Psychiatric drugs are usually the first line of treatment for mental health concerns in the medical community. These include antidepressants, anti-anxiety, stimulants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers. Although these medications have their role in mental health treatment in the short-term, recent research has shown they may not be beneficial long term and can result in negative side effects. Lifestyle factors like nutrition and exercise play a significant role in improving mental health. A focus on nutrition and micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) supplementation may be a more effective long-term treatment.
How are nutrients connected to mental health?
Some nutrients are used directly for the functioning of brain cells called neurons, while some are involved in the production of neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that send messages between neurons. An example is the ‘feel-good hormone’ serotonin, which is low in depressed individuals. Medications prescribed for depression aim to help increase levels of serotonin, however, diet and exercise are other ways to improve serotonin and other mood-enhancing neurotransmitter levels.
Gut Health and Inflammation
The digestive system is often referred to as the second brain and has receptors for neurotransmitters like serotonin! If there’s inflammation in the gut, this can impact our mood! Since the brain and gut are interconnected, this means optimal gut health is important in improving mental health. Bloating, gas, pain, reflux, diarrhea or constipation are just a few signs gut health isn’t optimal. These symptoms are often connected to inflammation, intestinal permeability, an imbalanced gut microbiome, food sensitivities or our (anxious) thoughts! It’s a 2-way street: Brain ⇔ Gut
Inflammation in the gut can lead to inflammation in other organs, including the brain! So the key is to optimize the gut and reduce inflammation so that nutrients are better absorbed. This can be done by addressing any food sensitivities, including gut-healing, probiotic-rich and high fibre foods, as well as supporting a calmer state of mind through self-care practices.
You are not what you eat. You are what you absorb.
Key Nutrients to Get More of
Our bodies are complex, it won’t usually take a single nutrient to improve our mental health concerns! Whole foods contain a mix of different vitamins and minerals that work together in synergy to help improve each other’s absorption. Nonetheless, here are some important nutrients to include on a daily basis and where you can find them!
|Nutrient||Good For||How||Food Sources|
|Omega-3||Depression, anxiety, memory, learning, concentration||Anti-inflammatory and builds cell membranes||Oily fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds|
|Iron||Depression, memory, learning, concentration|
Oxygenates the brain
Meat, fortified cereal, beans, oysters, fish, eggs, legumes
|Magnesium||Depression, Anxiety||Calming effect by restricting the release of stress hormones. Needed for nerve signalling, DNA and protein synthesis|
Pumpkin seeds, almonds, cashews, peanuts, beans, figs, milk, bananas
|Selenium||Depression, anxiety||Antioxidant – helps reduce inflammation|
Brazil nuts, seafood, meat, whole-grains
|Zinc||Depression, Anxiety, memory, concentration||Chemical reactions in the brain|
Oysters, crab meat, meat/poultry, dairy, cashews, chickpeas, almonds, peanuts.
|B Vitamins |
(emphasis on Folate, B6 and B12)
|Depression, Anxiety||Helps make DNA, maintain the fatty myelin covering over nerve cells, and help produce mood-altering neurotransmitters||Whole grains, meat/poultry, eggs, legumes, and leafy vegetables. B12 is found in meat but also fortified in cereals and plant-based milk.|
|Vitamin C||Depression||Antioxidant and protect against age-related brain degeneration|
Citrus fruits, berries, tomatoes, peppers, kale, spinach, broccoli
|Vitamin D||Mood disorders||Involved in the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and noradrenaline|
Fish (salmon, tuna, herring, sardines, and mackerel), eggs, fortified milk, juice or cereals.
|Choline||Bipolar (mania and depressed mood), learning and memory||Needed for the brain to regulate memory, mood, muscle control and more.||Liver, beef, chicken, fish, eggs, soybeans, potatoes, wheat germ|
Eat like the Mediterraneans
The Mediterranean eating style has consistently been shown to reduce rates of depression. It’s also linked to lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. This eating style includes many of the important nutrients listed above in an easy-to-follow way.
The Mediterranean diet is primarily focused on whole grains, vegetables, and fruit, which are the main food categories that help improve mood. Dairy, nuts, and olive oil can be included every day while various protein sources like legumes, fish, poultry, and eggs, can be enjoyed several times per week. The Mediterranean diet also includes options for a few servings of red meat and your favorite treats each month.
This diet also recommends drinking enough water, daily exercise, and enjoying meals with others. It’s truly a lifestyle rather than a ‘diet’!
Here are 5 ways you can put all these guidelines to use!
- Enjoy more fruits and vegetables: Choose a variety of colorful frozen or fresh vegetables (including leafy greens, orange, red and purple vegetables).
- Eat enough fiber: Aim for at least 25g of fiber each day (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes).
- Include fermented foods: Plain yogurt, kimchi, pickles, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, and miso.
- Smarter proteins: Choose legumes, seafood, and lean poultry more often than red meat.
- Avoid pro-inflammatory foods as often as you can: Ultra-processed foods that are high in trans fat, saturated fat, refined flours, and refined sugar.