Working for mental health and addiction, I appreciate the impact of lifestyle choices (diet/nutrition, stress reduction and leisure) on mental health, including depression, seasonal effective disorder (SAD), anxiety, and even bipolar disease.
What we eat and drink directly affects the structure of the brain that, in turn, influences the brain’s function. This includes both the synthesis and function of neurotransmitters as well as the presence or absence of inflammation. Most psychiatrists fail to appreciate the role of nutrition in mental health. Medication alone cannot help you make up for a crappy diet.
No amount of Paxil, Celexa, Lexapro, or Viibryd will make up for an inadequate intake of iodine, B12, B3, folate or omega-3 fats, or other nutrients.
Now I’m not saying medication has no role in mental health. It’s just unreasonable to think that you can have optimal psychological and emotional health without addressing your underlying biology. So whether you’re using talk therapy, medication, or both to manage mental health, you will get better results if the physical health is addressed as well.
How Important Is Feeding Your Brain?
Serotonin, dopamine, and norepinepherine are the three neurotransmitters that concern mental health. The building blocks for these guys are amino acids derived from protein; a nutrient that most of us easily get in adequate amounts (except for homeless, elderly, and those with addiction, for example).
Improving your diet and using targeted supplements helps improve your mood, with a possibility of reducing or eliminating medication use.
Vitamins and minerals are critical in the synthesis and function of the neurotransmitters. For a steady neurotransmitter production and function, we need optimal amounts of nutrients on a daily basis. A lack of such a diet results in and aggravates mood disorders like depression.1
9 Nutrients Important For Mental Health
1. Omega-3 Fats
Food sources of omega-3 fats are fatty fish, omega-3 fortified eggs, and supplements.
The omega-3 fat DHA is critical for brain cell (neuron) structure. If your diet doesn’t have enough of it, other fats will take its place, such as trans fat, which spells trouble. Trans fat increases inflammation, which in turn increases the risk of depression.
The other main omega-3 fat EPA helps with neuron function and also reduces inflammation, which is why research supports the role of omega-3 fats in reducing the symptoms of depression (and other mood disorders).
This can be thought of as the new vitamin D. Iodine is critical for a healthy thyroid, the master of metabolism (i.e., cellular fitness). Most of us don’t get enough of iodine as it has largely been removed from our food supply. The average iodine intake has reduced from about 800 mcg per day to 138–350 mcg per day.
Good food sources include seaweed, cod, and iodized salt.
Moderate food sources include milk, yogurt, and eggs.
While the average intake can stave off an overt deficiency, it likely won’t be enough for optimal functioning of physiological processes. If you go for supplements, opt a good-quality one that provides at least an RDA of 150 mcg.
This is a tireless ally involved in over 250 separate biochemical pathways, or reactions, that support just about every function. It is critical for neurotransmitter production and function.
Good food sources include oysters, crab, beef, lamb, pork, dark meat, chicken, legumes, cashews, and a good-quality multivitamin with minerals.
Zinc is also needed for healthy digestion and a strong immune system, most of which is found in the digestive tract. A healthy digestive tract equals optimal mental health since 90% of serotonin and 50% of dopamine is produced in the small intestines.
Like zinc, magnesium is required for over 300 separate biochemical pathways, or reactions, needed for healthy bones and teeth, reduced anxiety, lower blood pressure, and reduced risk of diabetes to name a few. Most of us only get about half of the recommended magnesium amount.
Good food sources include nuts and seeds, dark green vegetables, whole grains, bran, and dark chocolate.
Magnesium helps activate the enzymes needed for serotonin, dopamine, and norepinepherine production. The supplements can help people meet their minimum daily requirement on a consistent basis, thus helping reduce depression by avoiding magnesium deficiency.
5. Vitamin D
Most people don’t get enough of this vitamin. The brain loves vitamin D and has loads of vitamin D receptors just waiting for their payload.
The few natural food sources available include oil/fatty fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, and trout and eggs to a lesser extent.
Vitamin D deficiency has not only been linked to depression but anxiety, SAD, and dementia as well. Supplementation is the only viable option to raise vitamin D levels enough to lower the risk of depression.
Like iodine, selenium is needed for good thyroid function. Often, just increasing selenium intake can improve early symptoms of low thyroid function. A healthy thyroid supports mental health including reducing the risk for depression.
Good food sources include Brazil nuts, fish, ham, shrimp, liver, and chicken.
Selenium helps convert the inactive thyroid hormone T4 to the active form T3. It also helps make the master antioxidant and detoxifying compound glutathione. Increasing glutathione levels has been shown to reduce depression, likely because glutathione reduces inflammation in the brain.
Iron deficiency is more common in women than in men due to losses via menstruation. The most common form of anemia is iron deficiency and its symptoms are similar to depression: fatigue, irritability, apathy, brain fog, and lack of motivation and appetite. Such a broad range of symptoms can lead to a misdiagnosis and aggravate any existing legitimate depression symptoms.
Good food sources are beef, pork, lamb, dark meat chicken, eggs, liver, oysters, and white beans.
Eating foods rich in vitamin C along with iron-rich foods helps to increase the absorption of iron. For women, a multivitamin with minerals typically provides 8–12 mg of iron. Men should choose a multi that is iron-free.
8. B Complex
This typically includes about 11 B vitamins, all of which are involved in neurotransmitter production and function. Some, like B12, are needed to help maintain brain mass, a.k.a. prevent brain shrinkage—a cause of dementia. Depression is a classic B12 deficiency symptom.
Other B vitamins important for mental health include B1, B6, B3, and folate. Folate, along with B12 and B6, helps to lower the levels of homocysteine, a by-product of protein metabolism. Elevated levels of homocysteine increase the risk of depression.
B vitamins are found in whole grains, nuts and seeds, dark green vegetables, and meat.
For dietary folate to be effective, it needs to be converted to its active form 5-MTHR; however, about 66% of the population don’t do this effectively because they have a mutation in the gene [5-MTHF reductase] that metabolizes folate into 5-MTHF, putting them at a 180% increased risk of folate deficiency.
9. Vitamin C
Vitamin C deficiency usually causes conditions like scurvy and bleeding, swollen, and achy gums all of which resolve within a week after the initiation of vitamin C supplements. But one of the more common symptoms of vitamin C deficiency is depression.
Good food sources include citrus, kiwi, bell peppers, and strawberries.
Nearly 20% percentage of the population can be functionally vitamin C deficient not only because of their diet but also because they have a gene mutation that doesn’t allow them to absorb and metabolize the vitamin properly. This puts them at a 150% increased risk of vitamin C deficiency.
In a nutshell, food feeds the brain. Optimal mental health cannot be realized if the underlying biology of mood regulation and the structure and function of the brain isn’t addressed. Feeding your brain and enhancing an optimal sense of well-being is as close as your grocery store!
|↑1||Du, Jing, Ming Zhu, Hongkun Bao, Bai Li, Yilong Dong, Chunjie Xiao, Grace Y. Zhang, Ioline Henter, Matthew Rudorfer, and Benedetto Vitiello. “The role of nutrients in protecting mitochondrial function and neurotransmitter signaling: implications for the treatment of depression, PTSD, and suicidal behaviors.” Critical reviews in food science and nutrition just-accepted (2014): 00-00.|