According to the World Health Organization, mental health disorders primarily include depression and anxiety, bipolar affective disorder, schizophrenia and other psychoses, dementia, intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders including autism . Additionally, depression alone affects more than 300 million people of all ages globally, and is the leading cause of disability worldwide . Unfortunately, depression is predicted to be the leading cause of disease burden by 2030 .
For many years, the treatment of mental illness has centered on trying to balance chemicals in the brain by altering the activity of neurotransmitters, or our “chemical messengers.” Pharmaceutical drugs have been commonly recommended in the medical community to help manage conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and more. In the last 30 years, however, research has progressed the understanding of the complexity of the brain, as well as the relationship between our biochemistry and our environment. Though there isn’t one single cause to any given mental health disorder, there are many contributing factors.
Biochemistry and The Walsh Protocol
Biochemistry is the branch of science dedicated to understanding chemical processes that occur within a living organism. In other words, it’s the study of the ways our brain and body can be influenced through chemical reactions inside our bodies. Nutritional biochemistry takes it a step further by including the knowledge of nutrients, their chemical properties, and the effects on functions in the body. What’s powerful about this is that each person has their own unique biochemistry, meaning we all have different nutritional needs. According to Dr. Walsh and his colleagues, our biochemistry, which influences our personality, behavior, mental well-being, immune function, allergic tendencies, and more, can be regulated and optimized . Though it can sometimes be easier to understand the connection between nutrition and physical illness, there’s also a significant relationship between nutrition and mental health.
The Walsh Protocol, developed by William Walsh, PhD, seeks to do just that. In his extensive research and book, Nutrient Power: Heal Your Biochemistry and Heal Your Brain, he discusses the science-based nutrient therapy system that can be used to help people diagnosed with mental disorders . Dr. Walsh has studied thousands of cases of autism, depression, anxiety, ADD, ADHD, and other behavior problems, seeking to find out what these conditions have in common. He has since presented his findings to the American Psychiatric Association, the U.S. Senate, and the National Institute of Mental Health. The Walsh Protocol assumes that many mental illnesses stem from imbalances inside the body which can cause extreme fluctuations in mood, behavior, focus, and cognition.
Commonalities in Mental Illnesses
After more than 12 years of research alongside Carl Pfeiffer, MD, PhD and Abram Hoffer, MD, PhD, Dr. Walsh and his colleagues have observed a few biochemical commonalities in mental illnesses. 
Studies have shown that many people with mental illness are deficient in zinc, or that there’s an imbalance between zinc and copper, which are important trace minerals. This is important because zinc and copper balance each other out, and when copper is too high, it can change the levels of dopamine (“motivation” neurotransmitter) and norepinephrine (“stress” neurotransmitter). Elevated copper can also impact hormonal balance. 
You can think of methylation as “on and off” switches that control nearly everything in the body, including the stress response, detoxification, energy production, immune responses, and more. Moreover, proper methylation is involved in gene expression, which can be positive or negative based on things like our environment, toxin exposure, or nutrition. When there’s a malfunction in methylation pathways, people can become over- or under-methylated, meaning each of these processes can become disrupted, which has been observed in many cases of mental illness.
According to Dr. Walsh, a common feature of many behavior and emotional disorders is pyroluria, which refers to a condition that results in the overproduction of pyrroles and is a sign of oxidative stress in the body. Pyrroles are a byproduct of hemoglobin synthesis, and hemoglobin is the red protein responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body. Elevated levels of pyrroles in the urine have been linked to emotional mood swings, poor short-term memory, explosive temper, depression, digestive conditions, anxiety, bipolar disorder, autism, learning disabilities, alcoholism, and also results in deficiencies in zinc and Vitamin B6 . Some evidence suggests that pyrrole disorders are genetic, but the severity can be influenced by things like stress or even traumatic life events .
Other factors that have been linked to mental illness include abnormal blood sugar regulation, toxicity from heavy metals or other organic chemicals, malabsorption of nutrients in the gut, and deficiencies in essential fatty acids . Each of these can negatively influence the normal functioning of the body, especially of the brain.
Walsh Protocol Treatment Plan
The Walsh Protocol incorporates advanced nutrient therapy as an alternative treatment approach, providing a natural method to correct the imbalances in neurotransmitter activity . Clinically, it’s important to identify what nutrients an individual may be deficient in, and from there, design a treatment plan aimed at normalizing brain chemistry. [6, 8]
Though we each have a unique set of genes, some of which that can be predisposing to different conditions, this doesn’t mean our genetic destiny is set in stone. It’s often said in functional medicine that “genes load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger.” Our overall mental health is dependent on having the right nutrients in the right amounts to positively influence the ways these genes are expressed. It’s also crucial that the nutrients from our food are absorbed and made available to the body, meaning a healthy gut is key.
The Gut’s Role in Mental Health
Did you know that the gut is also a major site of neurotransmitter production? Though we often think of the brain as a major chemical factory, producing serotonin (“feel good” hormone), dopamine, norepinephrine, etc., the gut houses 90% of the serotonin in addition to storing dopamine, GABA (“calming” neurotransmitter), and more. The gut-brain-axis (GBA) consists of two-way communication between the gut and the brain . This means that the state of the gut can influence the brain and vise-versa–so having a healthy gastrointestinal tract is vital for the whole body. Have you ever felt changes in your stomach during times of stress? That’s because of the GBA. In fact, certain psychiatric symptoms and gastrointestinal disorders have been linked, a well-known example being anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) .
Considering that the gut is the first place of contact with the outside world, it makes sense that the majority of our immune cells are also found in the gut. Whenever the body senses a threat, whether a foreign chemical or offending food, the immune system responds, creating a state of inflammation throughout the body. Think of it like an army of cells preparing for battle and self-protection. Because of the two-way connection between the gut and the brain, the brain can become inflamed, too . Coming full circle, research has found that inflammation in the body can contribute to symptoms of depression and other psychiatric conditions . We can experience a range of symptoms emotionally, mentally, physically, and even spiritually, and each part of our body is intricately connected, always communicating in an attempt to keep us going. We might not always connect the dots between the food we eat, an injury, or emotional stress, but the reality is that the whole body responds to each experience we have. Without proper balance inside the body, the mind, body, and spirit aren’t able to function as well.
Toxins, Inflammation, and Mental Health
Every single day we’re exposed to hundreds of different chemicals, from the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breath, and the products we use. With the influx of toxins, our immune system works to differentiate what’s harmful from what’s not. While an inflammatory response can be normal, and actually beneficial in the case of a skinned knee or a fever, prolonged inflammation can wreak havoc in the body. Toxins like heavy metals and other man-made chemicals can have a significant impact on the brain, both by contributing to inflammation and disrupting normal biochemical processes. This is especially true in the developing brain of a child [14, 15]. Chemicals such as phthalates, that are found in food packaging, personal care products, cosmetics, nail polish, lotions, and perfumes, have been associated with worse aggression, poorer conduct, attention difficulties, depression, anxiety, and emotional control in children . This is just one of many chemical toxins that might find their way into the body, so it’s increasingly important to support natural detoxification. Incorporate several servings of vegetables each day, especially foods like broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, and even lemon and ginger. Stay active and keep your body in motion by exercising regularly. For more information about the products you use, visit the Environmental Working Group website where you can check a safety rating for your personal care products and find more information about food and water safety.
Ways to Help Support Your Mind and Body
- Consume a variety of whole, organic foods to provide the body with as many nutrients as possible. Include plenty of dark leafy greens which provide important B-vitamins to support methylation, and other antioxidant-rich foods like wild blueberries to combat oxidative stress.
- Limit intake of inflammatory foods such as sugar, corn, wheat, and dairy as these can negatively impact the gut lining.
- Increase foods rich in zinc such as grass-fed meats, oysters, nuts, legumes, and free-range eggs.
- Manage stress. Stress can hinder gut function and also cause an increase in stress hormones circulating the body, worsening inflammation. Prolonged physical or emotional stress can also interfere with serotonin production.
- Talk to your provider about supplements to help decrease inflammation and support brain health, such as high quality fish oil, vitamin D, and other antioxidants.
For more information about how you can optimize your health and protect your brain, meet one-on-one with one of our experienced providers.
- The burden attributable to mental and substance use disorders as risk factors for suicide: findings from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010.
- World Health Organization: Mental Disorders
- World Health Organization: Depression
- Nutrient Power: Heal Your Biochemistry and Heal Your Brain
- Biochemical Individuality and Nutrition
- The Effectiveness of Targeted Nutrient Therapy in Treatment of Mental Illness
- Discerning the Mauve Factor, Part 1
- Advanced Nutrition Therapy
- The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems
- Neurotransmitters: The critical modulators regulating gut-brain axis
- Nutritional Psychiatry: Where to next?
- The plasma levels of various cytokines are increased during ongoing depression and are reduced to normal levels after recovery
- Exposures to environmental toxicants and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in U.S children
- Decreased brain volume in adults with childhood lead exposure
- Prenatal phthalate exposure is associated with childhood behavior and executive functioning