In a society where obesity is so prevalent, it is hard to believe that nutritional deficiencies are fairly common. Simply put, we are overfed but malnourished. These nutritional deficiencies can have a significant impact on mental and emotional well-being. There is a growing amount of research showing a significant correlation of more serious mental disorders including depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia with certain nutritional deficiencies. Typically these conditions are considered to be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, or emotionally rooted and are treated with medications and/or psychotherapy. Nutritional therapy can play a key role in the duration and severity of these conditions, as well as helping improve the effectiveness of any necessary medications and may also correct the actual underlying cause of the condition. In addition, when we look at the diets of people suffering with these serious mental conditions, their nutritional choices leave much to be desired. These poor food choices may actually exacerbate the disease.
Some Proven Nutrients That Promote Mental Health and Wellness
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is typically abundant in many processed foods. These processed foods are typically devoid of many of the necessary nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids and essential amino acids your body and brain need to function properly. The more common nutrients that people are deficient in that relate to brain health include certain B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, Omega-3 EFA’s, and the amino acids tryptophan, tyrosine and SAMe.
B Vitamins-These nutrients play a critical role in the function of your brain and nervous system, which in turn can have a major impact on your mental and emotional well-being. The two B vitamins that appear to have the strongest effect on mental and emotional wellness include Folate (Vitamin B9) and Cobalamin (Vitamin B12). Deficiencies of these vitamins often present as depression, dementia, fatigue and confusion. Other B vitamins including Thiamine (B1), Riboflavin (B2), and Pyridoxine (B6) also play a large part with mood regulation and stability.
Folate gets its name from foliage given the fact it is most readily found in the leaves of plants. These types of foods are often missing in a diet high in processed foods. Low levels of folate have been correlated with poor outcome success when using antidepressant therapy. If you need to supplement with folate, I recommend using a natural form of folate such as methylfolate, which is easier for the body to absorb and utilize versus the synthetic form—folic acid. Clinical trials have shown where supplementation with methylfolate can have beneficial effects in people with depression, whereas the same results were missing when using folic acid. Up to 40 percent of the population has a genetic mutation that keeps them from converting folic acid to folate.
Deficiency of Vitamin B12 becomes more common with each decade of life after the age of 30 because it becomes more difficult to absorb from the foods you eat. Vitamin B12 deficiencies are also commonly seen in vegetarians since most food sources of the vitamin are found in fish and animal sources such as meat, liver, eggs and dairy sources. Supplementation is usually found in two different forms—Cyanocobalamin and Methylcobalamin. Cyanocobalamin is the synthetic form, is cheap to produce, but is more difficult to absorb and contains small amounts of cyanide. Methylcobalamin is the natural form of B12, is easier for your body to absorb and retain, and does not contain any cyanide. Methylcobalamin also promotes higher production levels of SAMe, an amino acid derivative primarily made in your liver, with several studies indicating beneficial outcomes in the treatment of depression.
Vitamin C-This is the most popular vitamin supplement and for good reason. When it comes to brain health, vitamin C helps with neurotransmitter production, including serotonin, the “feel good” molecule. A recent study showed people given vitamin C felt happier in as little time as one week.1 Not only does vitamin C help to boost your mood, but it has also been shown to help boost your IQ and memory.
Vitamin D—It is estimated that up to 80 percent of Americans are deficient in the “Sunshine Vitamin”. Low levels of vitamin D are correlated with increased levels of depression. In fact, a study done by VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam found that low levels of vitamin D may be linked to depression and other psychiatric illnesses. People with vitamin D levels below 20 ng/ml had an 85 percent increased risk of depression compared to those with vitamin D levels above 30 ng/ml.2
Magnesium—Research has shown that 70 to 80 percent of the population do not consume the daily recommended allowance of magnesium. Furthermore, magnesium deficiencies are often misdiagnosed because only 1 percent of the body’s magnesium is in the blood. A special test must be performed to measure the amount of magnesium in your red blood cells to determine if there is a deficiency. Magnesium deficiency can affect all of the systems in your body, although when it comes to mental and emotional health, a variety of issues can arise including impaired cognitive function, irritability, poor memory, anxiety, and depression (including post-partum).
Zinc—Vegetarian and processed diets usually come up short for this essential mineral. Zinc plays a critical part in the brain and body’s response to stress. In fact, the highest amount of zinc in the body is found in the brain. Zinc deficiency can lead to symptoms of depression, ADHD, difficulties with learning and memory, and seizures.3
Omega-3 EFA’s—Your brain is the fattest organ in your body. 60 percent of the fat is DHA, an omega-3 essential fatty acid found predominantly in fish or fish oil. The body is unable to make DHA, so it must be obtained through food or supplementation. Most people today consume very little omega-3 EFA’s and overconsume omega-6 EFA’s found in oils such as corn, soybean and canola. Clinical studies have shown that optimizing levels of omega-3 EFA’s is beneficial for people with depression and mood instability.4
Amino Acids—Protein is made up of amino acids. Many of the neurotransmitters in the brain are made from amino acids. A diet rich in high-quality protein sources from animal sources provides these amino acids. Plant proteins are low in several of the essential amino acids to make neurotransmitters. The neurotransmitter dopamine is made from the amino acid tyrosine, while the neurotransmitter serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan. A deficiency of either of these amino acids will cause imbalances in the neurotransmitters leading to low mood, depression, and aggression.
There are situations where medications are necessary to help with mental illnesses which can be debilitating and life-threatening. Unfortunately, it is very often that nutritional deficiencies are overlooked and unaddressed causing not only life-long dependence on medications, but possibly worsening of the condition over time.
This list is not conclusive of all of the nutritional components that go into promoting optimal mental and emotional wellness, but it is clearly evident that if these deficiencies are not addressed and only covered up with medications, the underlying condition will worsen over time. The majority of these nutrients are easily tested with different lab studies to determine if nutritional deficiencies may be an underlying cause or contributor to many serious mental illnesses. Addressing these issues can be a very safe and effective way of achieving your optimal health and well-being.