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Eat well for your mental health


November 2015

Food and mental health. The two go hand in hand. Food is meant to not only nourish the body, but it should be enjoyed. However, unhealthy eating habits can have devastating effects for those dealing with mental health issues, which is why proper nutrition is so important.

"If youíre clinically diagnosed with depression or anxiety, eating healthy can help improve those things," says registered dietician Tricia Helwig.

Helwig works at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc and is in charge of the child and adolescent programs. She predominately deals with children who suffer from depression and anxiety or have obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. She says most of the children who come through her program donít have very good schedules.

"Theyíre not eating regular family meals, so they tend to be eating a lot more of whatís classified as Ďjunk food.í Because their diet is suffering, theyíre not getting the well rounded, balanced nutrition their bodies need," say Helwig.

Protein, for example, is essential for providing amino acids, the building blocks for neurotransmitters, which create a sense of happiness in people.

"If you donít have certain neurotransmitters present, or if theyíre in low levels from certain types of food, that exacerbates depressive moods," Helwig adds.

Other important nutrients that play a key role in proper mental health include magnesium, zinc, vitamin D, selenium, omega 3-fatty acids and appropriate carbohydrates such as whole grains, beans and fresh fruit.

With so many processed foods being consumed on a daily basis and replacing fresh foods, itís important that people are aware of the potential dangers and impacts that things like food dyes and preservatives can have on mental health, especially when it comes to mood regulation.

"Families should be mindful of the types of food theyíre consuming, should they contain food dyes. They should try avoiding those foods for a few days to see if it helps regulate mood," says Helwig.

"We have taken food dyes out of most of our food products here," says Kari Johnson, lead dietician at Rogers Memorial Hospital.

She admits that ingesting food dyes in small amounts is safe and normal; however, she stresses that moderation is the key and people need to be aware of how much their bodies can tolerate. "We tell people that certain types of foods are a sometimes thing, not an everyday thing," says Johnson.

Both Johnson and Helwig, work with families on fixed budgets and admit they would rather see them eat certain types of foods than no food at all. Their goal is to make sure theyíre teaching people the importance of introducing fresh, healthy food into their diets and the key role that this plays in staying both physically and mentally healthy.

Genetic Swabs Testing

Thereís a relatively new tool giving doctors a unique look at how patients suffering from mental illness process medications. Itís called pharmacogenomics, which involves swabbing the cheek and then having the sample analyzed.

"I can find the patientsí genetics, their genomes, and find out based on how their liver is metabolizing pills which medications available they might better tolerate," says Milwaukee-based psychiatrist Dr. James Winston.

Dr. Mara Pheister, a psychiatrist with the Medical College of Wisconsin, has used this test on a handful of patients within the last few years. She says the test is perfect for those who donít respond to normal drug treatment or suffer severe side effects from previously tried medications.

"The only patient Iím going to do a swab on is someone who I have a good reason to, based on their treatment history. It can be useful, but you really have to weigh your options to see if this is actually going to change the treatment outcome," says Pheister.

Magnetic Therapy

In 2008, the FDA approved a treatment known as repetitive transcrainial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) for those suffering from major depression. Since that time, itís become a viable option for doctors when treating those who arenít responding to traditional medication or therapy.

Dr. Dami Salami is a psychiatrist at the Medical College of Wisconsin and has been using this treatment on patients for several years now.

"Essentially, itís using a small, handheld magnetic device to induce electromagnetic current in the brain cells," says Salami.

The 20 to 30 sessions, which each take about 20 minutes over a four-to six-week period, target the front, left side of the brain, which regulates happiness.

According to Salami, before MCW rolled out the procedure in clinical practice, a research study showed an 80 percent response rate with the treatment, compared with about a 50 percent rate with medications and therapy.

"The response was quite encouraging and impressive," says Salami. He also says the treatment essentially has fewer potential risks or side effects.


This story ran in the November 2015 issue of: