Inositol: An Important Nutrient For OCD, Anxiety and Depression

The nutrient that I want to talk about today isn’t very well known.

But it has helped me manage OCD, anxiety and depression over the years, especially after I weened off psychiatric medication.

I first found out about it in the book Nutrient Power: Heal Your Biochemistry and Heal Your Brain by Dr. William Walsh, and started experimenting with it soon after finishing the book.  

It’s called inositol, or myo-inositol

Inositol is a non-essential vitamin and naturally-occurring compound in the body. It's structurally similar to glucose and small amounts of it can be found in food.

Researchers extracted and isolated it in 1849, but it wasn't until the 1980s that they discovered high levels of it in the central nervous system, and found that it plays a key role in neurotransmission (1, 4). 

Studies show that it can increase GABA-A receptor function and enhance serotonin receptor sensitivity, working similarly to anti-anxiety (benzodiazepines) and antidepressant (SSRIs) medications (2-3, 5). 

Inositol levels in the brain have also been shown to be lower in people with several neuropsychiatric conditions (30).

Considering this, it’s not too surprising that researchers have found that supplementing with it can help treat anxiety and depression

If you have one of the following anxious and depressive conditions, inositol could help you. 

Woman eating a salad outside.

Depression

First of all, researchers have found reduced levels of inositol in the spinal fluid of depressed patients (14).

They’ve also found significantly less inositol in brain samples of suicide victims (16). 

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a form of neurostimulation that helps treat depression, and one of the reasons it works may be because it causes a significant increase in brain inositol levels (15). 

But you don’t need to do tDCS to increase inositol levels in the brain.

Clouds raining on a stick man.

Supplementing with inositol has also been shown to increase inositol concentration within the central nervous system and treat depression in adults (17):

  • In one study, 11 people with treatment-resistant depression took 6 grams of inositol every day for four weeks, and nine of them experienced major improvements in their mood (18).

  • Another study had depressed patients take 12 grams of inositol every day for four weeks. Researchers found that these depressed patients experienced significantly greater improvements in their depression compared to the patients who took placebo (19, 22).

  • And people with bipolar disorder who were going through a major depressive episode supplemented with inositol for six weeks, and it led to a 17.4% reduction in their depressive symptoms (20).

Despite all of this research, it’s important to point out that I found one meta-analysis concluding that “it is currently unclear whether or not inositol is of benefit in the treatment of depression” (21). 

That’s not to say it won’t work for you though. 

In my experience, inositol does help with depression – just not with everyone.  

If you typically respond to SSRI antidepressants (like I do), it’s more likely that inositol will help you with your depressive symptoms (23). 

If SSRI antidepressants don't improve your mood when you take them, it’s less likely that inositol will help you.

Overall, it’s worth a try though. 

Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD)

Woman with PMDD holds stomach and head in worry.

Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) is a condition in which a woman has severe depressive symptoms, irritability, and tension before menstruation, which disrupts her social and/or occupational life. PMDD symptoms are more severe than symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) (12). 

Inositol has been shown to help treat PMDD. 

Over the course of six menstrual cycles, women with PMDD supplemented with 12 grams inositol daily, and they experienced a significant reduction in their symptoms of dysphoria and depression.

Researchers concluded that they “were able to clearly prove the efficacy of myo-inositol in PMDD” (13). 

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Anxiety, Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia

Based on my research and experience, inositol is better at reducing anxiety and treating anxious disorders than depression

Panic disorder is diagnosed in people who experience sudden panic attacks and are preoccupied with the fear of a recurring attack.

Some people stop going into environments in which they previously had a panic attack, anticipating that it will happen again. This is considered agoraphobia. They may avoid public places such as shopping malls, public transportation, or large sports arenas. 

Many patients with panic disorder and agoraphobia don’t respond well to current treatments, or they discontinue drugs because of their side effects.

Woman with agoraphobia stares outside through window.

Luckily, there is research showing that inositol can help treat both of these conditions with little to no side effects.

In one study, researchers compared the effects of inositol to fluvoxamine (Luvox), an SSRI antidepressant commonly used in the treatment of panic disorder. 

Twenty patients with panic disorder took 18 grams of inositol every day for one month, and then took 150 mg of fluvoxamine every day for another month. 

Researchers found that inositol decreased the number of weekly panic attacks per week by four, while fluvoxamine only reduced them by two. Fluvoxamine also had side effects such as nausea and lethargy, and inositol didn’t have any side effects (6). 

In another study, twenty-one patients with panic disorder (with and without agoraphobia) took 12 grams of inositol daily for four weeks.

Compared to placebo, the frequency and severity of panic attacks, and the severity of agoraphobia, significantly declined after taking inositol. And there were hardly any side effects!

The researchers concluded that inositol is an “attractive therapeutic for panic disorder” (7, 8). 

Inositol has also been shown to reduce anxiety in children and decrease anxiety-like behaviours in rats (24, 25). 

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a psychiatric disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.

Illustration of man on ladder fixing OCD sign.

In his book Nutrient Power, Dr. William Walsh says he uses inositol with all his patients with OCD.

I personally noticed a reduction in my obsessive-compulsive tendencies while supplementing with it. 

And there is some research to support this. 

In one study, patients with OCD took 18 grams of inositol or placebo daily for six weeks. 

At the end of the six weeks, the patients who took inositol had significantly lower scores on the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale.

The researchers concluded that inositol can effectively treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (9, 10). 

 
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Binge Eating Disorder and Bulimia

Binge eating disorder (BED) is a condition characterized by frequent and recurrent binge eating episodes, while bulimia nervosa is characterized by binge eating followed by purging.

Research has shown that inositol supplementation can help with both of these conditions.

In one study, people with these disorders took 18 grams of inositol daily for six weeks, and researchers found that it reduced symptoms of binge eating significantly better than placebo. It also reduced depressive and anxiety scores.

The researchers concluded that “inositol is as therapeutic in patients with bulimia nervosa and binge eating as it is in patients with depression and panic and obsessive-compulsive disorders” (11). 

Inositol Dosage and My Personal Review and Experience

As a standard dietary supplement, many people take between 1 and 3 grams of inositol daily.

But for the brain and mental health benefits, you need to take much higher doses. 

The usual dosage for anxious disorders ranges between 12 and 18 grams. One of the depression studies used just 6 grams, but I haven’t found any research suggesting that it works neurologically at doses any lower than that. 

I took 18 grams (4.5 grams, 4 times daily) of this inositol powder while weening off psychiatric medication and it made the transition much easier.

However, some people find relief with lower dosages.

Therefore, it’s best to start with a lower dose and work your way up to 18 grams if necessary. 

Since you’ll likely need to take large amounts, and capsules usually only contain 500 mg of inositol, I recommend inositol powder.

I used this one, but there are a number of different choices through Amazon. It’s easy to consume because it has a sugary taste. 

You may need a scale like this one to measure your doses.

Inositol is known to be extremely safe. There are no documented cases of drug interactions from studies in which inositol was taken alongside psychiatric medications such as SSRIs.

I started taking it while taking medication, and soon realized I was experiencing more side effects from my antidepressant. This is sometimes a sign that you're on too high of a dose of medication. At that point, I could lower my SSRI dose easily because inositol was helping.

This anti-anxiety supplement also includes several other natural compounds that have helped me manage my anxiety over the years. It can help reduce stress and anxiety alongside inositol.

Conclusion

If you struggle with anxiety or depression, supplementing with inositol is worth a shot.

The current research suggests it can help with illnesses that respond well to SSRI antidepressants, but probably isn’t beneficial to people struggling with other disorders, such as autism, Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia and ADHD (26-29).

This aligns with my personal experience, as it helped me the most with anxiety and depression. And I had pretty severe symptoms of ADHD and cognitive decline, and inositol never helped me with that. 

Unfortunately, researchers don't have a financial incentive to continue looking into the benefits of inositol. This is because inositol is a natural compound and cannot be patented by pharmaceutical companies that fund and significantly influence "science-based medical research"

But that doesn’t mean you can’t just go ahead and try it yourself and see if it helps you. 

I hope it does. 

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Live Optimally,

Jordan Fallis

Connect with me

About the Author

Jordan Fallis is a health and science journalist and researcher, and the founder of Optimal Living Dynamics, a website that has helped more than 1.5 million people improve their brain and mental health. His work has been featured in the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and the Canadian Pharmacists Journal. Jordan has also interviewed, consulted, and worked with more than one hundred medical doctors, health practitioners and leading researchers. He spends a lot of time scouring medical research, writing about what he finds, and putting the theories to the test on himself.

References:

(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6278902

(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22986984

(3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9169302

(4) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3017301

(5) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8131066

(6) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11386498

(7) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7793450

(8) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9169302

(9) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8780431

(10) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9169302

(11) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11262515

(12) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20359434

(13) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22031267

(14) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/623854

(15) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/mrm.21709/full

(16) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9247405

(17) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24424706

(18) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hup.470080109/abstract

(19) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7726322

(20) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16449473

(21) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15106232

(22) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9169302

(23) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8780431

(24) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11172878

(25) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3875047/

(26) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7894259

(27) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21917766

(28) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9169302

(29) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9169302

(30) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/mrm.21709/full

Medically reviewed by Dr. Fred Hui, MD, CCFP, CAFC

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The Remarkable Antioxidant That Can Help Treat 6 Mental Illnesses

When I went to the doctor 5 years ago for help with my concussion symptoms and mental health challenges, he offered me two options – addictive sleeping pills or expensive antidepressants. 

That was it.

I was left in the dark. I had no other options and nowhere to turn, so I had to take the medication.

Five years later, I now know there are many better solutions. The drugs that your doctors give you are not optimal – far from it. 

Read More

3 Foods You Should Avoid for Better Mental Health

Avoiding these three foods was one of the very first steps I took to improve my mental health.

I had a lot more energy, improved mood and reduced anxiety.

Unfortunately, about two months after cutting them out, I moved into a moldy house and suffered two really bad concussions. At that point, I had to look for even more advanced solutions.

But if you haven't done so already, I would strongly encourage you to try removing these three foods from your diet.

Doing so will likely improve your symptoms and calm your nervous system, making other therapies even more effective.

It’s harder to overcome trauma if you haven’t taken care of your physiology, as researchers have found that food allergies and sensitivities can trigger a wide range of emotional and mental health symptoms (110).

The problem with some foods is that they disrupt normal gut function and increase intestinal permeability (leaky gut syndrome). 

When this happens, small particles of food can leak into your bloodstream. Your immune system sees these food particles as foreign entities and attacks them, increasing inflammation throughout your body and reducing the integrity of the blood-brain barrier, which can cause or worsen mental health problems (4-6, 66-67). 

This is discussed in the book Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, ADD/ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Depression, Schizophrenia by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, MD.

If I eat any of these three foods by accident, I supplement with activated charcoal or bentonite clay

Activated charcoal and bentonite clay are potent natural treatments that can trap problematic proteins, toxins and chemicals, allowing them to be flushed out of your body. 

I notice I don’t feel as sick when I do this, and recover much more quickly.

Without further ado, here are three foods that I avoid as much as possible. 

A woman thinking and looking at two lightbulbs. One lightbulb is full of pizza, fries and junk food. Another lightbulb is full of leafy green vegetables.

1. Wheat

Gluten sensitivity can be primarily, and at times, exclusively, a neurological disease.
— Dr. Hadjivassiliou, MD, Professor of Neurology

Following a gluten-free diet has significantly improved my mental health (even though I didn’t have any terrible digestive issues). 

Wheat can contribute to mental illnesses.

I completely cut it out seven years ago, and within a few weeks, I felt so much better mentally. 

I also lost a bunch of weight and my asthma disappeared. 

I haven't touched it again since.

The same thing happened to Mikhaila Peterson, the daughter of University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson.

She followed a gluten-free diet and her depression, fatigue, irritability and memory problems faded away, allowing her to come off her antidepressants.

Dr. Peterson made the same dietary changes and was able to reduce his medication by half. 

You can watch a video of them discussing it here

Unfortunately, the myth continues to spread that only people with celiac disease need to avoid gluten-containing food. That’s simply not true.  

Dr. Kenneth Fine, a pioneer in gluten intolerance research, has demonstrated that 1 in 3 Americans are gluten intolerant, and that 8 in 10 have the genes that predispose them to developing gluten intolerance (1-3). 

The benefits of cutting out gluten are also discussed in this book

So if you struggle with a cognitive or mental health condition, you owe it to yourself to follow a strict gluten-free diet for 30 days and see how you feel. You'll likely feel better.

For more than sixty years, reports in the scientific literature have linked wheat and gluten sensitivity to a variety of neurological and psychiatric conditions (75-81), including:

A PubMed literature search (dates 1953–2011) located 162 original articles associating psychiatric and neurologic complications to celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Thirty-six articles were located for seizure disorders, 20 articles for ataxia and cerebellar degeneration, 26 for neuropathy, 20 for schizophrenia, 14 for depression, 12 for migraine, and up to 10 articles each for anxiety disorders, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, autism, multiple sclerosis, myasthenia gravis, myopathy, and white matter lesions.
  • Schizophrenia (39-60)

  • Depression (18-25)

  • Autism spectrum disorders (30-38)

  • Epilepsy and seizures (13-17)

  • Dementia and cognitive decline (61-63)

  • Anxiety (9-10)

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (26-27)

  • Cerebellar ataxia (69-72)

  • Social phobia (11)

  • Panic disorder (12)

  • Bipolar disorder (28)

  • Migraines (29)

 

Luckily, research shows that when people with these neurological and psychiatric disorders follow a gluten-free diet, there is a reduction in their symptoms. 

Many times, there is even a complete resolution in their symptoms. 

In one study, depressed patients who didn’t have digestive issues (like me) followed a gluten-free diet. Within 2-3 months, they experienced a reversal of their depressive symptoms (68). 

Researchers have also found that a gluten-free diet improves depression and reduces behavioural problems by increasing levels of l-tryptophan – the precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin (64). 

Another study found a significant increase in serotonin and dopamine because of the removal of gluten (65). 

Clearly, there is more to gluten than celiac disease and digestive issues, and cutting out wheat is one of the first dietary steps I recommend to people who are striving to overcome mental health challenges. 

I understand that it's tough to cut out completely, but it’s worth a try because it may be all you need. 

A grain-free diet, although difficult to maintain (especially for those that need it the most), could improve the mental health of many and be a complete cure for others.
— Dr. Paola Bressan

Other than avoiding wheat, you should also avoid foods that contain barley, rye and spelt because they also contain gluten. Sauces, condiments and soups often contain it, so you should stay clear of almost all processed food. Even some medications can contain gluten

As discussed in the GAPS Diet book, the bacteria in our guts can determine the degree to which we are sensitive to gluten (73). 

So you should also try to increase the good bacteria in your gut

And as I mentioned earlier, I take this activated charcoal or this bentonite clay whenever I accidentally consume wheat and it minimizes the negative effects. 

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2. Milk

"Milk, and all that comes from milk, increases melancholy." – Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy

After childhood, many people lose the enzyme, lactase, required to digest milk.

And a lot of people who suffer from brain and mental health problems are allergic or sensitive to milk.

People are allergic or sensitive to two main components of milk – lactose and casein.

Casein is the milk protein. Lactose is the milk sugar. 

Like gluten, both lactose and casein can contribute to inflammation in the body and brain, contributing to mental illness.

A glass of milk. The protein and sugars in milk can cause inflammation and contribute to mental illnesses.

Research shows that people with neuropsychiatric diseases – including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and autism – often have significantly elevated immune reactions to casein in milk, which corresponds with the severity of their mental symptoms. And their symptoms can be “improved substantially or even been cured completely” on a dairy-free diet (82-83, 85-91). 

Interestingly, casein has been shown to reduce the absorption of cysteine by 64% (92). 

Cysteine is an important amino acid for mental health. I previously discussed it here

It plays a role in the production of glutathione, your body’s master antioxidant, which protects your body from oxidative stress. And people with mental health problems often have high levels of oxidative stress (93-94). 

Therefore, milk may indirectly reduce glutathione levels and increase oxidative stress by preventing the amino acid cysteine from entering cells (92). 

Perhaps this is why so many people find benefit from supplementing with n-acetyl-cysteine

Folate is another critical nutrient for mental health, and milk has been shown to decrease the transport of folate into the brain (95). 

This makes sense considering that folate plays a key role in methylation, and other research has found that casein also reduces DNA methylation by 43% (96). 

Lastly, researchers have also discovered that high levels of lactose in the intestines can interfere with tryptophan metabolism and serotonin levels. They concluded that lactose malabsorption may play a role in the development of depression (84). 

All this being said, it seems that dairy affects everyone differently.

So you should try eliminating all conventional milk-based foods including ice cream, cheese and yogurt for 30 days. Then try adding it back in and examine how you feel.

It’s important to note that the milk in the grocery store is usually processed, homogenized, and pasteurized with distorted fats and denatured proteins. It’s not considered a whole food and I think everyone should avoid it. 

My free food guide still includes grass-fed, full-fat, organic dairy because it’s a healthy whole food and plenty of people can tolerate it just fine.

I personally choose not to eat any milk or dairy though because I still feel better without it.

In conclusion, here is Dr. Daniel Kalish’s take on dairy. He is the author of The Kalish Method: Healing the Body, Mapping the Mind

People with sub-clinical gluten intolerance need to avoid pasteurized cow’s milk products. As the villi on the intestinal lining heal from a gluten free diet, most individuals will be able to tolerate raw or unpasteurized dairy products again in nine months to a year. In other people, there will be a more or less permanent sensitivity to dairy products. However, in the initial two months of eliminating gluten, it is absolutely required to avoid all milk dairy products, because they will inflame the intestine lining just like gluten does and prevent healing.
— Dr. Daniel Kalish

3. Vegetable Oil

The increased incidence rate of major depression since 1913 may be explained by a sharp increase in the rate of omega-6 PUFAs in the diet.
— Dr. Michael Maes

The last food you should avoid or significantly limit is refined vegetable oil, including soybean, corn, safflower, sunflower, and canola oils.

They are highly unstable and oxidize very easily. 

Like gluten, vegetable oils are everywhere and hard to avoid because they’re included in most processed foods.  

These oils are also predominantly made up of omega-6 fatty acids.

Omega 6 and Omega 3 content of oils.

This is a problem because most people eat way too many omega-6 fatty acids today, and not enough omega-3 fatty acids.  

Omega-6 fatty acids increase inflammation, while omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation.

An international panel of lipid experts says that the ideal dietary ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is approximately 1 to 1. But these same experts estimate that the current ratio that people are consuming today is around 20 to 1 (97-101).

As I discussed before, omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent and treat mental disorders

Unfortunately, they are being outnumbered by the inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids in our food supply. 

Luckily you can combat this by staying clear of vegetable oils, supplementing with krill oil, and eating wild salmon regularly (You can get very high-quality seafood and krill oil supplements here).

Not doing this can lead to mental health problems.

Dr. Raymond Peat, PhD, says that the sudden increase of vegetable oils in our food supply after World War II has caused many changes in our mental health:

In 1980, experimenters demonstrated that young rats fed milk containing soy oil incorporated the oil directly into their brain cells, and had structurally abnormal brain cells as a result.

Studies have also found a very strong correlation between vegetable oil consumption and violent behavior, including homicide (109). 

This graph shows data from one study, looking at omega-6 intake and homicide rates in five countries.

Correlation between homicide rates and omega-6 fatty acid consumption.

Dr. Stephan Guyenet, author of The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts That Make Us Overeat, discusses this in more depth here

And it’s not just violent behaviour. 

There is a significant correlation between the severity of depression and the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Many researchers suggest trying to treat depression by reducing the ratio with omega-3 supplementation (106). 

Other researchers have found significantly lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the blood of patients with depression because of their higher omega-6 fatty acid intake (107). 

Too many omega-6 fatty acids have also been linked to increases in cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone (102-104). 

And elevated homocysteine levels – a known risk factor for mental health problems – has been associated with excess omega-6 fatty acids (108). 

I recommend checking out the Perfect Health Diet if you’re interested in learning more about the detrimental health effects of refined vegetable oils. 

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Other Possible Food Intolerances

Be aware that you may be sensitive or intolerant to other seemingly healthy foods, and if so, they should be avoided to maintain good mental health. 

This is discussed in Brain Allergies: The Psychonutrient and Magnetic Connections by Dr. Willam Philpott, MD. 

Three eggs. Sometimes people have an intolerance to eggs and it can contribute to symptoms of mental illness.

For example, eggs are an incredibly nutritious and healthy food, but I’m personally intolerant to the egg whites, so I throw away the whites and just eat the yolks. 

It’s not a big deal though because the yolks are the healthiest part of the egg anyway.

But I originally figured this out by following an elimination diet.

You eliminate all possible food allergens and then add them back in one by one and see if you have a negative reaction.

You can learn more about it in this book. 

Some of the most common food allergens that could affect your mental health include:

  • Eggs

  • Soy

  • Corn

  • Nightshade vegetables

  • Peanuts

  • Tree nuts, like walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, brazil nuts, and pecans.

  • Yeast

  • Fish

  • Shellfish

  • Sulphites

If you struggle with mental health problems, you should cut them all out for at least 2 weeks. Then add them back in one by one and see how you feel. 

Eat each food a lot over the course of three days and monitor your reaction to each one. Sometimes negative symptoms can pop up a few days later. 

Conclusion

Unfortunately, the role of food in the development of mental health disorders is often overlooked by conventional psychiatrists and some psychologists. 

Fruits and vegetables in the shape of a brain.

They hardly receive any training in nutrition and rarely consider food intolerances as a possible cause of mental health symptoms. 

Instead, psychiatric drugs are simply prescribed, which can lead to worse gut health, more symptoms and more medications. 

However, psychiatric drugs are necessary for many people. I completely understand that.

But if your mental health is failing, try eliminating gluten, dairy and refined vegetable oils and observe the effects. You may be surprised at how much better you feel. 

Please share this post with anyone that might find it useful. 

Let’s spread the word that there is a link between nutrition and mental health!

Enjoy This Article? You Might Also Like My FREE Food Guide for Optimal Brain and Mental Health!

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Live Optimally,

Jordan Fallis

Connect with me

About the Author

Jordan Fallis is a health and science journalist and researcher, and the founder of Optimal Living Dynamics, a website that has helped more than 1.5 million people improve their brain and mental health. His work has been featured in the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and the Canadian Pharmacists Journal. Jordan has also interviewed, consulted, and worked with more than one hundred medical doctors, health practitioners and leading researchers. He spends a lot of time scouring medical research, writing about what he finds, and putting the theories to the test on himself.

References:

(1) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/10/061010022602.htm

(2) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3184556/

(3) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/apt.12809/full

(4) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12366374

(5) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19014325

(6) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1808742/

(7) https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-10/sh-nsl101016.php

(8) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24275240

(9) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11346203/

(10) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20533598/

(11) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18365905/

(12) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12217453

(13) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15489401/

(14) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9548226/

(15) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17122729/

(16) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7842435/

(17) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19244266/

(18) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14716525/

(19) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12217453

(20) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14716525/

(21) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17030405/

(22) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20545470/

(23) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10086676/

(24) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/apt.12730/abstract

(25) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24689456

(26) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3184556/

(27) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17085630/

(28) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1399-5618.2011.00894.x/full

(29) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12650798/

(30) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19564647

(31) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19581261/

(32) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19027584/

(33) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20683204/

(34) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15526989/

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Medically reviewed by Dr. Robert Blake Gibb, MD

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How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve for Better Mental Health

By developing an understanding of the workings of your vagus nerve, you may find it possible to work with your nervous system rather than feel trapped when it works against you.
— Dr. Arielle Schwartz, Clinical Psychologist

Stimulation of my vagus nerve has played a key role in the management of my anxiety and mental health over the years. 

What exactly is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in your body.

13 ways to stimulate your vagus nerve for better mental health

It connects your brain to many important organs throughout the body, including the gut (intestines, stomach), heart and lungs. 

In fact, the word "vagus" means “wanderer” in Latin, which accurately represents how the nerve wanders all over the body and reaches various organs.  

The vagus nerve is also a key part of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. It influences your breathing, digestive function and heart rate, all of which can have a huge impact on your mental health.

But what you really need to pay special attention to is the "tone" of your vagus nerve.

Vagal tone is an internal biological process that represents the activity of the vagus nerve. 

Increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress.

In 2010, researchers discovered a positive feedback loop between high vagal tone, positive emotions, and good physical health. In other words, the more you increase your vagal tone, the more your physical and mental health will improve, and vice versa (5).

It’s almost like yin and yang. The vagal response reduces stress. It reduces our heart rate and blood pressure. It changes the function of certain parts of the brain, stimulates digestion, all those things that happen when we are relaxed.
— Dr. Mladen Golubic, MD, Medical Director of the Cleveland Clinic
An image of the vagus nerve.

What’s interesting is that studies have even shown that vagal tone is passed on from mother to child. Mothers who are depressed, anxious and angry during their pregnancy have lower vagal activity. And once they give birth to their child, the newborn also has low vagal activity and low dopamine and serotonin levels (1-3). 

Your vagal tone can be measured by tracking certain biological processes such as your heart rate, your breathing rate, and your heart rate variability (HRV). 

When your heart rate variability (HRV) is high, your vagal tone is also high. They are correlated with each other (53-55). 

You can increase your HRV by using the EmWave2 device

Some researchers actually use the EmWave2 to measure vagal tone in their studies. 

If your vagal tone is low, don’t worry - you can take steps to increase it by stimulating your vagus nerve. This will allow you to more effectively respond to the emotional and physiological symptoms of your brain and mental illness.

Stimulating the vagus nerve and increasing vagal tone has been shown to help treat a wide variety of brain and mental health conditions, including:

For people with treatment-resistant depression, the FDA has even approved a surgically-implanted device that periodically stimulates the vagus nerve. And it works (6-9). 

But you don’t need to go down that route.

You can enjoy the benefits of vagus nerve stimulation naturally by following these 13 steps. 

1. Cold Exposure

Acute cold exposure has been shown to activate the vagus nerve and activate cholinergic neurons through vagus nerve pathways (10). 

Image of an old-fashioned, muscular, manly man. It says “Have a cold shower? You mean a shower?”

Researchers have also found that exposing yourself to cold on a regular basis can lower your sympathetic “fight or flight” response and increase parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve (11).

I often take cold showers and go outside in cold temperatures with minimal clothing.

Try finishing your next shower with at least 30 seconds of cold water and see how you feel. Then work your way up to longer periods of time.

It's painful to do, but the lingering effects are worth it.

You can also ease yourself into it by simply sticking your face in ice cold water. 

2. Deep and Slow Breathing

Deep and slow breathing is another way to stimulate your vagus nerve. 

A woman closing here eyes and breathing deeply near the ocean. Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve.

It’s been shown to reduce anxiety and increase the parasympathetic system by activating the vagus nerve (51-52). 

Most people take about 10 to 14 breaths each minute. Taking about 6 breaths over the course of a minute is a great way to relieve stress. You should breathe in deeply from your diaphragm. When you do this, your stomach should expand outward. Your exhale should be long and slow. This is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and reaching a state of relaxation. 

The best way to know if you’re on the right track is by using the EmWave2 device. It’s a biofeedback device that assists you in pacing your breathing. I previously wrote about the benefits of using the device here. You can get it through Amazon or the HeartMath website

3. Singing, Humming, Chanting and Gargling

The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. 

Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve.

And this has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and vagal tone (12).

I often gargle water before swallowing it. This is discussed more in Dr. Datis Kharrazian’s book, Why Isn’t My Brain Working?

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4. Acupuncture

Acupuncture is another alternative treatment that has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve (46). 

A woman’s ear with three acupuncture needles in it. Auricular acupuncture is very effective at stimulating the vagus nerve.

I’m a really big fan of auricular acupuncture. Auricular acupuncture is when needles are inserted into ear. I’d recommend trying to find a health practitioner in your area who provides it, especially if you’re weening off psychiatric medication. It really helped me the first time I came off antidepressants. I was surprised.

Research shows that ear acupuncture stimulates the vagus nerve, increases vagal activity and vagal tone, and can help treat “neurodegenerative diseases via vagal regulation” (45). 

In my experience, ear acupuncture is more effective than regular acupuncture. I’m not sure why. I’ve just personally noticed more benefits from ear acupuncture. 

At the end of each appointment, my practitioner would secure these small black seeds on my ear. 

I also use this acupuncture mat at home to relax before bed. 

5. Yoga and Tai Chi

Yoga and tai chi are two “mind-body” relaxation techniques that work by stimulating the vagus nerve and increasing the activity of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system.

A woman practicing yoga or tai chi outside. Yoga and tai chi stimulate the vagus nerve and can improve your mental health.

Studies have shown that yoga increases GABA, a calming neurotransmitter in your brain. Researchers believe it does this by “stimulating vagal afferents”, which increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (13-18). 

Researchers have also found that yoga stimulates the vagus nerve and therefore should be practiced by people who struggle with depression and anxiety (19). 

Despite all the great research, I’m personally not a big fan of yoga. A lot of people swear by it but it’s just not for me. I prefer tai chi. 

Tai chi has also been shown to increase heart rate variability, and researchers think this means it can “enhance vagal modulation” (20).

6. Probiotics

It’s becoming increasingly clear to researchers that gut bacteria improve brain function by affecting the vagus nerve (27).  

Bacteria. Probiotic bacteria can stimulate your vagus nerve and improve your mental health.

In one study, animals were given the probiotic Lactobacillus Rhamnosus, and researchers found positive changes to the GABA receptors in their brain, a reduction in stress hormones, and less depression and anxiety-like behaviour. 

The researchers also concluded that these beneficial changes between the gut and the brain were facilitated by the vagus nerve. When the vagus nerve was removed in other mice, the addition of Lactobacillus Rhamnosus to their digestive systems failed to reduce anxiety, stress, and improve mood (25). 

Another study found that the probiotic Bifidobacterium Longum normalized anxiety-like behavior in mice by acting through the vagus nerve (26). 

Both Lactobacillus Rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium Longum are included in the Optimal Biotics supplement

I previously wrote about some other ways you can increase the good bacteria in your gut. You can read about that here.

And here are 7 other probiotic strains that can help treat anxiety. 

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7. Meditation and Neurofeedback

Meditation is my favourite relaxation technique and it can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone.        

Research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions, and promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself (22, 23). 

Another study found that meditation reduces sympathetic “fight or flight” activity and increases vagal modulation (21). 

“OM” chanting, which is often done during meditation, has also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve (24). 

I couldn’t find any research demonstrating this, but in my experience, neurofeedback significantly increased my heart-rate variability and vagal tone as measured by my EmWave2

Now that I’m done neurofeedback, I use the Muse headband to meditate. Similar to neurofeedback, it gives you real-time feedback on your brainwaves. I previously wrote about it here, and you can get it through Amazon or the Muse website.

 

8. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that your body cannot produce itself. They are found primarily in fish and are necessary for the normal electrical functioning of your brain and nervous system.

They often appear in most of my posts because they are so critical for brain and mental health and affect so many aspects of wellness. 

They’ve been shown to help people overcome addiction, repair a “leaky brain”, and even help reverse cognitive decline.

But researchers have also discovered that omega-3 fatty acids increase vagal tone and vagal activity (35-37, 40). 

Studies shown that they reduce heart rate and increase heart rate variability, which means they likely stimulate the vagus nerve (34, 38, 39). 

And high fish consumption is also associated with “enhanced vagal activity and parasympathetic predominance” (35). 

That's why I eat lots of wild-caught salmon, as well as supplement with this krill oil

9. Exercise

I’ve already discussed how exercise increases your brain’s growth hormone, supports your brain’s mitochondria, and helps reverse cognitive decline.

But it’s also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, which may explain its beneficial brain and mental health effects (28). 

A man running near the water. Exercise stimulates the vagus nerve.

Many brain health experts recommend exercise as their number one piece of advice for optimal brain health. 

This is my exercise routine:

  • Lift heavy weights 1-4 times per week

  • High-intensity interval sprinting 1-2 times per week

  • Walk as much as I can (ideally 30-60 minutes every day)

Walking, weightlifting and sprinting are the best forms of exercise, but you should choose a sport or exercise routine that you enjoy, so that you’ll stick with it consistently. 

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10. Zinc

As I’ve discussed before, zinc is an essential mineral for mental health, especially if you struggle with chronic anxiety

One study shows that zinc increases vagus nerve stimulation in zinc-deficient rats (41). 

It’s estimated that 2 billion people in the world are deficient in zinc, and six different studies show that subclinical deficiency of zinc impairs brain function in children and adults (42-44).

So, if you struggle with a brain or mental health disorder, it’s quite possible that you’re deficient.  

Some of the best food sources of zinc include oysters, grass-fed beef, pumpkin seeds, cashews, mushrooms and spinach. 

However, I still recommend at least short-term supplementation to ensure you get enough.

I created and take the Optimal Zinc supplement to make sure my zinc levels are optimal. 

Check out my previous post about zinc and copper if you’re interested in discovering more steps you can take to increase your zinc levels. 

11. Massage

Research shows that massages can stimulate the vagus nerve, and increase vagal activity and vagal tone (31-32). 

A woman getting a massage. Massages improve your mental health by stimulating the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve can also be stimulated by massaging several specific areas of the body.

Foot massages (reflexology) have been shown to increase vagal modulation and heart rate variability, and decrease the “fight or flight” sympathetic response (29). 

Massaging the carotid sinus, an area located near the right side of your throat, can also stimulate the vagus nerve to reduce seizures (30). 

I personally get a massage from a registered massage therapist every couple of months. 

12. Socializing and Laughing

I’ve already discussed how socializing and laughing can reduce your body’s main stress hormone.

Two men laughing. Laughter and socializing stimulates the vagus nerve.

And now I’ve learned that they are likely doing this by stimulating the vagus nerve. 

Researchers have discovered that reflecting on positive social connections improves vagal tone and increases positive emotions (47, 48). 

Laughter has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and improve mood (49). 

And vagus nerve stimulation often leads to laughter as a side effect, suggesting that they are connected and influence one another (50). 

So my advice is to hang out and laugh with your friends as much as possible. Although I should probably be taking my own advice here, as I’m an introvert and often avoid socializing too much. 

13. Intermittent Fasting

On most days, I don’t eat breakfast at all, and then "break my fast" by eating my first meal of the day around 2 or 3 p.m. That means I eat all my food for the day within an 8-hour window.

An empty plate with a fork and knife beside it. Intermittent fasting stimulates the vagus nerve.

There are many health benefits to doing this. As I’ve discussed before, intermittent fasting can boost your brain’s growth hormone, improve mitochondrial function, and may help some people overcome brain fog and cognitive decline

Research also shows that fasting and caloric restriction increase heart rate variability, which is an indicator that it increases parasympathetic activity and vagal tone (33). 

The best way to start fasting is simply by eating dinner around 6, not eating anything after that before bed, and then eating a regular breakfast the next day. That should give you about 12-14 hours of fasting time. 

Conclusion

You don’t have to be controlled by your body and mind. You have the power to tell them what to do. 

By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can send a message to you body that it’s time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, wellbeing and resilience. 

Increasing my vagal tone has allowed me to overcome anxiety and depression, and better manage them when they arise.

Overall, I hope you implement some of the above steps into your daily life, and they allow you to live more optimally.

Enjoy This Article? You Might Also Like My FREE Food Guide for Optimal Brain and Mental Health!

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Live Optimally,

Jordan Fallis

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About the Author

Jordan Fallis is a health and science journalist and researcher, and the founder of Optimal Living Dynamics, a website that has helped more than 1.5 million people improve their brain and mental health. His work has been featured in the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and the Canadian Pharmacists Journal. Jordan has also interviewed, consulted, and worked with more than one hundred medical doctors, health practitioners and leading researchers. He spends a lot of time scouring medical research, writing about what he finds, and putting the theories to the test on himself.

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Medically reviewed by Dr. Fred Hui, MD, CCFP, CAFC

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