Nutrition’s Impact on Mental Health: Holistic Approach

This week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Natalie West whose focus is on nutrition and its connection to mental health. 

Talking with Natalie dovetailed into so many other podcasts specifically Julia Rucklidge and Dr Pran Yoganathan, also with Prof Pete Smith, Olivia Leslar, and many more. 

Join me as we look back and connect this week’s episode to some other episodes we’ve done on the program on mental and gut health. 

Mental Health and the Holistic Health Model

Well, this week I had the pleasure of speaking to Psychologist Natalie West. Natalie’s focus is on nutrition and its connection to mental health. We discussed the whole range of issues around that. 

Natalie’s specific focus is on keeping the carbs down low and also having a nutrient-dense diet and a recurring theme, which I think is worth exploring. It reminded me also of a wonderful conversation I had a few months ago with Professor Julia Rucklidge, who wrote a book, and the subtitle of the book tells a story all on its own. It’s The Better Brain: How Nutrition Will Help You Overcome Anxiety, Depression, ADHD and Stress

The gut is the second brain

It also reminded me of another discussion I had with that wonderful integrative gastroenterologist, Dr Pran Yoganathan. When I asked Pran what he thought of the gut as the second brain, which is often when you go to courses on nutrition now, it’s often referred to as the second brain. 

Why is that? Because so many of the body’s neurotransmitters, neurotransmitters are those molecules in the body which are produced in response to mood serotonin, dopamine, adrenalin, and cortisol. 

These are all hormones and neurotransmitters which are implicated in our moods, and so many of them are produced in the gut. That depends on so much of our gut is in good balance, and that depends on us having a healthy microbiome, a diverse microbiome. 

About regenerative agriculture

This is where so many of the episodes that we do overlap. This is where discussion about healthy soils, regenerative agriculture, the Food Pyramid and the Australian Healthy Eating Guidelines – by the way, those two are definitely not healthy or worth following, in case you might mistakenly think I am in some way promoting them. 

This is how regenerative agriculture, healthy soils, and a nutrient-dense diet impact the gut microbiome. The more diverse the healthier you are. A great metaphor for not just our gut microbiome, not just for our oral microbiome, not just for the soil microbiome, but for society in general, I believe. The more diverse, the more resilient, the healthier we all are. 

That is true of the gut. This brings us back to this week’s episode, which focussed on that. Now, Pran Yoganathan when I asked him about the gut as the second brain, he disagreed. He said, “No, Ron. The gut is actually the first brain.” 

When you look back through evolution, you look at multicellular organisms, simple multicellular organisms that don’t have a brain. The gut is there and it is doing a lot of the work that the brain eventually evolved to do. The gut, as the first brain was, I stood to be corrected and I thanked Dr Pran Yoganathan, who is actually on the Advisory Panel of Unstress Health, our online community and wellness programme. 

He drew my attention to that very important point and then discussions with Julia Rucklidge about how nutrition will help us overcome so many mental health problems were also a timely reminder of how important a healthy diet is to moods.

Mental health

Mental health is a huge and growing problem and we have done many programmes on mental health. We’ve done one with a Dr Martin Whitely in Western Australia who wrote a book called Overprescribing Madness and you no doubt will have known people perhaps you are such a person where you know you are been on antidepressants for many years or you know somebody who has been on antidepressants for many years. 

It is as surprising to me when I take histories of patients, particularly new patients who come into my practise, and I’m often surprised at how many are on antidepressants. I mean, antidepressants are major blockbuster drugs for the pharmaceutical industry, literally contributing billions and billions of dollars. It often surprises me how that is often… 


We also ask about our history of people’s digestion. Digestion gives us a clue as to not only immune function, but also mood and if you have problems with your digestion, then you are susceptible to a whole range of problems which your doctor may not have connected with nutritional problems or with sleep, for that matter. That’s another issue. 

When I see people on antidepressants, there are two things that I think of immediately. The first one is how is the digestive system? Well, it’s not in this order. But two things that I think about are how is the digestive system and where are the clues for digestive problems? 

Well, if you’re constipated or have diarrhoea, I think that is an important report card that we receive every single day from our digestive system. We’ve done a programme on What does your poo say about you? While some doctors may suggest that having a bowel movement once every two or three days is normal and it may well be normal in our community, it is, I believe, not healthy. 

If you’re eating every day, if you’re eating two meals or maybe more a day, then I think at least one bowel movement a day is healthy because it shows that you are moving the food through your system, breaking it down, absorbing it and eliminating the waste. I think that’s an important thing and then when one looks in the toilet bowl and is reminded and is actually told how healthy your digestive system is.

The Bristol Stool Chart

We’ve done programmes on poos as well. Maria Hunt I do recommend you go back and have a listen to that programme. I think it is called What Does Your Poo Say About You? Well, let me reference this, and make it simple for you by getting you to look at The Bristol Stool Chart, which is available online. 

The Bristol Stool Chart shows seven different types of stools and it’s those middle types which are well-formed and sink to the bottom of the bowl, that are a sign of a healthy bowel movement. Being constipated is not. Having diarrhoea also is not. What your poo says about you is an excellent example of a digestive system that is not functioning as optimal as it might.


Another indicator is heartburn, reflux or indigestion. That’s an important indicator as well. Now there’s another pharmaceutical product that is generating billions of dollars. Protein pump inhibitors like Nexium or Somac are multi-billion dollar drugs for the pharmaceutical industry. But, you know, we have stomach acid for a reason. 

That reason is to help us, firstly, break down foods that also deal with toxins or microbes within the food. So it’s an important part of breaking down food and protecting us. Reducing stomach acid might seem like a very simple symptom-based approach, but it comes with plenty of side effects. 

One of those is osteoporosis, which, guess what? That’s because you’re not absorbing your nutrients as well as you should. Your bones become thinner and more susceptible to fracture. But fear not. The pharmaceutical industry has these phosphonates as a product to solve that problem. I’m not suggesting it as a good solution either.

I’m coming back to heartburn, reflux and indigestion, giving you an indication that maybe there are foods that you and you should not be eating that you are sensitive to. You may be on an incredibly healthy diet. You may be on a vegetable-based diet, which you think is the most healthy diet in the world. 

It’s important to know those vegetables because they are stationary, and need to protect themselves from predators. Predators are insects and animals which might eat them. Vegetables put out toxins to discourage predators like insects, like animals which include us from eating them. Those toxins might be phytates, salicylates oxalate, fodmaps, and nightshade. 

There is a whole range of things because it’s a vegetable and even if it’s a whole vegetable does not necessarily mean that it suits you. You may have a sensitivity to that. 

Reflux and diaphragm

It gets back to building resilience in the system and this is why a holistic approach is so important. Reflux is not just you need an anti-antacid. Reflux is an indication that you may be eating foods that you are sensitive to. Which brings us to the podcast we did with again Dr Pran Yoganathan, who said to me that he thought reflux was also a function of a diaphragm which is underdeveloped. 

A diaphragm is sarcopenic which means it’s not as well-developed or as toned as it should be because the oesophagus passes through into the stomach, through the sheath of muscles underneath our rib cage called the diaphragm. 

If you are breathing well and this is where breathing and reflux have a role to play, if you are breathing well, which means slowly and gently through your nose, using your diaphragm so that you use your entire lungs, very important.

If you’re breathing ten, 12, 16 times a minute and you’re doing that all your life and you’re using your diaphragm, then there’s a good chance your diaphragm is well-toned and there’s a good chance you may not be suffering from heartburn, reflux or indigestion as well. 

I’m saying heartburn reflux and indigestion could be a reflection of food that you are sensitive to, but it also could be a reflection of an underdeveloped diaphragm because you have not been breathing. You’ve been breathing in a dysfunctional way. This is why a holistic approach to your health is so important and how one thing relates to another thing. Digestion is very important. 

Skin Conditions

What’s another example of a poor digestive system? Skin conditions. 80 to 90% of skin conditions are a reflection of poor digestion. There’s another indicator. If any one of those things affects you, if you have elevated blood sugar levels, then that is a problem, too, because it predisposes you to all those diseases of Western civilisation. Cardiovascular disease, cancers, autoimmune conditions and of course, diabetes. But also mental health conditions. 

Then coming back to Julia Rucklidge’s research, an article was all about supplementation and we’ve talked about supplementation before. The key is in the word supplement. It is a supplement to add to our diet which hopefully is nutrient-dense. If it is nutrient-dense, arguably, you may need fewer supplements. 

However, we live in a modern world where perhaps the soils in which our foods are grown are deficient. I know in Australia soils are very old and they are very deficient in key nutrients and specifically selenium, zinc and magnesium to name but a few. Ideally, we would get 40 or 50 trace elements from our soils, our food, and the salt that we would consume. Supplement a nutrient-dense diet. 

How important the B-group vitamins are

I know personally, that I do take vitamin D regularly. I take zinc. I take magnesium. I take vitamin C. I also do take selenium. I do supplement my diet. Julia Rucklidge reminded us of how important the B-group vitamins are, for example, B3. 

Now we did a programme a few weeks or coming up, I did a Healthy Bite on the role of B3 in brain development in our evolutionary journey through life, over a journey as humans. This was a timely reminder in the episode this week from Natalie West, a psychologist who focuses on the role of a nutrient-dense diet and a low-carb diet on mental health conditions. 

It was great to talk to Natalie because it dovetailed into so many other podcasts and specifically the Julia Rucklidge one and the Pran Yoganathan one and for that matter, the wonderful one we’ve done with Professor Pete Smith, with Olivia Lesslar, with Dr Christabelle Yeoh. 

The complexity of the human condition

This is about piecing together the complexity of the human condition. This is why I think it is important to have an open mind and not look for the one answer to all things. 

When you have an open mind, you are struck by the wonder of how complex and interconnected all of these things are. How the five stressors are interconnected with the five pillars: emotional, environmental, nutritional, postural and mental stress are interconnected with how we can sleep, breathe, nourish, move, and think. 

We need to be respectful of how this balancing beam pivots and that is on our genes and how our genes express themselves. The wonderful new science of epigenetics. We are not a victim of our genes. 

It is not about nature or nurture. It is about nature and nurture and that is a wonderful tool, which we all have. So I hope this finds you well. Until next time.



This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.