If you’ve ever suffered from anxiety, depression or any other mental health issue, you may have sought help from a qualified therapist, taken a course of psychiatric medications or done both. And both may have helped, which is what these treatments are designed to do. However, how much do you know about the role of nutrition in mental health?
As it turns out, the foods we choose to put in our body inevitably influence the way we feel mentally. Here’s what you need to know about the nutrients your brain needs to function at its best, as well as which foods to consume to keep feeling at your peak, physically and mentally.
B Vitamins and Mental Health
Many people who experience the signature tiredness and lack of energy that are hallmarks of major depressive disorder may be suffering from a deficiency in vitamin B12. Unlike some nutrients, the body cannot manufacture B12 on its own, meaning people must consume it from the foods they eat. That fact presents a complicated problem for vegans, as plants do not produce B12, either — the substance exists in meat and dairy products — and most nutritionists encourage vegetarians and vegans to take a B-12 supplement.
Other B vitamins also play a role in mental health. In those with alcoholism, doctors often see deficiencies in folate, thiamin and B6, in addition to B12. Thiamin (B1) deficiency also plays a role in both Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. Some research indicates niacin (B6) may also benefit those with schizophrenia.
Deficiencies in B vitamins can result in cognitive difficulties, as well as mental illness. If you are vegan or vegetarian and concerned with deficiencies, see your doctor for a blood test. You can take some vitamins, such as B12, via injection if co-morbid conditions such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease make absorption of oral supplements troublesome.
The Role of Iron
Most people think of iron deficiency in terms of anemia, and this is accurate. Failure to consume adequate iron intake can lead to debilitating fatigue, hair loss, skin problems like ashy, flaky skin or acne, deeply grooved nails and difficulty staying warm as inadequate supplies of warming red blood cells reach the hands and feet. However, when it comes to the role of nutrition in mental health, iron deficiency can cause severe problems.
Iron deficiency increases the risk of any mental disorder, from depression to schizophrenia. Lack of the mineral also may play a role in the development or worsening of autism spectrum disorders. Women, in particular, run a higher risk of iron deficiency due to menstruation, and do well to supplement, especially if their flow is heavy.
Red meats can be a source of iron for non-vegetarians and non-vegans. If you don’t eat meat, you can get adequate iron from deep, leafy greens such as kale and spinach, topped with walnuts and pumpkin seeds, all high in the mineral.
Magnesium for Depression
Nuts aren’t only excellent sources of iron — they’re also rich in magnesium, another vital mineral for good mental health. Indeed, you can use magnesium both alone and in conjunction with antidepressants to treat major depressive disorder. Seeds also provide a natural source of magnesium and are vegan-friendly.
If you take a multivitamin and mineral supplement to add magnesium to your diet, read the label carefully. Supplements that mix calcium with magnesium can impact absorption negatively. For maximum benefit, supplement with food sources of the mineral or take a separate magnesium supplement at least four hours apart from taking calcium.
Potassium and Calcium Matter, Too
Some depressing side effects of, well, depression, stem from a deficiency of the electrolytes potassium and calcium. While a weak link exists between blood levels of both minerals and the development of anxiety or depression, lack of adequate intake can cause muscle spasms, fatigue and pain that often accompany both disorders. These combined factors can complicate a depressed person’s inability to get out of bed.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
When it comes to the role of nutrition in mental health, few do as much good as omega-3 fatty acids. Your body does need fat to keep your neural pathways functioning as they should, as well as balance your hormonal levels naturally. And, as every woman well knows, hormones impact mood considerably.
Omega-3 fish oil may do more than boost your mood. It can help you improve your cognition and even fight against Alzheimer’s disease. Fatty fish like salmon are naturally high in omega-3s, as are eggs. Other good sources for those who prefer to eat a plant-based diet are nuts and seeds like hemp seeds.
The Sunshine Vitamin and Mental Health
Anyone who’s ever gotten the winter blues intuitively knows when levels of vitamin D — the “sunshine vitamin” — drop, low moods follow. It’s unsurprising, then, there’s a link between depression and a lack of vitamin D.
Luckily, your body can make vitamin D for you with exposure to the sun. While you do want to wear sunscreen, you don’t want to cut off your sunshine supply entirely. Unless the weather is truly dreadful, make every attempt to get outside at least 10 minutes daily after you slather on sunblock. You can supplement, but try to let your body produce vitamin D on its own as much as possible.
The Role of Nutrition in Mental Health
Medical research has taught us a lot about the role of nutrition in mental health. Next time you feel blue, take a look at your diet. Making a few simple, healthy changes can result in feeling much better physically, as well as mentally.