emotions but also to the food we eat, the way we breathe, and even the way we move and hold our body”. (Atkinson 2007, page 17).
And these neuropeptides carry signals from the guts to the brain-mind to determine mood, emotions and behaviours.
Who can afford to live well?
However, there is a serious problem with making use of this information. As I said in opening this foreword, it would be wrong to overlook the fact that a healthy diet and adequate supplementation involves considerable cost. And this is a big issue in the ‘highly successful capitalist economies’ of the UK and the USA at the moment, because substantial sections of our populations are unable to afford a decent standard of living, including adequate amounts of nourishing foods.
For example: “One in eight workers (in the UK) are skipping meals to make ends meet because their wages have lagged behind inflation for a decade, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) claims”. (From ‘The I’ newspaper, Page 8, Thurs 7th September 2017).
Furthermore, “Almost half (of employed workers) are worried about affording basic expenses such as food, transport and energy…”.
And, quite clearly, the problem of poverty-driven poor health is much worse among the unemployed, the sick, the pensioners, and the disabled.
So, almost half of the working population in the UK is unable to afford the kind of diet and supplementation regime we will be recommending in this book. This is a scandal, which arose to a significant degree because of the promotion of neoliberal economic policies (or ‘monetarism’) by the Thatcher and Reagan governments in the 1980’s, which promoted greater inequality, the deregulation of markets, and the marginalization of working class power bases like the trades union movement.
Diet and supplementation are strongly affected by the ability to buy the right kinds of goods and services. And the ability to buy those goods and services are clearly dependent upon the ability to earn a living wage. And the ability to earn a living wage clearly depends upon having an independent powerbase for working class people to negotiate with their employers.
The downward spiral in mental health on both sides of the Atlantic, and elsewhere, is clearly linked to, and affected by, the neoliberal economic policies pursued by British and American governments. And this book cannot directly affect those policies.
Unless and until we get governments on both sides of the Atlantic who promote greater equality, and viable living standards, we cannot look forward to any significant improvements in mental health.
Multiple causes of emotional distress and mental health problems
It is also important to recognise that there are several obvious causes of emotional disturbance and mental health problems, and not just poor diet and lack of physical exercise. The main causes seem to include:
- Stress and trauma
- Suboptimal diet (derived from nutritional epidemiology studies)
- Sedentary behaviour (so exercise!)
- Obesity (which is ‘an inflammatory state’)
- Gut health! (Which can benefit from both nutrients and friendly bacteria, like lactobacillus supplements)
- And perhaps other sources…
Although improved diet and adequate exercise can have an effect upon stress levels, this is unrealistic in relation to psychological trauma. Psychological trauma from past relationships can only realistically, or effectively, be tackled by talk therapy, especially therapies like Affect Regulation therapy and Attachment therapy, and more modern forms of psychoanalysis. So we are not talking about replacing talk therapies with dietary and exercise approaches, but rather of adding diet and exercise interventions to the toolkit of counsellors, psychotherapists and counselling psychologists.
What a client comes to see me, I recognize that different pathways may emerge:
- It may be that talk therapy, like CBT and TA – which mainly involves left-brain to left-brain communication, using language and concepts, about current realities – will prove to be sufficient.
- Or, it may be that this kind of talk therapy will be necessary, but not sufficient. In some cases it will be the non-verbal, emotional, right-brain to right-brain communication that helps to build a potent relationship with the client, and help them to develop a secure attachment style, and to learn how to regulate their emotions (or ‘affects’) more successfully.
- Or, it may be that those two processes – the left-brain and the right-brain communications – may be necessary, but not sufficient. In addition, I might have to review the client’s approach to diet and nutrition; and/or their level of physical fitness, related to exercise and sedentary activity. Or some other aspects of their lifestyle.
But why, you might wonder, have you never heard of this before? According to Dr Giulia Enders (2015), this understanding of the link between the guts, on the one hand, and the brain-mind-emotions on the other, is a brand new, but rapidly growing field of scientific research. And there is also some exciting new research on the subject of the impact of physical exercise upon the body-brain-mind and emotions.
Political integrity and social policy
Politics is also part of the current problem. Assuming we get decent governments in the UK and the US, in the next few years, and incomes increase, there is still the problem that junk food has been promoted as desirable through the ‘black magic’ of food technologists, backed up by huge marketing budgets, which have not be adequately supervised by democratic governments. And junk food also aims to outsell healthy food by ‘selling on price’.
What hope is there that an ill-informed individual, with limited financial resources, will walk past a cheap burger bar, or low-cost chicken joint – where they can get a ‘light meal’ for between GBP £1.00 and £2.00 (or $1.50 to $3.00 US) – and on into the market area, where they can buy salad vegetables to take home, chop up, and eat raw; or vegetables and fruit to cook? (The ‘devil’, it seems, has all the best tunes, and all the best ‘mouth-feel’ effects).
Again, we need government intervention in this area. Food ‘technologists’ (or food polluters and degraders, to give them a more accurate, descriptive label) must be named and shamed. Government campaigns against junk food, and pre-packaged, processed foods, and in favour of healthy diets, must be initiated and promoted vigorously, if the physical and mental health of our nations are to be improved.
Getting the message out there
Then there is the problem of promoting public awareness through non-governmental channels. According to Brain Tracy, an American business coach, 80% of all the best books are bought by 20% of the population, and therefore, most of the people who need to read this book will never buy it. Therefore, we have to hope that it will be bought by opinion-shapers in the worlds of health promotion, politics, and the counselling psychology profession.
Counsellors and psychotherapists should take particular note of the fact that their clients can have apparent psychological problems – including anger, anxiety and depression – which are actually coming from a disrupted ‘microbiome’ (such as some form of disbiosis [or from too much caffeine, alcohol and or sugar!]) and not from psychological stress as such. Or, rather, (1) sometimes the problems will be coming from the client’s environmental stressors, (2) sometimes from the client’s (learned) inability to manage their affects (or emotions), and (3) sometimes from the client’s guts, as a result of poor diet and inadequate supplementation. Or from sedentary lifestyle, causing a build-up of lymph in the system; a build-up of stress hormones which are not being removed by physical activity; and a lack of release of endorphins, which depend upon physical activity.
In this book, counsellors, lifestyle coaches, health coaches and others will find a good grounding in the theoretical understanding of the links between the body-brain-mind-environment in terms of diet, exercise and supplementation; and the specific links to problems of anger, anxiety and depression; plus guidelines on how to help individuals with those problems of anger, anxiety and depression, using specific dietary and exercise guidelines.
Some will be surprised to learn that eighty percent of the serotonin in our bodies is manufactured in our guts; that our guts are in constant communication with our brains; and that research shows that much (though not all) emotional distress and mental health problems originate in the guts. We need to develop a holistic approach to helping people to feel better by promoting better physical health. And physical health can also be improved by talk therapy for emotional problems. It’s very much a two-way street! We hope you enjoy exploring it.
Dr Jim Byrne, Hebden Bridge, September 2017
To see our current list of published paperbacks, please go to Paperback Books.***
 Atkinson, M. (2007) The Mind Body Bible: Your personalised prescription for total health. London: Piatkus Books.
 Korn, L. (2016). Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health: A complete guide to the food-mood connection. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Summary: “This book is geared toward clinicians. It presents practical information on the complex interactions between the food one eats and how they feel, think, and interface with the world around them. It seeks to provide the information clinicians need to provide nutritional counselling that will improve their clients’ mental health and mood”.
 McGovern, C. (2017) B-Calmed. (An article on stress, anxiety and vitamins). What Doctors Don’t Tell You, July 2017, pages 28-34. And:
Hoffer, A. (1970) Pellagra and Schizophrenia. Psychosomatics, Volume 11, Issue 5, Pages 522-525. Available online: http://www.psychosomaticsjournal.com/article/S0033-3182(70)71623-X/pdf
 Kaplan, B.J., Julia J. Rucklidge, Amy Romijn, and Kevin McLeod (2015) ‘The Emerging Field of Nutritional Mental Health: Inflammation, the Microbiome, Oxidative Stress, and Mitochondrial Function’. Clinical Psychological Science, Volume: 3 issue: 6, Pages 964-980.
 Morris, N. (2017) ‘One in eight skips meals to pay bills’. The i newspaper, Thursday 7th September 2017. Page 8.
 Enders, G. (2015) Gut: The inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ. London: Scribe Publications. Pages 2-3.