Mood-Boosting Tools for Better Mental Well-Being
As well-being junkies with a growing supplement business, we jumped at the chance to visit the very cool YouTheory HQ in Orange County to hear about how they’re approaching mental health. A wellness brand with an array of products driven by the beauty-starts-inside MO, YouTheory calls themselves a “farm-to-shelf company”: They travel the world to source ingredients, then manufacture their own product lines in-house. (Picture a cavernous, neat warehouse, with short production lines manned behind glass windows, with good tunes playing, and the faint smell of saffron in the air.)
We sat down with chief scientific officer, Dr. Nick Bitz, a licensed, board-certified naturopathic doctor, who formerly was in clinical practice in the Pacific NW, Colorado, and California, and who today spends his days formulating. “Everything I make is evidence-based and supported by well-controlled human studies,” says Bitz. “But I also rely on traditional use evidence and my own experiences from clinical practice.”
One of Bitz’s primary focuses is mental well-being—here, he shares tips for supporting yours, drawing from the Ayurvedic sattvic diet and tools like the occasional news fast, self-massages, and the saffron extract he sees as a game changer. (As always, check in with your doctor on what’s right for you.)
A Q&A with Nick Bitz, N.D.
How do you think about mental health from a holistic perspective?
Mental health is an underserved area—in part because there is a stigma around the term “mental disease.” The field is brimming with potential for innovation and growth—more and more are people seeking out natural ways to improve their mood and brain performance, and there are some excellent tools that people can use on a daily basis.
The best approach is a holistic one. Too often people in this space try the singular approach, like taking one drug or supplement to boost serotonin levels and expecting major long-term benefits. But your brain’s health is multifactorial—it’s connected to your diet, gut health, stress responses, sleep patterns, brain chemistry, and so on. In my experience, the surefire way to create long-term change is to address multiple influences at once.
What foods do you recommend for supporting mental health?
Food plays a critical role in your mental state. In general, I recommend that people (and especially those of us with a propensity for negative mood states) eat a little protein in the morning to help sustain energy and maintain healthy blood sugar levels throughout the day. Just 6 grams of protein before 10 a.m. is likely all you need.
I am also a huge proponent of the “sattvic diet,” which comes from Ayurveda and is highly prized in the yogic tradition for purifying the mind and restoring mental health. According to Ayurveda, there are three types of foods: sattvic foods (which create joy and mental clarity), tamasic foods (which create inertia or dullness in the mind), and rajasic foods (which create movement in the mind).
“Food plays a critical role in your mental state.”
Sattvic foods are pure, light, nutrient-dense foods that are high in prana (vital energy). They generally consist of the following (for more, see Dr. David Frawley’s book, Ayurvedic Healing):
Organic fruits and vegetables
Some grains—like white basmati rice, oats, quinoa, sprouted-grain breads
Legumes—generally smaller beans, which are easier to digest, like mung and adzuki beans, and chickpeas, yellow split peas, organic tofu
Nuts and seeds—like almonds, sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, freshly ground flax
Organic dairy—milk that is boiled, lightly spiced (i.e., ginger, cinnamon, cardamom), and served with raw honey
Oils—cold-pressed olive oil, sesame oil, organic ghee
Sweeteners—raw unheated honey, sugars in small amounts
Mostly mild spices—like fresh ginger, turmeric, and a little bit of black pepper
Drinks—room temp or heated water; herbal teas; black, green or yerba mate teas occasionally
In my experience, eating a sattvic diet can facilitate a huge transformation in the mind and emotions. Of course it takes time for the effects of dietary changes to manifest on the mind. But over the course of several weeks you should begin to feel more calm, more clear-headed, more creative, and more joyful overall.
Can you tell us more about the Ayurvedic ingredients that you’ve found to be beneficial for mental health?
Ayurveda is known as “the science of living.” It is a mountain of knowledge that has been accumulated over the past five thousand years. There are numerous Ayurvedic botanicals that help reinforce “happy brain chemistry,” including brahmi, holy basil, jatamansi, rose, bacopa, and turmeric. (For references, I recommend Major Herbs of Ayurveda and The Yoga of Herbs.) Two of my very favorite brain botanicals are saffron and ashwagandha.
“Your brain’s health is multifactorial—it’s connected to your diet, gut health, stress responses, sleep patterns, brain chemistry, and so on.”
Ayurveda also recommends an abundance of healthy, nourishing dietary fats, such as coconut oil, olive oil, and ghee. In addition to getting more fats from your diet, Ayurveda prescribes daily self-massage (“abhyanga”), using herbalized sesame oil. Topical oils can be extremely rejuvenating. I advise doing a self-massage either before or after showering—whichever is easier.
Any other supplements you recommend for mental health?
The old-school remedies include SAMe, St. John’s Wort, and phosphatidylserine. These have been around forever, and while they can be effective for certain individuals, I find they often take too long to exert their beneficial effects. For example, St. John’s Wort can take 4 weeks or more to exert its uplifting effects. For this reason, I tend to lean on other natural ingredients to support mood and mental health.
For instance, I prefer L-theanine and/or PharmaGaba® to help increase positive mood states. I also recommend adaptogens for almost all adults. Adaptogens are a unique category of herbs—such as ginseng, ashwagandha, and schizandra—that have been used in Ayurvedic practice to help the body adapt to the effects of stress. Rhodiola is a prime example that is one of the most widely studied adaptogens and quite possibly the very best mood enhancer available to us in our natural armamentarium. (More in research section below.)
Lately, I’m a huge fan of saffron, as emerging research (also below) shows that just 30 mg per day may help support a balanced improve mood and temporarily reduce feelings of anxiety. Saffron has a very long history of use in folk medicine and Ayurveda, and has been said to bring cheerfulness to the user. (In my personal experience, it does this quite effectively, but of course individual results may vary.)
We recently traveled to Spain to source a saffron extract. For anyone that’s ever tasted traditional Spanish paella, you know that Spanish saffron is some of the best tasting and most potent saffron in the world. The saffron extract that we’ve sourced is unique because it checks off all the right boxes: non-GMO, DNA-verified, sustainably grown, standardized for active constituents, and clinically tested for efficacy. This is important for reasons of purity and authenticity, as saffron is one of the most frequently falsified and adulterated ingredients in the marketplace.
What’s most important to consider when picking out a supplement?
Not all supplements are created equal. And certainly not all companies are driven by quality. When choosing a supplement, choose brands that have been around for awhile, with a good reputation. Ask questions! Inquire about the origin of their raw materials, whether their raw materials are synthetic or naturally derived, and if they provide finished-product testing results (including reports on heavy metals and active constituents). Oftentimes, two identical formulas from two separate companies can be wildly different in terms of purity, potency, and efficacy.
Collagen is the perfect example. Most companies buy their collagen from China, for the low price. Although it’s still labeled “hydrolyzed collagen” on the bottle, this material is not the same as collagen coming out of Germany or France, which is a pure crystalline white powder that is odorless, tasteless, and fully hydrolyzed for maximum absorption. (For more on collagen and bioavailability, see the footnote below.)
What about lifestyle changes and tips?
Sleep and exercise are at the top of my list. And although we’ve all heard this ad nauseam, most of us are still deficient in sleep and movement. Then it comes down basic stress management. For this, I recommend immersing yourself in nature more often and unplugging from the news; try taking an occasional “news fast” and limiting screen time as much as possible, especially for the first hour each day.
I also encourage people to explore using “alternate nostril breathing”—by a subtle but powerful yoga practice called Nadi Shodhana. Start by closing your left nostril (using your right pointer finger) and slowly exhale and inhale through the right nostril. Pause and hold your breath to a count of three. Then close your right nostril (with your right thumb) and slowly exhale and inhale through the left nostril. Pause and hold your breath to a count of three. Repeat up to ten cycles, gradually increasing the number of repetitions as you gain experience. Ultimately this breathing technique helps to balance the left and right hemispheres of the brain while shifting the nervous system into parasympathetic mode. I find that alternate nostril breathing is one of the best tools for bringing awareness to the present moment and instantly quieting the mind.
“Try taking an occasional ‘news fast’ and limiting screen time as much as possible, especially for the first hour each day.”
Lastly, surround yourself with the right kind of people (at work and at home) and use daily affirmations, quotes, mantras, etc. to fill your mind with positivity. My personal favorite quote at the moment is from Thich Nhat Hanh: “smile, breathe, and go slowly.” It makes me happy.
On L-theanine and GABA:
- Trends in Food Science & Technology (1999): L-theanine—a unique amino acid of green tea and its relaxation effect in humans
- Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2008): L-theanine, a natural constituent in tea, and its effect on mental state
- Korean Journal of Nutrition (2003): Effects of theanine on the release of brain alpha wave in adult males
- Journal of Herbal Pharmacotherapy (2006): The neuropharmacology of L-theanine (N-ethyl-L-glutamine): a possible neuroprotective and cognitive enhancing agent
- Frontiers in Psychology (2015): Neurotransmitters as food supplements: the effects of GABA on brain and behavior
- Nordic Journal of Psychiatry (2007): Clinical trial of Rhodiola rosea L. extract SHR-5 in the treatment of mild to moderate depression
- Phytomedicine (2015): Rhodiola rosea versus sertraline for major depressive disorder: A randomized placebo-controlled trial
- Alternative Medicine Review (2001): Rhodiola rosea: A possible plant adaptogen
- Phytomedicine (2003): A randomized trial of two different doses of a SHR-5 Rhodiola rosea extract versus placebo and control of capacity for mental work
- Phytotherapy Research (2005): Stimulating effect of adaptogens: an overview with particular reference to their efficacy following single dose administration
- Complementary Therapies in Medicine (2017): affron® a novel saffron extract (Crocus sativus L.) improves mood in healthy adults over 4 weeks in a double-blind, parallel, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial
- BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2004): Comparison of Crocus sativus L. and imipramine in the treatment of mild to moderate depression: a pilot double-blind randomized trial
- Journal of Affective Disorders (2014): A randomized, double-blind, clinical trial comparing the efficacy and safety of Crocus sativus L. with fluoxetine for improving mild to moderate depression in post percutaneous coronary intervention patients
- Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry (2007): Comparison of petal of Crocus sativus L. and fluoxetine in the treatment of depressed outpatients: a pilot double-blind randomized trial
- Journal of Ethnopharmacology (2005): Hydro-alcoholic extract of Crocus sativus L. versus fluoxetine in the treatment of mild to moderate depression: a double-blind, randomized pilot trial
On collagen and bioavailability:
- Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (1981): Bioavailability: A factor in protein quality
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2009): Ingestion of a protein hydrolysate is accompanied by an accelerated in vivo digestion and absorption rate when compared with its intact protein
- Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (2005): Identification of food-derived collagen peptides in human blood after oral ingestion of gelatin hydrolysates
Dr. Nick Bitz is a licensed, board-certified naturopathic doctor who specializes in Ayurveda. He currently serves as Chief Scientific Officer at Nutrawise and helps develop nutritional products under the Youtheory brand. Bitz completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Denver where he received a dual degree in Human Biology and Cognitive Neuroscience. He went on to earn his medical degree from Bastyr University and completed his medical residency at the Riverwalk Natural Health Clinic in Vail, Colorado. Outside of his clinical work, Bitz is a writer and expert in nutritional supplement formulations.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.