Eric Bakker N.D.May 14, 2022

Everything you eat and drink will affect your mood, behaviour, and many aspects of your brain function. If you are hungry, you may feel irritable and restless, whereas a person who has just eaten a meal, particularly a meal containing high grade protein, may feel calm and much more satisfied.


Nutrition And The Mind

I have often thought about writing about how diet and nutrition affects the mind, and about my experiences in the clinic over the years treating patients with all manner of mental and emotional health issues. Perhaps you have depression, or suffer from stress, anxiety or have aggressive tendencies. What about you failing memory, or do you get confused from time to time?  Don’t worry, you are not alone, all of these are common in society and are an inevitable part of the lives of many of us.

In this article I’ll be focusing on the brain and on neurotransmitters (hormones) that help to control it. There are the usual various hints and tips, various important points to bear in mind when it comes to nutrition, lifestyle and your mind.

Ageing Affects The Brain

When you are twenty years of age, you generally have little concern for your mental or emotional health. But one day this all changes, you wake up and discover you have turned 40, and you may notice that as you age into your 50’s, 60’s and 70’s that you may not be “the sharpest tool in the shed”, your short term memory has seen better days, your attention span, focus and concentration are starting to slip, and you may even be a little slow or unsteady on your feet. Genetics do play a role in brain health, no doubt, and some of us are blessed with incredible brain power regardless of age. But for the most of us this is simply not the case, and anything we can do to improve the functioning of the brain as we age is a bonus. Well, there are ways this can be achieved.

Everything you eat and drink will affect your mood, behaviour, and many aspects of your brain function. If you are hungry, you may feel irritable and restless, whereas a person who has just eaten a meal, particularly a meal containing high grade protein, may feel calm and much more satisfied.

Are you sleepy? Have you noticed how you feel more productive after a cup of coffee and a light snack? I have always noticed that people who are breakfast skippers, or just eat less at certain times of the day and more at others, or grab whatever they can because they are plain “too busy” are much more prone to become apathetic, moody or just plain difficult to live with.

Mood disorders can vary in intensity from being appropriate response to a stressful situation right through to being a full blown psychiatric disorder requiring medication. Research over the years has revealed that even though mood disorders originate in your brain, their physiological effects can effect just about any part of your body.

Henry Osiecki – The Neurotransmitter Expert

According to Australian brain nutritional expert Henry Osiecki, the brain is now seen as an organ in direct communication with your immune and hormonal systems, and any event that influences this communication has a significant effect on not only moods and behaviour, but immunity and overall health and well-being. Compared with most other organs in your body, your brain has very high energy, oxygen and nutrient requirement and uses an amazing 20 to 30% of your energy intake at rest. When your brain gets what it wants your moods can be so much better. Any changes in energy or nutrient (foods) intake can profoundly alter both brain chemistry and the functioning of nerves in the brain, and particularly levels of chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are really just “brain hormones”, and their role is in keeping you thinking and feeling (and acting!) well.

 Neurotransmitter Balance

Neurotransmitters are a group of at least forty water-soluble hormones (proteins) formed within nerve cells called neurons. These hormones relay messages between nerve cells throughout your body. Understanding the numerous neurotransmitters, their locations and interactions with one another has been central to the design of medicines for mental illness. This knowledge over time has led to the development of medicines for many brain disorders including epilepsy, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, depression, anxiety disorders and migraine.

Primary Neurotransmitters in Stress, Anxiety, Depression and Aggression

  • Stress – dopamine, nor-adrenaline, serotonin and acetylcholine.
  • Anxiety – serotonin, GABA, opiods.
  • Depression – serotonin, opiods and dopamine.
  • Aggression – serotonin, GABA

The most abundant neurotransmitter in your brain is called acetylcholine, and amazingly, acetylcholine is also produced in the intestines. Acetylcholine levels are affected a lot by stress – and so is your digestion. I have often found that many people with mood disorders such as chronic stress usually have some type of digestive disturbance, and many have chronic gut complaints (especially liver) particularly if they stay on a pharmaceutical drug like Prozac or Aropax for several years. So, if you suffer from a mood disorder and are particularly if you are taking any drug– it may pay dividends to get your digestion in good shape. You may well need to reduce your drug dosage with your improved digestion, as you will be absorbing not only foods more efficiently, but potentially also the drug. If in doubt, see your health-care professional please!

Better Nutritional Tools Today

In the old days in naturopathy, we just used to give the patient St John’s Wort for depression, or recommend B Vitamins or magnesium, etc, and find it more difficult to treat other mood disorders. Thanks to people like Henry Osiecki, today we have much better tools and can be more targeted and fine tune our approach to specific mood disorders. St John’s Wort increases the brain’s content of serotonin (St John’s Wort functions in a similar fashion to Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRI drugs) such as Prozac in that it inhibits the reuptake of serotonin.

It is this mechanism which is responsible to a large extent for St John’s Wort’s ability to alleviate depression. It is interesting to note that St John’s Wort will also have an effect on stress, anxiety, aggression as well as depression because a serotonin imbalance is generally implicated in all of them.

All neurotransmitters require co-factors for their essential functioning, and these include Vitamin B6, Vitamin B5, Vitamin C, magnesium, manganese, zinc and copper. This is often why B Vitamins can help you when you are under stress – they help to support the neurotransmitters. It is not the scope of this article to go into too much more detail about neurotransmitters – it is simply too complex.

Food Allergies or Intolerance

It stands to reason that any digestive problem you have will affect the digestion and absorption of nutrients. Abnormally low stomach acid or enzyme levels, “leaky” gut, inflammation in the bowel, parasites, and issues with your pancreas, gallbladder or liver all can contribute in some way to mood disorders indirectly. Poor protein digestion can lead to amino acid deficiencies which can directly affect the production of neurotransmitters.

See how you feel when you are hungry and you eat a meal containing a “first class” protein (meaning it contains all the 9 essential amino acids) like beef or egg, compared with a few sandwiches containing lettuce, tomato and cheese. The first class protein tends to make your brain more “stable”, compared to a meal containing several but not all of the essential amino acids.

If the integrity of the gut is compromised in any way, it may potentially affect our mental health. Undigested small proteins or partially digested small proteins, which are often small chains (called peptides) of amino acids can affect your immune system through a complex interaction in your small intestine (leaky gut) and can wreak havoc with your moods. These issues can create all sorts of mood disorders, and depression, anxiety and even aggression have all been linked to food allergies and intolerances. See you naturopath, you may want to consider a food allergy test, particularly checking the antibodies IgE and IgG.

  1. Undigested proteins in these foods are common culprits: Cow’s milk, soy, wheat (gluten), peanuts, corn, banana and beef.
  2. Other possible culprits: Oranges, yeasts, caffeine, chocolate, red wine, MSG, artificial colourings/preservatives, sugars, Aspartame, nightshade vegetables (potatoes, capsicums, tomatoes, chilli, eggplant, tobacco)3. Common additives: Caramels (150), Aspartame (951), Tartrazine (102), MSG (621), Sulphur dioxide (220), Erythrosine (127).

Heavy Metal Toxicity

The symptoms of toxic heavy metal poisoning and the symptoms of memory loss, increased allergic reactions, depression, mood swings, irritability, poor concentration, aggressive behaviour, sleep disabilities, fatigue, speech disorders and chronic fatigue are just some of the many conditions resulting from exposure to these toxins. For example, mercury found in dental amalgams, the metal most dental fillings are made from, has been found to cause a wide range of mood disorder symptoms. Certain people may be more prone genetically to accumulating such toxins in their bodies than others, depending on their environmental or occupational exposures.

It never ceases to amaze me just how toxic some people really are, and this is one of the reasons why I perform Hair Analysis testing on many new patients. Many times when a test result comes back, the patient can corroborate the findings. One such patient diagnosed with anxiety and depression, who was incredibly toxic with lead and arsenic. I regularly detox children who have been diagnosed with autism or ADHD who are toxic with aluminium, mercury, arsenic or lead. And what a difference it can make to chelate their little bodies, their teachers, family and friends report back with comments like the child is more calm, more focused and that they actually now have eye contact for the first time.

Have you been working on restoring an old house, leaded paint or leadlight, eating or drinking off lead-glazed pottery inadvertently? One patient was drinking out of a pewter mug, and another was burning firewood which was CCA treated (green tannalised timber contains copper, chromium and arsenic). Another patient from New Zealand (with no amalgam fillings) was eating snapper (a nice tasting ocean fish) several times a week and was quite toxic indeed with mercury. The most heavy metal toxic patient I ever saw who worked with super phosphate fertiliser for years. This man’s test was high in cadmium, lead and arsenic and suffered from too many physical and emotional disorders to mention, as well as having recently been diagnosed with cancer. Is it any wonder? And the doctors of course were at a loss, they generally never look for toxins affecting the brain like heavy metals. Studies have shown repeatedly that heavy metals can affect a person’s mood causing anxiety and depression.

Metals can really wreak havoc with your mind and body over time, if in doubt have a Hair Analysis and then you will know. Your practitioner can assist you and show you different ways to remove the heavy metal toxicity in that case, this is one area where you shouldn’t self prescribe. Also please bear in mind – if your head hair has been bleached, dyed or permed – submit a pubic hair sample, which is a more reliable way to assess heavy metals in the hair. Pubic hair grows slower and therefore concentrates toxins more so than head hair.

  • Assessment: Hair Analysis and/or Urinary Challenge Testing
  • Nutritional considerations & detox: see your health care professional
  • Methylation issues


The term methylation is commonly used in biochemistry. Methylation reactions occur throughout your body, and are necessary for the production of optimal amounts of neurotransmitters. If you are an “under-methylator” you are predisposed to a lower level of serotonin, dopamine, nor-adrenaline and melatonin. Poor methylators have higher levels of an amino acid called Homocysteine – and because Homocysteine is involved in so many processes in the body, you are more likely to suffer from any one of a number of chronic ailments like Multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s and many more chronic degenerative conditions. .

If you are a “under-methylator”, you can increase your methylation and have higher more appropriate levels of serotonin and melatonin. This means you may not have to take Prozac and may even have an improved sleep. I have found a relationship with depression and high Homocysteine levels.

There is plenty of data to support the theory that nutrients help methylation and lower Homocysteine levels, these are the values for the precursors for methylation:

  • DMG 43% saw improvement (dimethylglycine)
  • Folic acid 44% saw improvement
  • B6 & magnesium 46% saw improvement

Mercury toxicity may disrupt this methylation cycle making it practically unsolvable until the metals are removed, so if you have tried to reduce your Homocysteine levels and find they are resistant – check your mercury levels via the Hair Analysis.

Assessment: Blood testing (fasting) for Homocysteine. Hair Analysis if necessary.

Nutritional considerations : Vitamins B6, B12, Folate and Betaine

Inflammatory Mediators

Inflammation in your brain can have a significant effect on normal physiological functioning of your brain. Cytokines are a group of proteins that are used as signalling compounds in your body and brain. These chemical signals are similar to neurotransmitters and are used to allow one cell to communicate with another. These cytokines can affect the production of neurotransmitters in your brain, contributing to neuronal damage and induce damage on multiple levels.

Some symptoms of altered cytokine responses include poor or altered sleep patterns, confusion, apathy, chronic inflammation (high blood CRP levels), anxiety and depression. Cytokines are more fully explained in an article called Your Amazing Immune System.

Assessment: Blood testing for CRP (C reactive protein). Looking at your history to see if you have any inflammation “smoldering” away in your body – a sure fire sign.
Nutritional considerations : Omega 3 EFAs, Selenium, Zinc, Vitamins A, C & E, Bromelain and Quercetin


It would pay to get a comprehensive blood test done by your GP or naturopath who has knowledge of blood testing, and I’d also recommend a Hair Analysis done around the same time. These tests can form a good basis for assessment, along with a well taken case history. It really pays to eat foods rich in anti-oxidants when it comes to brain health, and please bear in mind that the right sugars and fats are particularly crucial for maintaining good moods. We did not touch much on exercise, but it is essential in maintaining good brain blood circulation and stable moods. Next month we will take a closer look at memory and cognition and factors generally that may contribute to accelerated “brain ageing”.



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