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A Functional Medicine Approach to Mental Health Issues

Holistic Health

In Part 1 of this series, I covered the most common mental health disorders that people face. We discussed how healthy lifestyle interventions are typically missed in a medical system dedicated to psychiatric medications and psychiatric services. For example, we don’t hear much about the benefits of nature on mental health or breathing exercises for anxiety. 

While a mental health assessment and psychiatric diagnosis are essential, many people benefit from psychotherapy and medical management. However, functional medicine offers a unique perspective on mental health. Understanding root causes is a powerful framework from which to personalize treatment plans. 

The best part is that functional medicine and mental health treatment can work together to provide the best possible care. 

This article will cover common root causes of mental health issues, along with simple lifestyle tools that anyone can benefit from. Please always consult with your functional medicine doctor or another provider for personalized guidance. 

Root Causes of Mental Health Issues 

When thinking about what causes mental health issues, it’s helpful to take a systems approach. When we understand how body systems are connected, it’s easy to see how root causes, (often in other areas of the body), affect the brain. 

“When we understand how body systems are connected, it’s easy to see how root causes, (often in other areas of the body), affect the brain.” 

Here are some root causes to consider: 

Gut health. The gut-brain axis describes the well-known connection between the gut microbiome and digestive system and the brain. While the brain does influence gut function, signals are also sent in the other direction.

Those with mental health issues have been found to have differences in their microbiome compared to the general population. In addition, increasing beneficial bacteria in the gut, through diet change and probiotic supplementation has been shown to improve mood and reduce anxiety. 

“Those with mental health issues have been found to have differences in their microbiome compared to the general population.” 

● Nutrient deficiencies. Food choices and dietary patterns influence the nutrients available to build brain structure, neurotransmitters and allow for optimal brain function. Nutrient deficiencies linked to mental illness include: 

o Folate 

o Vitamin B12 

o Thiamin (Vitamin B1) 

o Riboflavin (Vitamin B2) 

o Vitamin B6 

o Protein 

o Calcium 

o Chromium 

o Iodine 

o Iron 

o Lithium 

o Selenium 

o Zinc 

o Omega-3 fats 

What are the causes of poor mental health? We simply can’t overlook the foundational role of nutrition. 

Hormone imbalances. I’ve written before about the connection between hormones and neurotransmitters. This connection is important for understanding women’s mental health. 

Women experience more mental disorders and mood symptoms than men, often correlating with times of hormonal fluctuation including puberty, the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, postpartum and perimenopause. This is because levels of estrogen and progesterone affect brain health and neurotransmitter levels. 

Inflammation. Inflammation plays a role in every chronic disease. Mental health disorders are no exception. The role of inflammation is most understood in the case of depression, where underlying inflammation and the associated immune dysregulation contribute to the disease process. 

Chronic inflammation may stem from an inflammatory diet, insulin resistance, persistent viral infection, gut infection, stress, trauma and other sources. 

Benefits of Exercise on Mental Health

Mental and emotional health can be improved through exercise. It’s as simple as that, but how does exercise improve mental health? 

Effects of exercise on mental health include: 

● A positive effect on mood 

● Helpful for anxiety disorder treatment, depression and stress 

● Increases endorphins 

● Increases neurotransmitters, including dopamine 

● Stimulates the HPA-axis 

● Increases energy 

● Improves health outcomes 

● Increases blood flow to brain, neurogenesis and brain function 

● Reduces inflammation 

Gentle and moderate exercise is enough to produce benefits. Activities like walking, gardening and swimming are good for the body and mind. Find how you love to move and do that more. 

Diet and Mental Health 

A healthy diet for anxiety and depression, and other common mental health disorders may look like the diet I promote for overall wellness. A diet composed of whole, nutrient-dense food is where to start to provide the brain with the raw materials it needs to function its best. 

And don’t underestimate the power of plants! Increasing fruits and vegetables in the diet are associated with mental well-being and happiness. And it’s more nuanced than just eating your fruits and veggies – we know that consuming fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and other sources of soluble fiber that convert into short chain fatty acids greatly influence the microbiome which positively affects mental health. So, don’t fear whole food sources of carbohydrates – they are arguably the most important foods for not just mental health, but total health! Additionally, one study in college students found that those who ate breakfast every day, had regular meal patterns and ate at least eight servings of produce had the highest happiness score. 

Your functional medicine provider can help you uncover your unique root causes of mental health challenges and help you dial in your diet and lifestyle for optimal support. Often, the simplest interventions, like walking for 20 minutes or adding an extra serving of leafy greens to your day, have profound effects when practiced consistently. 

If you are ready to dive in, please contact us to learn more! 


1. Butler, M. I., Mörkl, S., Sandhu, K. V., Cryan, J. F., & Dinan, T. G. (2019). The Gut Microbiome and Mental Health: What Should We Tell Our Patients?: Le microbiote Intestinal et la Santé Mentale : que Devrions-Nous dire à nos Patients?. Canadian journal of psychiatry. Revue canadienne de psychiatrie, 64(11), 747–760. 

2. Rao, T. S., Asha, M. R., Ramesh, B. N., & Rao, K. S. (2008). Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian journal of psychiatry, 50(2), 77–82. 3. Krolick, K. N., Zhu, Q., & Shi, H. (2018). Effects of Estrogens on Central Nervous System Neurotransmission: Implications for Sex Differences in Mental Disorders. Progress in molecular biology and translational science, 160, 105–171. 

4. Beurel, E., Toups, M., & Nemeroff, C. B. (2020). The Bidirectional Relationship of Depression and Inflammation: Double Trouble. Neuron, 107(2), 234–256. 5. Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Polenakovic, M., Bosevski, M., & Apostolopoulos, V. (2017). Exercise and mental health. Maturitas, 106, 48–56. 

6. Deslandes, A., Moraes, H., Ferreira, C., Veiga, H., Silveira, H., Mouta, R., Pompeu, F. A., Coutinho, E. S., & Laks, J. (2009). Exercise and mental health: many reasons to move. Neuropsychobiology, 59(4), 191–198. 

7. Mujcic, R., & J Oswald, A. (2016). Evolution of Well-Being and Happiness After Increases in Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables. American journal of public health, 106(8), 1504–1510. 

8. Lesani, A., Mohammadpoorasl, A., Javadi, M., Esfeh, J. M., & Fakhari, A. (2016). Eating breakfast, fruit and vegetable intake and their relation with happiness in college students. Eating and weight disorders : EWD, 21(4), 645–651.


The Fork Functional Medicine
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