It’s no mystery that nutrition directly impacts physical wellness. Vitamins and minerals are needed for all processes in the human body— that’s why people who lack iron feel weak, people who lack calcium have brittle bones, and people who lack vitamin C have swollen gums and dry hair and skin.
Just like the rest of your body, your brain is made up of cells. Those cells need nutrients to function properly, and those nutrients are obtained from the foods we eat. When we lack essential nutrients, our brain cells malfunction and the cost is our mental health.
Studies show that the foods we eat directly impact our mental well-being. Nutrient deficiencies can result in mental disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), anxiety disorder, and even Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Let’s take a deeper look at why nutrition and mental health are so closely related.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3s have topped the charts as one of the most important groups of nutrients for optimal brain health.
It’s no coincidence that the typical diet in many Asian and North and South American countries is deficient in omega-3 fatty acids and that in those same countries, mental disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder are prevalent.
Researchers find that as omega-3 consumption declines, the number of cases of severe depression increases.
Omega-3 fatty acids not only fight depression and anxiety but also slow cognitive decline, fighting off conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, they boost brain function, improving disorders such as ADD and ADHD.
Some of the best sources of omega-3s include:
- Fatty fish (mackerel, sardines, salmon, albacore tuna)
- Chia seeds
- Flax seeds
- Fish oil
Studies show that diets low in carbohydrates may precipitate depression. Carbs trigger insulin release, which lets blood sugar into cells, which allows tryptophan to enter the brain. Tryptophan is a precursor of serotonin— the “feel good” hormone.
The best carbohydrates to consume are complex carbohydrates, and foods low on the glycemic index (GI). The less processed the food is, the longer its effects last.
Some examples of “good” sources of carbohydrates include:
- Vegetables (including tubers, sweet potatoes, and potatoes)
- Whole grains (brown rice, whole grain bread, whole grain pasta, etc.)
- Nuts and seeds
Proteins are made up of amino acids. Amino acids (including tryptophan) are used in the brain to synthesize neurotransmitters.
Protein deficiency can result in a lack of dopamine and serotonin, creating mood swings, brain fog, and anxiousness, among other things.
Good sources of protein include:
- Soy products
- Certain dairy products
There are eight B-complex vitamins:
- Thiamin (B1)
- Riboflavin (B2)
- Niacin (B3)
- Pantothenic acid (B5)
- Pyridoxine (B6)
- Biotin (B7)
- Folate, also referred to as folic acid (B9)
- Cyanocobalamin (B12)
B-complex vitamin deficiency— particularly in vitamins B1, B2, B6, B9, and B12—can cause mood disorders.
One study showed significant mood improvement in both men and women who took B-complex vitamin supplements over the course of a year. Improvement in mood was particularly associated with higher levels of vitamins B2 and B6.
Vitamin B12 has been shown to delay the onset of dementia and improve functioning in people with cognitive disorders.
Folate deficiency has been linked to depression. Studies show that patients suffering from depression have, on average, 25 percent lower levels of folate than those in healthy control groups.
Since the B-complex vitamin group includes eight vitamins, the best way to get an adequate supply of these nutrients is eating a wide variety of healthy foods, including colorful fruits and vegetables, animal foods (the only natural sources of vitamin B12), whole grains, seafood, legumes, eggs, and a moderate amount of dairy products.
Since magnesium is necessary for hundreds of biochemical reactions and metabolic functions, it’s no surprise that magnesium deficiency can lead to numerous health problems, including mood and mental disorders.
Magnesium deficiency has been linked to ADHD, depression, anxiety, aggression, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
Good sources of magnesium include:
- Whole grains
- Black beans
- Hard water
If you are taking a calcium supplement, it may be a good idea for you to ask your doctor about magnesium supplements, as magnesium is necessary to absorb calcium.
In addition to the nutrients mentioned above, research shows us that deficiency in just about any essential nutrient can affect our mental health. Some of the studies include research on probiotics and minerals including calcium, chromium, iodine, iron, selenium, and zinc.
One important factor sometimes is overlooked when considering how nutrition affects our mental health.
Each person reacts differently to different foods. Some people may be more sensitive than others to gluten, dairy, inflammatory foods, or processed foods.
Studies show that people who eat “traditional” diets, such as the Mediterranean or Japanese diet, have a 25-35 percent lower risk of depression than those who eat the typical “Western” diet.
Traditional diets are high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish, and seafood, and low in meat and dairy. These diets are also very low in—if not void of—processed and refined foods and sugars. Traditional diets include more fermented foods than the Western diet, which makes them higher in probiotics—healthy gut bacteria that boosts immune function and has a positive effect on mental health.
For optimal brain and mental health, eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fish, and seafood. And cut down on dairy and meat.
Ideally, you should be eating little to no refined or processed foods or sugars.