March 4, 2019

Ask a Psychotherapist: Does Diet Impact Mental Health?

HEADER Whole30 Mental Health

By Integrative Psychotherapist and Whole30 Certified Coach Amanda Morris PsyD. If you are in crisis, don’t wait to get help, and don’t attempt to use nutrition as a first line of treatment. Signs of crisis include thoughts of harming yourself or someone else, at risk of being unable to care for yourself, or inability to function in the community or workplace. If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Life Line, which also supports the Veteran’s Crisis Line. Call 1-800-273-8255 or 911, or text 741-741. You can also visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness for resources on how to get help. Discuss any dietary programs or treatment options with your doctor and therapist before beginning.

Defining Mental Health

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It influences how we think, feel, and behave. It also determines how we cope with stress, relate to others, and make choices. Although we may think of mental health in terms of having a mental health diagnosis such as depression, mental health issues impact everyone. Could you benefit from a more regulated and uplifted mood? If you didn’t nod your head in agreement with that question, how about this one: Would you be happier if someone in your home or office were to experience a more regulated and uplifted mood? Now I have your attention. If you experience a dip in your mental health, your thinking, mood, and behavior could be negatively impacted. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, in America, 43.8 million adults experience mental illness in a given year. One-half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14; three-quarters by the age of 24. Anxiety and depression are among the most common disorders experienced.

Factors that Contribute to Your Mental Health

Many factors contribute to your mental health, and it’s beneficial for all of us to to maximize our resources in order to reach our full potential. These factors include:

  • Biological factors, such as genes or brain chemistry
  • Life experiences, such as trauma or abuse
  • Family history of mental health problems
  • Nutrition and lifestyle

Yes, one of the most important contributors and crucial components to your mental health is nutrition and lifestyle! Here are some science-y factors that play into your mind, your mood, and the emotions you experience on any given day. (Stay with her here, because when you understand the why, you are more likely to buy into behavior change!)

Mental Health and Your Gut

Your mental health starts in your gut, and may in part be the product of the composition of your microbiome. It is estimated that 50% of dopamine and 95% of the body’s serotonin is found in the GI tract. In a healthy gut, these neurotransmitters are sent to the brain via the vagus nerve, helping to lift and regulate your mood. But factors like inflammation can impact your body’s ability to produce these neurotransmitters.

Mental Health and Inflammation

Inflammation plays a major role in many chronic medical illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and obesity. Chronic inflammation also negatively impacts mental health, contributing to depression and anxiety. When the immune system is under attack from physical injury, infections, stress, nutritional deficiencies, or toxins, it generates an inflammatory response. If the inflammatory response within the body is turned on all of the time (chronic) due to these factors, cell immune secretions remain turned on all of the time. The effects of chronic inflammation can cause a diverse array of physical and psychological symptoms. When this happens, it is referred to as “sickness behavior.” Scientists have demonstrated how the symptoms of sickness behavior mirror those of depression. People who experience major depression have increased levels of inflammatory markers that negatively affect neurotransmitter function.

Mental Health and Amino Acids

Amino acids are the building blocks of the body and necessary for brain functioning. Many neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin, are made from amino acids or require amino acids as precursors to function. If there is a lack of amino acids, you won’t produce enough neurotransmitters, which has been associated with low mood and aggression. Essential amino acids cannot be produced by your body and must be obtained through diet; yet another way lack of nutrition or poor absorption can impact your mental health.

Mental Health and Stress

Chronic stress is correlated with the cycle of craving processed foods, craving sugar, caffeine use, and overeating. Foods like refined sugars also trigger these inflammatory responses in the body. Stress contributes to an increase of symptoms related to mood, irritability, anxiety, and depression.

The Good News

Understanding the connection between mental health and inflammation gives us more treatment options than previously utilized. By adding well-researched lifestyle and nutritional interventions that are known to decrease inflammation and improve mood (like exercise, stress reduction, and nutrition), we can provide clients with more tools to prevent and combat mental health issues. In my clinical experience, without addressing the core of underlying symptoms, the improvements from talk therapy and drug therapy may be limited.

Whole30 and Mental Health

As Whole30’ers, we know that one of the Whole30 Good Food Standards includes eating foods that support immune function and minimize inflammation. Essential nutrients for mental health include healthy fats, proteins, and vitamins and minerals which are supported nicely by the Whole30 program. The most common nutritional deficiencies seen in clients with mental disorders are of omega–3 fatty acids, B-vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that are precursors to the neurotransmitters discussed above. Eliminating inflammatory foods and increasing anti-inflammatory foods can be beneficial. Some examples of Whole30 compatible foods that support mental health are bone broth, raw almonds, wild salmon or other fatty fish, coconut, sweet potatoes, avocado, beets, arugula and other bitter greens, sauerkraut and fermented foods, and green and black tea. In my clinical practice, I operate from the mindset that the fastest way to improve your life is by changing the food you put into your body. You cannot decrease stress and improve your mental health without giving thought to what you eat. I provide my clients with a a foundation of nutrition, self-empowerment, and a mind-body balance. Nutrition is not a replacement for psychotherapy; however, I believe it is a necessary component of overall treatment. When one’s mind and body is regulated as intended, it allows for clarity and proper identification of a problem. Treatment goals can then be properly identified, and the client is more likely to meet their goals approaching it from a place of wellness versus from a place of dysregulation and distress.

An Integrated Approach to Mental Health Treatment

By treating the mind and body, I integrate the most effective combination of treatments, including nutrition, pharmaceutical grade supplements, non-pharmaceutical interventions, referral for psychotropic medication, and cognitive-behavioral therapies. An integrative approach to mental therapy should analyze the potential causes for the presented symptoms and integrate the most effective combination of treatments. We must start addressing nutrition if we want optimal mental health. Throughout my years in practice, I have found that if my clients do not have a stable baseline of health and wellness, they are constantly operating from an unstable foundation. When my clients incorporate positive nutrition awareness into their lives, many clients report they have more control of their emotions and experience a more regulated mood as a result of stable blood sugar. They also feel a sense of control and organization from planning their meals and structuring their days. I often witness enhanced connection with couples who benefit from planning and preparing meals together. Other common results include improved focus, reported decrease in medical symptoms like headaches, improved sleep, and improved confidence. If you are interested in working with me to address your physical and mental health through coaching please connect with me at my website: I specialize in emotional and physical health, holistic living and integrative wellness as a foundation for an optimized life. I help you show up for yourself so that you can show up for your family, friends, career and life.

Dr. Amanda Morris is a licensed mental health clinician and certified health & wellness coach. She specializes in emotional and physical health, holistic living, and integrative wellness as a foundation for an optimized life. She provides guidance in whole food nutrition, education on high quality research based nutritional supplements to accelerate optimal health & wellness, and strength based positive coaching. She offer group and individual services to best serve your unique need. Click here to learn more about Dr. Morris.


  • Nutritional Essentials for Mental Health by Leslie Korn
  • A Mind of Your Own by Kelly Brogan, MD