The connection between diet, nutrition and mental health conditions has come to the forefront in recent years. Nutritional neuroscience is an emerging discipline bringing to light the notion that nutritional factors are intertwined with human cognition, behaviour and emotions. While it is more widely accepted that mental health conditions are the result of biochemical imbalances or emotional responses to varying environmental factors, diet and nutrition in fact play a key role in the onset, severity and duration of mental health conditions.
Many correlations have been made between diet, nutritional status and mental health conditions. In particular, a lack of proper nutrition and an inadequate intake of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients have been linked to the onset and severity of mental health conditions, particularly depression and anxiety. The general Australian population consumes a diet that is typically low in many essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients, which could play a part in the rising levels of mental health conditions being reported.
Furthermore, having a mental health condition has been shown to be associated with an increased likelihood of developing poor eating habits, such as low appetite, skipping meals and greater desire for sweet and sugar-filled foods, which in turn increases the risk of developing nutritional deficiencies. This can further impact the severity and duration of mental health conditions.
More commonly reported and well-researched nutritional deficiencies seen extensively in patients with mental health conditions include omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs), B vitamins and amino acids or protein. Each of these key nutrients are explored below regarding their role in mental health and how we can increase levels of these nutrients within our diet to improve mental health outcomes.
Neurotransmitters are made up of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins). Protein has many important roles in the body including the synthesis of neurotransmitters (mood hormones). We must ensure we are consuming adequate protein in order for our bodies to make adequate amounts of neurotransmitters. For example, dopamine is a neurotransmitter made up of the amino acid tyrosine. If you are not obtaining adequate amounts of tyrosine from your diet, there will not be enough to synthesise dopamine, the reduction of which affects mood.
Food sources: beef, chicken, cheese, soy products, eggs, fish, lamb, yogurt, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu and tempeh
Omega 3 EFAs are found in high levels within the brain where they are important for maintaining proper structure and function of the brain and nervous system. For example, grey matter within the brain contains more than 50 per cent essential fatty acids (33 per cent of these being omega-3 essential fatty acids). Therefore, by consuming omega-3 EFAs in our diet, we help support healthy brain structure and function. Omega-3 EFAs also have a powerful anti-inflammatory action which means they help to reduce any inflammation in the brain and nervous system that may be contributing to, or exacerbating, mental health conditions.
Food sources: oily fish (salmon, sardines, anchovies, herring, mackerel), flaxseed oil, nuts and seeds (chia seeds, walnuts, LSA mix, ground flaxseeds)
Individuals with mental health conditions have been shown to have lower levels of folate in the blood. Folate is essential for breaking down homocysteine within the body. Without folate, homocysteine levels remain elevated and this has been linked to mental health conditions including depression and anxiety.
Food sources: broccoli, brussels sprouts, leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale, rocket, cabbage), peas, chickpeas, kidney beans, liver
Similar to the role and function of proteins, B vitamins play a pivotal role in the synthesis of neurotransmitters. They are considered ‘cofactors’ for neurotransmitter synthesis, meaning they are involved in the enzymatic reactions that must take place for neurotransmitter synthesis to occur. We must ensure we are consuming adequate protein for our bodies to make adequate amounts of neurotransmitters.
Food sources: B1 – pork, oats, wholegrain bread/pasta, mixed nuts, green peas, milk, lentils; B3 – fish (tuna, salmon, sardines), chicken, peanuts, brown rice, potatoes, avocado; B5 – brewer’s yeast, wholegrain bread/pasta, peanuts, mushrooms, green leafy vegetables; B6 – oats, banana, potato, chicken, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, sweet potato, lentils; B12 – fish (sardines, mackerel, tuna, salmon), beef, lamb, eggs, cheese, chicken, yogurt
Diet and nutritional status are just part of the puzzle when it comes to mental health conditions, albeit an area that must not be neglected or overlooked. Improvements in diet and nutritional intake, alongside good quality nutritional supplements (where required), can be incredibly advantageous as part of the prevention or management of mental health conditions. In some instances, this has also been shown to improve efficacy of pharmaceutical medications, such as antidepressants, used to treat mental health conditions.
If you are proactive about your mental health, suffer from suboptimal mental health or have a diagnosed mental health condition, speak with one of our naturopaths. They can help you understand how diet and nutrition may be playing a part and what you can do to improve individual mental health outcomes. Book an appointment to discuss your individual circumstances.
Written by Perri Baldwin BHSc