New Beginnings Therapy

New Beginnings Therapy

Nutrition and Mental Health: What are the links?

Q&As with specialist 

 Natascha Van Zyl from 

TaschMar Holistic Health

Question one: About you

My name is Natascha Van Zyl. I work as a behaviour change practitioner. I'm also a naturopath, a researcher, and a senior academic. Now, that may all sound a bit abstract and wordy, but essentially where my interest and passion began was many, many years ago in South Africa, growing up in a very culturally diverse country, where a lot was happening in the socio-political and cultural landscape.

Being a human rights activist myself, I really wanted to address the inequalities in healthcare and beyond, at the grassroots level, and that involved participation in campaigns around health and well-being, starting community outreach projects and working in the community. That really helped me to understand the importance of mental health and physical health and the connection between the two. I then commenced my studies at undergraduate level where I started expanding my understanding of what it is to be healthy, and how it is that we can, as a society, improve that. So I did my undergraduate studies in psychology (including counselling), sociology, and human biology. I also completed naturopathic studies in herbalism and botanical medicine, aromatherapy, reflexology, nutrition, and physical therapies.

I later moved abroad to the UK and continued my studies in psychology and integrative medicine, and I'm now currently finishing my doctorate and health psychology (HCPC registration due during 2022).

Question two: Your practice background and how would you best describe your practice?

That's a really good question. My practice is quite eclectic, in the sense that I draw from quite a few methodologies and schools of thought. The foundation of what I do rests in naturopathy, which is an umbrella term used to describe a collection of therapeutic modalities and lifestyle medicine. Things that are easily accessible to us, and things that we can incorporate into our lives really quickly, but that have maximal impact, like nutrition, which provides the essential foundation. So, I use things like food, exercise, meditation, and supplementation to provide a scaffold to restore health and well-being, allowing my client time to re-set and heal. And then of course, if there are counselling requirements then that is something I do as well (ACT, CBT, SFBT). So it's quite an integrative way of working, in the sense that I look at the body, but I also look at the mind. And that really leads into your next question, which is around nutrition specifically.

Question three: Why nutrition?

Nutrition is really important. I think if we look at what's happened during the pandemic, the COVID-19 landscape has been frightening, yet simultaneously, very illuminating. It has brought our attention to the fact that our metabolic health as a nation, arguably a world, is really poor. This urges us to consider the question around our need to understand the ‘nuts and bolts’ of our own human body, and indeed, what ‘makes’ our bodies and keeps them functioning well. Specifically, I think when we look at things like nutrition, ‘you are what you can absorb’, rather than ‘you are what you eat.’ This is really fundamentally a question around food quality and the access we have to food. It also then looks at farming practices, farming methods… What is the quality that we get from ‘farm to fork’… what is the quality that actually ends up on our plate? Really understanding how food can be used to build our bodies and help keep us healthy is key. Furthermore, this also extends beyond the hedonic pleasures associated with eating, by necessitating the understanding of the intricate role nutrition plays in mental health. If you think about it logically, your food is broken down into a myriad of tiny little molecules… things like lipids and amino acids… essentially the body’s building blocks. Neurotransmitters, like dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and endorphins are synthesized… all these wonderful molecules have a direct influence on our mental health. So yes, nutrition is where I start but it is not where I end… If we need to ‘bolt-on’ other therapeutic modalities like physical therapies, utilize certain remedies, or consult with conventional medical services for example, because there's always a place for that, then I will absolutely incorporate that into the treatment plan. But I start with ‘nuts and bolts’, where we can begin to explore and address any underlying pathology or identify a deficiency. I then work collaboratively with the client, to make things better.

Question four: What theoretical model/school of thought/ you practice and what are the reasons (your understanding in applicability of such model/s)?

There again, it's quite eclectic. So, the heart of my practice is centred in Systems Theory or Integrative Functional Medicine as it is called now (an updated version of Systems Theory relating to biological science). This ultimately links beautifully with the ‘Biopsychosocial model’, which really looks at understanding an individual, in a myriad of eco-systemic settings. In this context, we begin by looking at biological antecedents. In other words, what's happening in someone's body, health-wise… what is affecting them? This is however not done in isolation and extends to include the social setting as well. So, where someone lives, their housing conditions, employment conditions, their relationships with families and friends, and also consider environmental influences like community and societal-level issues, which impact the individual. Things like access to food, fresh air, and open space, recreation and care are important considerations, too. Therefore, at the heart of it, Integrative Functional Medicine provides a theoretical framework to explore what is happening from a biological perspective, looking at how the systems interact with one another, to create optimal health. This also includes psychological and socio-cultural domains, to determine the impact of factors influencing health. We need to remember that we do not operate in a vacuum, in isolation from our environment… this is a reciprocal relationship where the environment also has an influence upon us. So it's looking at and understanding the significance of those interactions for the individual concerned, and designing a bespoke intervention that suits them.

Question five: Are there essential elements (i.e. behaviour /analysis) of emphasis in your practice that you feel are most clearly linked or targeting interventions for mental health? Could it be such an argument?

In this context, I draw on health psychology perspectives. I will start with an assessment, which I call an eco-systemic assessment because I look at the individual as a whole in their environment, rather than as a set of symptoms. I like to encourage an open conversation where I can get to know the person I’m working with, so I can develop an overall impression of what is needed, and where we can go with therapy. Together we establish areas of concern and determine the goals for therapy. That's very important. I work very much in a ‘motivational interviewing’ space, where I believe that the client and I work in collaboration - we are partners working together to get the best for the client regardless of whatever their healthcare journey entails. So initially, I will start off with an assessment where we then start to formulate exactly what is going on… what the struggles are and what things need to be addressed. Then we design an individualized intervention for implementation. This intervention is dynamic and will evolve over time as the individual grows and makes changes. The client and I engage in an iterative process of ongoing evaluation, and the intervention plan is amended as required to suit the current need, which includes completion if the client is fit and well.

Question six: About ‘Are we what we eat?’ - a different formulation? How would you re/formulate such a question to better reflect your knowledge and experience in your specialist field?

I think I addressed that a little bit earlier on… Essentially, I think ‘we are what we eat’ is an outdated, oversimplified, and very myopic view of the role that food and nutrition play in health, similar to the concept of ‘calories in calories out’, because there's a lot more going on there. So, yes, we are what we eat to a certain extent, but arguably, more importantly, we are what we can absorb. There are a lot of issues around what we can actually absorb if we're thinking about autoimmune conditions, digestive complaints, liver detoxification problems… all of these things affect how the body is able to actually take the food that you ingest, and bio-transform it into something that is usable by the body. So, my argument would simply be that ‘we are what we can absorb and assimilate.’

Question seven: How important do you think a sense of well-being is for a person to develop/ enhance their understanding, or curiosity about their bodies and their mind? 

That's a really good question. I think it is absolutely essential that we are in tune not only with our bodies, and our feelings but also with our environment and in all the interconnections associated with that. In this case, another thing that I do in my practice is to encourage the use of mindfulness techniques… like meditation. Here the focus is becoming centred, being present, and living in the present moment, rather than obsessing about what happened in the past, or thinking incessantly about the future… about things that may not even happen. The emphasis is on the present, thinking about what's important to you right now, and yes, have your goals, but have a game plan too because then you can take the steps needed to make things happen (i.e. the how-to-do-it). I think that's the important thing. For me, if we're looking at the connection between body and mind and how important that is to developing that sense of curiosity, or that sense of well-being, I see it as ‘being connected’. It's all interconnected - your physical health, your mental health, your emotional health, your spiritual health. It's also connected with your environment and your community; all of that has a role to play. I think that it is really important to understand that and to deepen your self-awareness, communicating your feelings openly and honestly. Whether that is through journaling, creative or leisure pursuits, talking to friends, or seeking professional help if needed, it is particularly important and relevant at this time during the pandemic, where social isolation is such a big problem. The way we work, play, and engage as human beings, has changed profoundly. Humans, by nature, are gregarious… we have a deep need to socialise because it shapes our identity, gives us a sense of belonging and purpose… and this change in socialisation is a tremendous challenge for all of us. I think that understanding and exploring new ways to connect, socialise, work, and to support one another going forward in this COVID-19 landscape, is vitally important for mental health and well-being.

Question eight: What surprises you most in your applicable practice?

I would have to say ‘the disconnect’ and a ‘lack of understanding’. We are so disconnected from our bodies and our Psyche around what is important to us, what has meaning, and what is essential for our own unique growth, because for many of us reality is centred on survival… the survival instinct dominates. If we look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, it's very difficult to self-actualize when you're constantly in ‘crisis mode’, trying to survive, pay the bills and earn a living. So, I think that ‘the disconnect’ is around what we think we want, possibly issues around self-esteem and ultimately a lack of self-awareness. The ‘lack of understanding’ could stem from many things too… arguably this could include the quality of information available in the media or mainstream education. Moreover, I think the loss of the ‘sense of community’ is also significant here, where invaluable learning from previous generations has sadly been lost. Having said that, what I have observed predominantly during the pandemic, is that people have sought connection elsewhere… So we've got Zoom and other platforms for chats. Things, like socialising, education, work, the arts and even healthcare have moved online. Social media has exploded with, for example, TikToks and Insta posts regarding life during these challenging times, including comedy to enhance mood and self-help biohacking for health. Social media platforms have become instrumental in many ways for keeping people connected now, nonetheless, there are some significant disadvantages associated with that, like tech addiction and the impact it has on relationships, for example – things to be very mindful of. However, the bottom line is that people want connection, and I think we're going to find it interesting to see how people choose to connect over the next few years, given the potential for further pandemic-related restrictions in the future. So, in terms of the most surprises in practice for me, given the demands of remote working, it's about learning how to reach my client base, being able to assess their needs, while encouraging them to articulate those in a way where I can help facilitate self-directed change in a meaningful way while maintaining the emphasis on the importance of human connection. I also think it is about inviting my clients to understand the importance of eating healthy and eating for sustenance, rather than just to fill a gap. If there is a gap to be filled, then explore that fully so we can do something more constructive and positive around that for building a healthy body and mind.

Question nine: What aspects of your practice keep you focused and passionate in your field of practice?

My focus and my passion have always been around understanding the mind-body connection and empowerment. I suppose this really stems back from my childhood interest in and the origins of medicine… looking at Hippocrates, Aristotle, Plato, all the great philosophers and their questions regarding the body-mind dichotomy… duality… the great singularity… I simply wanted to know more! Also having grown up in South Africa, as I mentioned earlier, looking at the inequalities in the healthcare system, for example, and really wanting to strive to reduce those inequalities, where people could have equal access to care to optimise their health. Beyond that, also creating opportunities for individuals to actualize themselves in a way where they could become their best selves. That was my guiding ethos, and still is today – to empower! The body-mind connection is really important, encompassing an understanding of the environment, particularly now when the world is in a state of flux. The impact of for example, climate change, erratic weather patterns, poverty, and the extinction rebellion cannot be ignored and has also been very influential in my practice. Furthermore, there is a growing worldwide conscious awareness on a much deeper level. Whether we call it a spiritual awakening or a psychological one, I don't know, but there is definitely an awakening of sorts taking place… It is therefore about linking that awakening with our body’s innate intelligence (i.e. the body’s ability to regulate itself) and connecting that with the environment in which we live because we are symbionts. By that, I mean that we live in a symbiotic relationship with the environment. Understanding that symbiosis and nurturing the environment is vitally important to our survival going forward, rather than us being parasites living off a host with finite resources. So again, bringing that back to the individual… and bringing it back to nutrition, if we don't have healthy land and healthy animals, our food sources will be impoverished. Consequently, this has a direct impact on our health. So it makes logical sense to look after the planet through for example, starting in the home with our food choices and recycling, not wasting water or energy, re-using things… It's like ‘passing it forward’ in a way, where each of us becomes a vital part of something bigger than ourselves. And I think that's the big takeaway for me… inviting people to consider that they are important, that they have a very important role to play, and they are part of the bigger picture… Reminding them that there is this wonderful intelligence within the human body, which once you tap into it, can improve your health in ways that are immeasurable. For example, by engaging in practices like intermittent fasting, that innate intelligence that knows how to recycle and repair the body while we are in a fasted state. We call that process ‘Autophagy’. Other practices like meditation, mindfulness, and connecting with the people in your environment, like your neighbours, one way or the other, even if it is with a cup of coffee over a fence, that's important. That's really what keeps me going in my practice because I think that is what connects us as human beings, and my passion is empowering people and helping them to see that there's more to life than social media would present. It's not all about things, it's about people! In South Africa, this is called ‘UBUNTHU’. Simply put… humanity… what is it to be human.

Question ten: How important is teaching (for you)?

I think teaching is fundamental to all things... having a guide to show you the way, but at the same time to allow you the grace to follow your path independently. Thinking of my teachers in the past, my spiritual teacher Swami Mataji Narayani, was instrumental in guiding me to the path I follow today. She ran an Ashram called Sohum Sanctuary in South Africa. Swami Mataji was a homoeopath and a spiritual teacher. Meeting her sparked my interests further and she taught me about natural healing methods, the importance of self-analysis, and that we are intricately connected to the environment. She highlighted the importance of listening to the inner wisdom and being guided by that. As such, I think teaching is a vocation, something which is an integral part of my role as a healthcare practitioner and mentor because it is the tool I use to help people find their own inner light. I do so by facilitating learning and providing people with a structured approach, helping to instill the requisite knowledge and skills that they require in order to achieve their aspirations. So, teaching is at the heart of what I do. I want to make life better by sharing information and insights with people, so we can make positive changes together, and walk into a new tomorrow with hope.

Natascha Van Zyl MSc Health Psychology PGCE CNHC CThA MBPsS

Behaviour Change Practitioner | Naturopath | Academic

Mobile contact: 0796 1061 965




Functional Medicine:

Fung, J. (2016). The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss (Why Intermittent Fasting Is the Key to Controlling Your Weight). Canada: Greystone Books. 

Intermittent fasting and autophagy:

Lehman, B. J., David, D. M., & Gruber, J. A. (2017). "Rethinking the biopsychosocial model of health: Understanding health as a dynamic system". Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(8)

McLeod, S. (2007). "Maslow's hierarchy of needs". Simply psychology, 1(1-18). 

Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2012). Motivational interviewing: Helping people change. New York: Guilford Press.

Noland, D., Drisko, J. A., & Wagner, L. (Eds.). (2020). Integrative and functional medical nutrition therapy: principles and practices. Springer Nature.

Swami Mataji Narayani:

Tapper, K. (2021). Health Psychology and Behaviour Change: From Science to Practice.  London: Bloomsbury Publishing.