Christine here! Did you tune into our podcast episode, “The Functional Medicine Approach to Anxiety and Depression”?! If so, you’re aware of how gut health and mental health are connected. Well, in this blog we are going to dive deeper into research, and I will give you action steps to format your nutrition in a way that can help you HEAL and optimize your overall mood and wellness!!
Scientific evidence suggests that nutritional treatment may help prevent, treat, and improve depression, bipolar disorder, ADD/ADHD, autism, addiction, and eating disorders. According to the “SMILES trial” conducted in 2017, optimizing your diet increases your chance for remission by 24% over social support alone. That is a big difference seen in regards to changing their diet! So, let’s talk about nutrition and how you can format your daily intake to best support your mood.
Vitamin D, aka the “sunshine vitamin,” is a fat-soluble vitamin that is essential when it comes to mental health. The lower your vitamin D levels, the more likely you are to suffer from the blues. Decades of research point to an association between low levels of vitamin D and mood problems, such as depression. The good news is that supplementation may help. According to a 2008 study in the Journal of Internal Medicine that followed 441 overweight and obese adults with depression for one year, individuals who took vitamin D (20,000 IU or 40,000 IU per week) reported a significant decrease in their depressive symptoms.
The link between vitamin D and mental health is strong, as over half of all psychiatric inpatients are deficient in vitamin D, according to research in Currents in Psychiatry. So how can you make sure you are getting enough Vitamin D? Here are a few tips:
- Sun exposure ( 30 Minutes Total Body Exposure Daily
- Supplementing with high-quality Vitamin D
- Adding egg yolks and fatty fish
Most people haven’t heard of this micronutrient because it was only acknowledged as a required nutrient by the Institute of Medicine in 1998. However, it is one we should know about because research shows that around 90% of the US population is actually deficient. Choline is needed to make essential components of all our cell membranes and is also required to produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in regulating memory, mood and intelligence. Want to increase your choline intake? Well, eggs are going to be your best bet here as they are the richest source of choline. One egg contains about 136 mg of choline per yolk, that is about ¼ of your daily recommended intake! Other good sources include salmon, flaxseeds and a variety of nuts.
Omega 3 Fats
There are several different types of Omega 3 fatty acids. You have DHA, EPA, and DPA. EPA and DHA specifically are important components of cell membranes and they have very powerful anti-inflammatory functions in the body. Not only are Omega 3 fats anti-inflammatory, but they are also important for brain development, so expectant mamas, make sure to be getting enough of these good fats in your diet. A study in the Journal of Neurology showed through MRI that people who consume the lowest amounts of EPA and DHA have accelerated brain shrinkage; and let me tell ya, we don’t want to be having any shrinkage…! ☺
So how can you make sure you are getting enough of these essential fats in your diet? Some of the best sources are fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines. If you’re not a fish person, you can also get some good Omega 3 intake through foods like avocados, nuts, and seeds.
B vitamins play a crucial role in producing brain chemicals that affect mood and other brain functions. Low levels of B6, B12, and folate are commonly found in those who struggle with depression. B6 specifically is one of the most important micronutrients for our mental health; this is because our brain literally cannot make neurotransmitters, like serotonin or dopamine, without it! Homocysteine, a blood marker we measure at RSN, when elevated has been shown to correlate with dementia and other mental health issues. Various studies have shown that an increase in homocysteine above only 5 mmol/L raised the risk of cognitive deterioration by about 40%. The good news is, high homocysteine is reversible just by nutrition! The production of homocysteine is regulated by specific B vitamins including” B12 and folate (B9) in combination with B6. When you don’t have enough B vitamins in your diet, your homocysteine levels go up and can lead to detrimental effects on blood circulation as well as overall blood flow to the brain. When you have enough B vitamins; however, it goes right back down where it belongs! So, how can I get more B vitamins in my diet you ask? Many plant sources are full of B vitamins; things like avocado, spinach and all other leafy greens. For B12 though, your best bet is going to be animal based protein sources.
Magnesium is an essential mineral and electrolyte that we must obtain from our diet. It has over 300 functions in the body and plays a crucial role in hormonal balance. For example, magnesium affects thyroid function, estrogen detoxification, blood sugar, and stress hormones. But since we’re talking about mood, it is important to note that magnesium plays two important roles in the brain. Magnesium blocks the activity of more stimulating neurotransmitters and binds to calming receptors, resulting in a more peaceful resting state; something I think we could all use a bit more of. It also helps to regulate the release of stress hormones like cortisol, acting like the “brake” on your body’s nervous system. A very essential nutrient, but a staggering 75% of the US adult population does not meet the USDA’s RDI for magnesium, according to Thorne. So how can you make sure you are getting in enough of this beneficial nutrient? Some great food sources of magnesium include leafy greens, nuts, and seeds (like almonds and pumpkin seeds), and my personal fav dark chocolate (just make sure it is at least 60% cacao).
Amino acids: Tryptophan and Tyrosine
After healthy fats and micronutrients, proteins come third in the lineup of top brain healthy nutrients. Proteins are made up of smaller units called amino acids that are attached to one another in smaller or longer chains. These amino acids are essential for just about every function that takes place within the body and brain. This includes maintaining healthy tissues, assembling hormones, and powering all sorts of chemical reactions. But even more important for the brain and our mental health, amino acids create neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that our brains use for signaling, communicating, and processing information. These neurotransmitters are responsible for how you think, talk, dream, and remember. They spur the impulses that wake you up, make you sleepy, keep you focused, and even cause you to change your mind.
One of the main neurotransmitters most people are familiar with is serotonin. Most antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, which work on serotonin receptors. Nutrition is essential for serotonin production. In fact, the amino acid tryptophan (TRP) is needed to produce serotonin… along with vitamin b6. According to dietary guidelines the average adult needs 5 mg of TRP per kg of body weight per day to produce adequate levels of serotonin. Some of the most potent tryptophan sources include chicken and fish. If you are vegan, or eat very little animal protein, your levels of TRP might be low. Have no fear, you can still get a good amount of tryptophan from foods like chia seeds and sesame seeds.
Although serotonin gets a lot of attention, another neurotransmitter, dopamine, is just as important for mental health and mood. Tyrosine, is a non-essential amino acid, meaning our bodies can make it on its own unlike TRP, however the caveat is that this amino acid deeds to be produced from another amino acid called phenylalanine, which is an essential amino acid; meaning it needs to be obtained from our diet. So really it boils down to, are we getting enough phenylalanine in our diet so that we can produce adequate amounts of tyrosine. It is estimated that we need about 33mg of phenylalanine per kg of body weight, per day. Top sources are going to be your high-protein animal products such as chicken, beef, eggs, and fish (especially fatty fish like salmon, striped bass, and halibut). If you are looking for some plant-based options, I would go with almonds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and once again chia seeds.
Blood Sugar Balance
So, now that you are equipped with all of this information, I hope it has become apparent just how important diet is for mental health; and how various nutritional deficiencies can play a huge role. However, we can also see that meal timing and blood sugar balance can be a game-changer in regards to your mood, energy, and mental health. Why is that you ask? Well, when blood sugar levels are stable, your body is in a state of balance instead of a state of stress. Think about how you feel after eating an omelette for breakfast vs eating a donut; chances are after eating the omelette you are going to feel not only more satiated, but you are going to have more sustained energy levels.
So, what would an ideal day of mood supporting food intake look like? The options are endless, but here are some great ideas to get you started!
- Breakfast: Whole eggs for a great source of amino acids and choline, sautéed spinach and kale for b-vitamins and folate, cooked in avocado oil for some Omega 3 fats, and a side of blueberries for antioxidants.
- Lunch: Wild-caught salmon for a good source of omega-3s and amino acids, served over a bed of leafy greens with avocado for B vitamins, pumpkin seeds for magnesium, and Omega 3 rich olive oil
- Dinner: Free range chicken or grass-fed beef for B vitamins and amino acids, served in a lettuce wrap with olive oil mayo for choline and omega 3 fats, a side of sweet potatoes for good measure, and of course, some magnesium rich dark chocolate for dessert!
Do you think you might be deficient in any of these?! A saying we always say is, “test don’t guess!”. If you are interested in coaching with us, book a call here with one of our coaches.
– Christine Forsythe, RDN
Rachel Scheer is a Certified Nutritionist who received her degree from Baylor University in Nutrition Science and Dietetics. Rachel has her own private nutrition and counseling practice located in McKinney, Texas. Rachel has helped clients with a wide range of nutritional needs enhance their athletic performance, improve their physical and mental health, and make positive lifelong eating and exercise behavior changes.