Patients suffering from mental disorders often exhibit deficiencies of important vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. These nutrients play key roles in various processes that regulate your moods and brain function.
Unfortunately, nutrition is still not yet the focus of training in the field of mental health. When it comes to treating mental health disorders, choosing foods that boost your mood is a largely ignored strategy.
However, most health professionals would agree that fixing nutritional deficiencies, removing the toxic elements in your diet (and environment too), and providing a well-planned, clean, and nutrient-dense diet can go a long way in producing positive changes in mental health.
1. B Vitamins
B vitamins—such as vitamins B6, B12, and B9 (folate)—are especially important when it comes to anxiety and depression. These vitamins help produce and control brain chemicals that influence mood and other neurological processes.
B12 deficiencies, for example, are a root cause of neurological, psychiatric, and cognitive issues, and have been shown to be associated with depression. B12 deficiency can trigger symptoms in the nervous system and red blood cells and can impact your neurotransmitter pathways.
Researchers have also found that vitamin B12 reduces homocysteine levels. Homocysteine is an inflammatory compound that, if elevated, can contribute to the disruption of the blood-brain barrier (BBB).
While many people have trouble absorbing vitamin B12 from foods, vitamin B12 in supplements is highly absorbable. Many people can benefit from vitamin B12 supplementation.
2. Vitamin D
Vitamin D plays a critical role in optimal brain development and is a key ingredient in the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is associated with motivation, reward-seeking, and pleasure. When dopamine levels are low, you don’t have the drive to do anything that will lead to a future reward.
Low levels of vitamin D have an association with a number of psychiatric conditions, including depression, and supplementation has produced some positive results. This is because Vitamin D, which your body synthesizes from UV rays, supports the production and release of serotonin.
In general, exposure to sunlight on the hands, face, and arms for 5-15 minutes per day, 2-3 times per week should provide adequate amounts of vitamin D. Very few foods contain significant amounts of vitamin D. Mushrooms provide a reasonably healthy source. Many everyday foods are also fortified with vitamin D such as orange juice and plant-based milks, depending on the brands.
People who are at risk of vitamin D deficiency—such as dark-skinned and veiled women (particularly in pregnancy), their infants, and older persons in residential care, along with anyone for whom regular sun exposure is unattainable—should consider supplementation.
Iron is necessary for the nerves and brain. In infancy, a severe iron deficiency can cause irreversible cognitive damage that can lead to delayed development. Iron deficiency can cause and exacerbate many kinds of psychiatric symptoms such as anxiety, depression, irritability, and poor concentration. It has a much higher prevalence among children with ADHD (attention deficit disorder).
On the other hand, too much iron—especially heme iron from animal foods—can also be a problem. Research has shown that high amounts of heme iron found in red meat can become problematic if the body’s binding capacity of iron is exceeded. This is because heme iron can accumulate in the brain, triggering the production of harmful free radicals, increasing oxidative stress, inflammation and even causing the development or progression of diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
Chromium is another nutrient where deficiency has been associated with depression. This is largely because chromium can regulate unbalanced, key neurotransmitters in mental health disorders. Studies have shown that supplementation has positive effects on depressive symptoms.
A low intake of selenium is also associated with low moods and depression. Interventional studies have shown that adequate selenium may improve mood and diminish anxiety, however, more research is warranted.
Zinc is an essential mineral with multiple functions in the central nervous system including the modulation of certain neurotransmitters such as GABA (your calming neurotransmitter) and the secretory signaling of certain neurons in the brain. Zinc deficiency has been associated with depression as well as with neurodegeneration and cognitive decline disorders.
The main plant-based food sources of zinc include amaranth seeds, pepitas, cashew nuts, lentils, beans, chickpeas, red rice, peanuts, quinoa, soy milk, sunflower seeds, and chia seeds.
If you’re looking to supplement with zinc, be aware that you can have too much. Levels should be assessed through testing and zinc should not be taken long-term unless under medical supervision.
7. Amino Acids
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Deficiencies in neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, and γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA), are often associated with depression. Researchers have found that supplementation with the appropriate amounts of the amino acids 5-hydroxytryptophan (which is the precursor for serotonin) and l-tyrosine (which helps nerve cells communicate) may be a safe and effective treatment for depression.
Magnesium is an essential mineral for the human brain. Magnesium enhances GABA synthesis by inhibiting the activity of glutamate (an excitatory neurotransmitter). It also plays a role in mitochondrial function, increasing ATP (adenosine triphosphate) synthesis whilst also lowering oxidative stress.
Studies have shown that supplementing with magnesium in magnesium deficient patients is comparable to those using tricyclic antidepressants.
Magnesium deficiency is very common due to poor soil quality, poor diet, low bioavailability, and medication use. The main food sources of magnesium include dark chocolate, seeds (especially pumpkin, flax, and chia seeds), avocados, leafy greens (especially kale and spinach), nuts (especially almonds, cashews, and Brazil nuts), legumes (including lentils, beans, chickpeas, peas, and soybeans), tofu, bananas, quinoa, and buckwheat.
Many factors can also affect the magnesium economy in the body, making supplementation a key clinical consideration.
Not getting enough omega-3s in your diet (and the consumption of foods that contain high amounts of omega 6s) can increase the production of inflammatory chemicals in your body and affect neurological function.
The omega-3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in particular, are critical for normal brain function and development through all stages of life. They are abundant in the cell membranes of brain cells and help to facilitate communication between neurons. They also assist in the synthesis and function of neurotransmitters, support brain blood flow, and aid in the growth of brain tissue.
Adequate omega-3 fatty acid intake helps to reduce neuroinflammation and oxidative damage as well as the production of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain, the hallmark features of Alzheimer’s disease. Omega-3s also increase levels of BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) and improve insulin signaling.
To increase your omega-3 fatty acid intake on a plant-based diet, consume nori (seaweed) or kelp (e.g. kombu or wakame), and include sufficient, reliable sources of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid, a third type of omega-3 fatty acid) in your daily diet, such as chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts.
Also, make sure you are consuming a healthful, whole-food, plant-based diet. By consuming sufficient protein, vitamins, and minerals, you will maximize your body’s ability to convert ALA to EPA and DHA.
You could also consider taking a plant-based omega-3 supplement derived from microalgae and seaweed.
Filling The Nutrient Gaps
There are so many science-backed strategies you can do to care for your mental health, from journaling to practicing gratitude to meditating. Even music has been shown to help uplift one’s mood.
However, an often forgotten and ignored strategy is looking for nutritional deficiencies in your body. Knowing what you may be lacking and how to fill these gaps can help you to eventually think clearer or even feel happier than you did before. Remember: Every small step counts. And as always, don’t hesitate to work with a medical professional to identify these nutrient deficiencies and come up with a treatment plan tailor-fitted to your needs.
Recipe Spotlight: Turmeric And Vegetable Tofu Scramble
Filling these nutrient gaps is not—and should not—be complicated. In fact, you can whip up something quickly the next time you’re in the mood for a snack or a simple meal.
Our turmeric and vegetable tofu scramble recipe is loaded with plant-based sources of nutrients you’ll need to help rebalance your mood. It’s bursting with flavor and color, thanks to turmeric, carrots, red cabbage, mushrooms, and kale. Don’t forget to add the kale last and serve it before the kale gets too soft. Enjoy!