The Role of Nutrition and Lifestyle in Mental Health

By June Rousso
June Rousso
June Rousso
I am a New York State licensed psychologist and a nutritional consultant with an M.S. degree in holistic nutrition. My interests have expanded over the years to the field of nutrition, which I often integrate in my work as a psychologist. I love to write and educate people about nutrition so that they can make more informed choices about their health. I believe that dietary and lifestyle changes are so important in our lives to support a healthy lifestyle.
August 24, 2014 Updated: August 24, 2014

This week’s blog is the first of a series on the role of nutrition and lifestyle in mental health. We tend to underestimate the power of food/lifestyle over our emotions and when depressed or anxious often resort to medication as the first line of defense. In many instances, food/lifestyle changes can address these emotional states without the side effects of synthetic medications.

There is so much ground to cover relating to nutrition/lifestyle and mental health. I thought to begin with a very specific genetic condition that few people have heard of, but which can cause many symptoms that unbalance our emotions. The condition, known as pyroluria, stems from a problem in synthesizing hemoglobin, the molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen. As a result, abnormal levels of chemicals are produced that bind to Vitamin B6 and zinc. This prevents these vital nutrients from being absorbed and utilized by the body. Levels of omega-6 fatty acids also are reduced. Pyroluria has often been observed as beginning in adolescence and triggered by some stressful event or series of events.

Some of the more common symptoms associated with pyroluria are listed in the Pyroluria Questionnaire developed by Trudi Scott, CN ( As a result of the B6 and zinc depletion, people often have trouble coping with stress. Anxiety, shyness, fearfulness, or inner tension can be present and often since childhood. Bouts of depression and nervous exhaustion, poor dream recall or stressful dreams, and poor tolerance to drugs can be experienced as well. Light morning nausea and motion sickness also have been reported.

Socially, people with pyroluria prefer the company of a few friends and tend to become more of a loner with age. They are not likely to be found socializing at parties or group events. There can be a feeling of uneasiness with strangers and a tendency to feel easily upset by criticism.

Physical symptoms associated with pyroluria include white spots or specks on the fingernails, thin nails, pale or fair skin, poor appetite, and a poor sense of smell. Pyrolurics often dislike protein and are sensitive to bright sunlight or noise. Upper abdominal pain, frequent fatigue, low iron levels, cold hands or feet, frequent colds or infections, gluten sensitivity, and low serotonin levels are other common symptoms.

Pyroluria is diagnosed through urinalysis. Research has found that supplementing with mega-doses of Vitamin B6 and zinc can help alleviate symptoms significantly. Since pyloluria is a genetic condition, supplementation is ongoing. Supplementation should be followed under the supervision of a physician or nutritionist who is familiar with proper dosing, and quality vitamin and mineral products.

In addition to supplementing with Vitamin B6 and zinc, foods high in these nutrients should be consumed. Foods high in Vitamin B6 include green leafy and root vegetables, fruit, fish, beef, chicken, and tuna. Seeds, nuts, meat, fish, and whole foods all are high in zinc. High protein diets should be avoided since there is not enough vitamin B6 and zinc available to digest the protein.

Avoiding sugar, coffee, and alcohol also is strongly recommended. Choose oils and foods high in omega-6 fatty acids, including evening primrose oil, borage oil, and flax oil. Good food sources of omega-6 fatty acids include poultry, nuts, whole grain bread, chicken, pumpkin seeds, cashews, pecans, walnuts, and Spirulina.

Working on ways to reduce stress through activities such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, walking in the park, and other calming activities also help in reducing symptoms of pyroluria. Learning coping strategies to stress is important aspect of treatment. We often over-react to stressful situations, making our reaction to stress more agitating than the stressful event itself.

People suffering from pyroluria can show rapid improvement in symptoms while in more severe instances, it can take up to a year for positive results. Anyone identifying with a number of the above emotional and physical symptoms should take the Pyroluria Questionnaire and with fifteen or more of the symptoms, should consider urine testing for pyroluria. It is a simple test, and with appropriate supplementation and dietary/lifestyle changes can make life less stressful and more healthful.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates