5 Key Nutrients for Mental Health
Updated: Nov 8, 2019
There is now a much greater awareness of the connection between the food we eat and our mental state. For myself, this connection was overlooked the majority of my life. I always knew that, in general, it was important to eat healthily but I never imagined how profound the connection between food and mood was. I didn't know that the crippling anxiety I experienced daily was affected by the things I was consuming in my diet (and the things that I wasn’t). If I was in a low mood, it must be due to external factors, a brain imbalance or perhaps lack of sleep. While each of those things could certainly contribute, in my case, diet and daily habits were far bigger contributors than I could have imagined.
The brain is the most energy-demanding organ in the body. It constantly requires energy, preferentially in the form of glucose, and its functioning involves a dynamic dance between electrical impulses, chemical neurotransmitters and hormones. These elements impact our ability to think, feel, and most importantly, to survive. In addition to requiring glucose as fuel, about 60% of the brain consists of fatty acids. The majority of these fatty acids are DHA, an important omega-3 fatty acid in the body. Vitamins and minerals are important cofactors in the countless reactions occurring in the brain and throughout the rest of the body, and sub-optimal levels of vitamins and minerals impact these processes. The consumption of addictive, stimulant compounds such as caffeine also affect our brain and along with providing the jolt of energy that so many of us crave, it can also fuel anxiety and nervousness.
The gut is also a significant contributor to our mental health. Sometimes referred to as our “second brain”, the gut is the home of our enteric nervous system and the term “gut-brain axis” is used to describe this intimate, bidirectional relationship. A key player in our gut-brain axis is the microbiome, a community of microorganisms that colonize our gut and play a wide variety of roles within our body. The microbiome is an important modulator of neurotransmitters and impacts our immune system, mood and metabolism, to name just a few (Strandwitz, 2018). Given the impact of our diet on the composition of our microbiome, there is increasing evidence to show just how important our diet is to our overall mental health (Zalar, Haslberger & Peterlin, 2018) and resiliency to stress.
With these points in mind, it makes sense that the quality of our diet has an impact on our mental health. If we’re not providing the micro- and macronutrients needed to fuel and support chemical processes in our body, and support the health of our microbiome, then this would certainly impact our overall mental and emotional state.
So, how can we help support our nervous system and overall mental health through our diet? Consuming a whole-foods, plant-focused diet is a great way to ensure that we're getting all we need to support a healthy mood balance and promote resiliency to stress. There are also a number of key nutrients that we can look to for targeted support.
To summarize, I've outlined my Top 5 Nutrients for Mental Health:
B Vitamins - B vitamins play an important role in our nervous system and inenergy metabolism. Vegetarians and vegans in particular should consider checking their B12 levels and supplementing with B12 to avoid deficiency. Great food sources of B vitamins include leafy greens, nutritional yeast and whole grains like brown rice. If supplementing, choose a B-complex over isolated B vitamins to encourage optimal absorption and avoid deficiencies in any one B vitamin.
Omega 3s - As discussed, a large proportion of the brain is comprised of fatty acids such as DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid). Omega 3s are important for overall mood and hormone balance. Food sources include wild-caught fatty fish, such as salmon, and plant sources such as chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts.
Vitamin D - Vitamin D deficiency is also strongly correlated with depression. Vitamin D is produced in our skin after exposure to the sun, but based on where you live, the time of year and your exposure to sunlight, it may be a good idea to consider a Vitamin D supplement. Food sources include mushrooms and egg yolks.
Magnesium - Magnesium is an important mineral for inducing relaxation in the body. In addition to contributing to muscular relaxation, it can support mood stabilization and help calm the nervous system. Food sources of magnesium include good-quality dark chocolate (75%+), leafy greens and almonds.
Probiotics - While not nutrients per se, I believe this list would be lacking without mentioning probiotics given the significant role our microbiome plays in supporting mental health. Try including probiotic-rich foods such as kimchi, traditional sauerkraut and kefir. Probiotic supplements are also a good choice for those wishing to provide more substantial microbiome support, particularly following a round of antibiotics.
In addition to the things we should include, there are also substances we can avoid if we want to further support our mental health. Substances such as caffeine, alcohol and refined carbohydrates can affect our nervous system in profound ways. Caffeine consumption has become a mainstay in our fast-paced society, and can contribute to anxiety and nervousness in many individuals. Alcohol consumption is also heavily normalized, and overconsumption contributes to nutritional deficiencies, hormone imbalances and impacts our overall mental health. Refined carbohydrates have also become a mainstay in the Standard American Diet through their presence in processed and refined foods, affecting our blood sugar levels, hormone balance and promoting inflammation in the body. While there is room for most things in moderation in a healthy diet, these substances should be consumed at a minimum (if at all) when trying to restore balance to a stressed nervous system.
Foster, J.A., Neufeld, K-A. M. (2013). Gut-brain axis: how the microbiome influences anxiety and depression. Trends Neurosci. 26(5): 305-312.
Strandwitz, P. (2018). Neurotransmitter modulation by the gut microbiota. Brain Res. 1693(Pt B): 128-133. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2018.03.015
Zalar, B., Haslberger, A. & Peterlin, B. (2018). The role of microbiota in depression – a brief review. Psychiatria Danubina. 30(2): 136-141.