May is Mental Health Month!

Dr. Shawn Talbott (Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACSM, FACN, FAIS) has gone from triathlon struggler to gut-brain guru! With a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry, he's on a mission to boost everyday human performance through the power of natural solutions and the gut-brain axis.

In celebration of Mental Health Month during the month of May, I talked to the hosts of Fresh Living on Salt Lake City’s KUTV about the wide range of nutritional approaches to help improve mental health.

On April 29, I talked about a range of foods to help alleviate the “fatigue” that comes with disrupted mood =

On May 1, I talked about a simple 3-step approach to improving the communication between the gut-immune-brain axis, that can significantly boost our mental wellness and help us feel our best =

Talking points from the May 1 show:

  1. Start with the Gut (the “2nd brain”) by restoring “good” bacteria with probiotics, prebiotics, and phytobiotics.
  2. Prime your immune system with “glucans” from yeast, mushrooms, and fatty acids from healthy fats.
  3. Tune up your brain and sharpen your mental focus with flavonoids from brightly colored fruits and vegetables (apples, grapes, pine bark).

Every aspect of how we feel and perform on a daily basis is influenced by our diet – including stress, mental focus, sleep quality, and even bigger issues such as depression and anxiety. It’s very likely to you – or someone you know – is affected by a mental wellness issue, which affects 1-in-5 of us! (and many experts feel that when you add in daytime fatigue and nighttime insomnia, it’s more like 1-in2 of us).

A recent research study shows just how impactful the right foods can literally be “curative” for epidemic diseases such as moderate to severe depression. Researchers from Australia looked at a Mediterranean-style diet (see below) – showing a significant reduction in depression indices – with more than a third of participants showing such dramatic changes that their depression was essentially gone – cured!

The diet used in the Australian study was approximately 40% carbs, 40% fat, and 20% protein primarily from whole grains, fruits/veggies, legumes, low-fat dairy, nuts, eggs, and lean meats (and limitations on sweets, sweetened beverages, refined grains, fast/fried foods, and processed meat). Of particular note, is that the diet was fairly high in fiber (15grams/day from fruits/veggies/legumes) and flavonoids (notably from red wine) – which may be delivering a prebiotic/psychobiotic anti-depressant effect mediated by the gut microbiome.

This is the very same style of diet regimen that has previously been shown to reduce heart disease, encourage weight loss, and prevent dementia – so now we can add anti-depressant effects to the list of health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. This food-mod connection is certainly meaningful for the millions of people who struggle with mental health issues everyday – from everyday bothers such as stress and insomnia – to more problematic issues such as depression and anxiety.

For the past 20 years or so, I’ve been studying how stress-induced imbalances can lead us to feel fat, fatigued, frazzled, unfocused, and general in a funk. However, restoring biochemical balance in the brain, the immune system, and the digestive system can help restore mental wellness. From my perspective in physiology (MS, exercise physiology) and biochemistry (PhD, nutritional biochemistry), I study how lifestyle (diet/exercise/sleep/stress/supplements) influences our psychology and behavior. In this way, I’m more of a “nutritional physio-psychologist”!?!? ;^)

Talking points from the April 29 show:

If you’re finding yourself stressed out, or if you can’t focus, or you find yourself low on energy, or in a bad mood, then you might consider adding certain foods and spices to your daily regiment to help dial up your mental wellness.

My nutritional approach to improving mental wellness and helping you feel better is multi- dimensional in nature and addresses many of the triggers that lead people to experience fatigue, including mood issues (depression/anxiety), brain fog (ADHD), and stress (cortisol/burnout).

There are many foods, herbs, and supplements (not to mention stress management, exercise, sleep patterns, etc) that can improve energy levels in this “multi-dimensional” way (for example, when you reduce depression/confusion/stress, the person often reports more “energy” and feelings of well-being).

Here are some examples of foods that I often recommend to help alleviate fatigue caused by various mood states:

Sad – coffee – go get a small latte with one shot of espresso (100mg of caffeine) and 1% milk. The combination of the stimulating caffeine plus the relaxing small peptides (protein chains) in the milk will help to increase neuron activity in the brain, without overstimulation – just enough to help you get out of a sour mood, but not enough to make you feel jittery and tense. Note = you need to stop at only one shot of espresso – consuming more caffeine will tip the scales towards tension/anxiety.

If you’re not a coffee drinker, then look for a new supplement called Whole Green Coffee Bean that combines a balanced blend of natural caffeine for energy, chlorogenic acids for blood sugar control, and polyphenols for brain protection – all bound to the natural coffee bean fiber – so you get long-lasting mental energy without the crash.

Unfocused – nuts, such as almonds and walnuts – and seeds, such as black cumin seed and pumpkin seed, contain healthy oils and other phytonutrients, that can induce a relaxation and anti-stress effect. The healthy fats in nut and seed oils can also to help protect the brain – and actually improve brain function. For example, black cumin seed oil has been show to increase brain power with improvements in focus. Memory, and overall cognition.

Tired – grapes and apple, which contain antioxidant compounds called OPCs (oligomeric proanthocyanins), can improve mental and physical energy levels. An even richer source of OPCs is New Zealand pine bark extract, which can be taken as a tea or a dietary supplement, and has been studied for improving “brain energy” and ADHD.

Stressed – prebiotics, which we normal get from high-fiber foods like fresh fruits and veggies and probiotics, which we think of finding in yogurt and fermented foods like kefir and kombucha – can also help to reduce stress, change our appetites (away from stress-induced sugar cravings), and improve our overall well-being. You’ve heard the term “gut-feeling” before – which refers to the “2nd brain” in our gut – the “enteric nervous system” that has as many neurons and produces as many neurotransmitters as the “1st brain” (in our heads)! Research is showing that keeping our guts balanced with pre-biotics and probiotics can help to maintain not just our intestinal function but also our brain function and overall mental wellness.

Bloated – Artichoke and Ginger are two of the best “digestive” aids to helping to maintain gut function and keep us from feeling overly full, bloated, and gassy. When we’re bloated or have indigestion, we can focus the way we want to and our energy levels are certainly sub-optimal. Just as pre/probiotics can help to maintain gut function in the “lower” gastrointestinal tract, artichoke and ginger can help to maintain optimal function of the upper and middle portion of the GI tract.

Anxious – green tea, contains the relaxing amino acid, Theanine, that induces a state of “relaxed alertness” where you feel “in the zone” with clear mental focus but also with a sense of peaceful calmness.


Shawn M Talbott, PhD, CNS, LDN, FACSM, FAIS, FACN

Nutritional Biochemist and Author

(801) 915-1170 (mobile) – Herb-infused tea and cookies that improve vigor (physical energy, mental acuity, and emotional well-being)


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Best Future You – Harnessing Your Body’s Biochemistry to Achieve Balance in Body, Mind, and Spirit

The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance, and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

Killer at Large – Why Obesity is America’s Greatest Threat – an award-winning documentary film exploring the causes and solutions underlying the American obesity epidemic

The Cortisol Connection – Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health (Hunter House)

The Cortisol Connection Diet – The Breakthrough Program to Control Stress and Lose Weight (Hunter House)

Cortisol Control and the Beauty Connection – The All-Natural Inside-Out Approach to Reversing Wrinkles, Preventing Acne, And Improving Skin Tone (Hunter House)

Natural Solutions for Pain-Free Living – Lasting Relief for Flexible Joints, Strong Bones and Ache-Free Muscles (Chronicle Publishers – Currant Books)

The Immune Miracle – The All-Natural Approach for Better Health, Increased Energy and Improved Mood (GLH Nutrition, 2012)

The Health Professionals Guide to Dietary Supplements (Lippincott, Williams & Wilkens)

A Guide to Understanding Dietary Supplements – an Outstanding Academic Text of 2004 (Haworth Press)



About the Author

Exercise physiologist (MS, UMass Amherst) and Nutritional Biochemist (PhD, Rutgers) who studies how lifestyle influences our biochemistry, psychology and behavior - which kind of makes me a "Psycho-Nutritionist"?!?!

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