Those of you who follow me on my Facebook page, know that I am really interested in the link that exists between nutrition and mental health. I attended a seminar entitled "Nutritional and Integrative Medicine to Treat Mental Health Disorders" presented by Dr. Anne Procyk, a naturopathic physician. In this blog post, I want to focus on the four essential nutrients for mental health: FATS, PROTEIN, VITAMINS and MINERALS.
The omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are very important with regard to mental health. Their highest bioavailability is in fish oils. EPA and DHA (which are often deficient in dietary intake) are crucial for proper cell membrane function (think of neurotransmitters and hormones binding to their receptors on the cell membrane). These fatty acids also have anti-inflammatory effects. What happens if there is a deficiency in these essential fatty acids? Studies have shown that EPA and DHA are beneficial in treating ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression, cardiovascular disease and arthritis.
What are food sources of EPA and DHA?
Salmon, halibut, mackerel, krill, herring, flax seed, flax seed meal, flax seed oil, walnuts, pecans, and chia seeds, to name a few.
Of course, I recommend getting omega-3 fats from food, but fish oil supplementation is another option. Not all fish oil supplements are created equally though! The QUALITY of the supplement is critical. Things to consider when choosing a fish oil supplement:
1) Supplements should be mercury and pesticide-free
2) Supplements must be properly packaged to avoid going rancid (i.e., "turning bad")
3) Supplements should be processed by molecular distillation for purity
4) Supplements should show actual amounts of EPA and DHA (not just total fish oil amount)
5) Recommended doses for EPA: 500-1000mg (maintenance); 1000-2000mg (therapeutic)
6) Recommended doses for DHA: 300-700mg (maintenance); 500-1500mg (therapeutic)
I also learned that buying "burpless" fish oil supplements (which I have done in the past😲) is pointless, as they are NOT digested!
Protein is oh so important for our mental health! Protein digestion results in production of amino acids, the "building blocks" of our entire body. Amino acids are also prime components of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters (e.g., serotonin and dopamine) that affect various physical and psychological functions.
So, when there is inadequate consumption of protein, guess what happens? You may experience mood disturbances, lack of impulse control, and decreased neuromuscular control.
What are major food sources of protein?
Beef, poultry, fish, soy, eggs, dairy, beans, peas, nuts and seeds. Make sure EVERY meal you eat contains some type of protein!
I learned that breakfast is the most important meal for protein consumption, but is least likely to include protein and often skipped! Think about what you had for breakfast this morning....Did you have any protein?
If you take antacids or acid blockers long-term, you may not be adequately digesting protein, as these medications interfere with protein digestion. Consider healing your gut by working with someone who practices functional medicine (i.e., one who seeks to identify and address the root causes of disease and not just treat symptoms). Look for functional medicine practitioners in your area via the following websites:
There are a few vitamins that take center stage with regard to mental health: B complex (which includes thiamin [B₁], riboflavin [B₂], niacin [B₃], pantothenic acid [B₅], pyridoxine [B₆], biotin [B₇], folic acid [B₉] and cobalamin [B₁₂]), 5-MTHF (the activated form of folic acid), vitamin B₁₂ and vitamin D.
The B vitamins are necessary for handling stress and optimal neurotransmitter production. The richest sources of B vitamins (except for vitamin B₁₂) are WHOLE GRAINS (e.g., wheat, barley, rye, oats, amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, wild rice, corn, millet). Vitamin B₁₂ is naturally found in animal products (e.g., fish, meat, poultry, eggs and dairy).
Whole grains are those that have intact kernels and NOT pulverized into flour! (Did you know that?) B vitamins begin to degrade when whole grains are converted to flours, however, a whole grain flour is more beneficial than its refined flour counterpart (which, by the way, has all nutrients stripped away). So, when you're reading food labels (like you should 😉) on foods advertised as containing whole grains (even "organic" items), make sure the FIRST ingredient is some type of whole grain.
Americans generally don't consume enough B vitamins, which interferes with the ability to cope with stress. However, I learned that even those who consume a vitamin B-rich diet may need a supplement if excessively stressed or have a family history of depression or other mental illness. A vitamin B complex supplement improves energy and mood and reduces caffeine dependence! But not just any vitamin B complex supplement will do. You should look for a supplement with a B-50 dose, meaning there is 50mg of B₁, B₂, B₃ and B₆ in one dose (yes, this means you have to look at the label on the back😊). So, if you're stressed, fatigued or depressed, consider increasing dietary intake of vitamin B-rich foods (i.e., whole grains, lentils, beans, bananas). However, a vitamin B complex supplement may be necessary and is safe.
Low levels of vitamin D are associated with depression, osteoporosis, cancer, arthritis, cardiovascular disease and lowered immunity. There are no natural food sources of vitamin D, however, our bodies are capable of making vitamin D in our skin when exposed to sunlight (UV light). Before taking a vitamin D supplement (usually D₃ - cholecalciferol, the active form), get your levels checked (especially if you're depressed). Optimal vitamin D levels are 45-65ng/mL.
So, remember whole grains and sunshine when you need increased energy, feel stressed and/or depressed!!
Magnesium is a much needed nutrient for mental health, but is often deficient in dietary intake. Magnesium is critical for relaxation of nerve and muscle cells.
Why is magnesium deficiency so common?
Overconsumption of processed foods (which typically do not contain magnesium) and not enough consumption of magnesium-rich foods (e.g., vegetables, beans and legumes).
What are the best sources of magnesium?
Leafy green vegetables (richest source), beans, legumes, nuts and whole grains.
Signs and symptoms of possible magnesium deficiency include the following: anxiety, panic attacks, irritability and anger, difficulty focusing, poor sleep, heightened sensitivity to pain, restless leg syndrome, muscle cramps, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, constipation, headaches/migraines, muscle aches, fibromyalgia and trigger point tenderness.
The RDA for magnesium is 300-400mg per day, however, many people need more to function optimally.
Calcium functions similarly to magnesium with regard to neurological and muscular functions. Calcium deficiency is not as common as magnesium deficiency.
What are dietary sources of calcium?
Dairy, tofu, tempeh, soy, leafy greens, broccoli and antacids.
Excessive calcium consumption without adequate amounts of magnesium, zinc and other trace minerals may lead to magnesium deficiency. So, take it easy on those calcium supplements and never supplement calcium alone! Daily total calcium consumption should NEVER exceed 1200mg (this includes dietary and supplements). By the way, if you take Tums, this counts as a calcium supplement!
So, there you have it.....the four essential nutrients for mental health. Eat more whole foods (i.e., foods that are as close to their natural form as possible), adopt a diet rich in whole grains, leafy greens, nuts, beans and legumes; avoid added sugars, read food labels, get moving and get adequate sleep.
Thanks for reading!