Mental health is an all-important and extremely underrated factor in all our lives. Not just your own – the mental health of your loved ones and those around you inevitably affects your life, too. Think about all the times your employer has seemingly been in a sour mood even before the work day started. This trickles into how they behave with you, and even the smallest of errors – that would otherwise have been accepted – could result in you receiving a thorough firing. Or consider the time when a loved one seemed to have been in an inexplicable bad mood, and they took it out on you. Now your mood is affected, and consequently, so is your motivation to put effort into your work or relationship.
Mental health affects nearly everything we do and everyone around us. It’s vital to know how to care for it. And there is one simple, helpful factor that you probably have not considered in your mental health improvement strategies: nutrition.
The Mind-Body Connection
Our mental health affects our lives in deeply intricate ways. And it’s not just through our behaviour; prolonged mental crises can start affecting us in physical ways, both directly and indirectly. Fields like health psychology are studying how mental stress could lead to the development of chronic illnesses, through a combination of direct and indirect behaviours, under what is known as the Biopsychosocial Model of Health.
The Direct Health Consequences of Poor Mental Health
There are physiological routes inside our bodies that connect our systems together, through brain-body pathways(1,2,3). This can result in the manifestation of psychosomatic and somatopsychic effects.
Psychosomatic conditions are when a psychological condition results in physical health effects, like stress ulcers from prolonged anxiety, through the HPA Axis which demonstrates the human stress response. Somatopsychic conditions are the reverse of this, where physical health conditions result in mental effects, such as celiac disease or IBS/IBD causing anxiety, depression, and stress through the Gut-Brain Axis(4,5,6). People with celiac disease are also 3 times more likely to develop schizophrenia, reports this study. The interaction of somatopsychic and psychosomatic effects can start a troubling cycle where mental stress causes physical stress, which leads to even more mental stress.
The Indirect Effects of Poor Mental Health
Besides the direct effect on our health, poor mental health causes us to engage in self-harming or thrill-seeking behaviours, like binge eating, starvation, purging (forcing oneself to vomit after eating), inflicting self-injury, impulsive shopping, speeding when driving, drinking and smoking, substance abuse, and more. Our mental health indirectly harms our physical health by engaging in these harmful behaviours.
Even in the absence of extreme behaviours, the milder symptoms of poor mental health like brain fog, low productivity, loss of interest, etc., can be hard to deal with. Activities like exercising, socializing, spending time in nature, meditation, and getting enough sunlight can do wonders for our mental health. But sometimes, it can be difficult to do these high-energy activities. Sometimes all you can manage is to get out of bed, somehow make it to the kitchen, and have a light snack, if you can bring yourself to eat at all. That’s where nutrition comes in: by consuming the nutrients that promote mental health, even small efforts like eating a light meal could help to stabilize and support you through the day.
Nutrition’s Role in Mental Health
Now that we’ve understood that mental stressors can interact with our physical bodies, we must consider that though mental effects are intangible, there are physiological causes behind them. Neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, GABA, etc., are responsible for mood regulation. They’re the puppeteers holding the strings to your mental health.
The release and inhibition of these neurotransmitters is regulated by the brain, the Central and Peripheral Nervous Systems, and the Enteric Nervous System (situated in the gut). This regulation can be affected by nutrition.
Changing your diet to include nutrients that promote mental health may just end up working wonders. Many of these nutrients, however, are not accessible to vegetarians and others who have restricted diets for any reason. That is where supplementing those nutrients comes in handy. As long as you follow the recommended dosages and take them as instructed, supplements can help your body absorb nutrients more efficiently than through food alone.
So what are those nutrients?
5 Nutrients That Support Mental Health:
Mental health is affected by the availability of neurotransmitters and good physical health, the regulation of which can be affected by vitamins and minerals like B vitamins (especially B12), Vitamin D3, Magnesium, and Omega-3 Fatty Acids. The Probiotic balance in your gut also plays a central role, since the gut can not only regulate neurotransmitters, but also affect the absorption of nutrients.
B-Vitamins: The family of B Vitamins and B12 in particular, helps with the synthesis of serotonin and dopamine. This helps with reducing depression, anxiety, and even improving sleep. Getting sufficient and good-quality sleep is of the utmost importance when trying to handle mental health.
B vitamins are water-soluble, meaning the body can easily flush out extra vitamin B through sweat and urine. If you have a low intake of Vitamin B, this water solubility makes it easier for you to develop a Vitamin B deficiency. Such deficiencies are most commonly observed in vegans and vegetarians as their diets lack the best source of B vitamins, which is meat. If you are unwilling or unable to adopt a diet that is rich in meat, supplementing with B complex supplements can help. To understand more about how B vitamins affect our bodies, check out this article.
Vitamin D: Sunlight can have therapeutic effects on our moods, not just because of its comforting golden warmth, but because human bodies are able to synthesize Vitamin D in the presence of sunlight. Aptly named The Sunshine Vitamin, Vitamin D helps to regulate our mood. Studies have shown that vitamin D may have a critical role in reducing the effects of depression(7). The role of vitamin D in helping with other mental health concerns besides depression is still under study, and whether supplementing Vitamin D for mental health is more useful than obtaining it from food sources for the same purpose is also under scrutiny(8,9). But since the body’s absorption of vitamin D is limited when consumed indirectly through food, supplementing vitamin D is the more practical option. This blog explains how sometimes getting nutrients from supplements is a better option than food. Returning to mental health – the general consensus seems to be that Vitamin D could prove useful in reducing depression in some of those afflicted.
There are 2 main issues regarding the availability of Vitamin D for humans. Although the body can synthesize it in sunlight, vast majorities of the global population are actually deficient in Vitamin D(10,11,12). This is largely due to lifestyle factors that interfere with Vitamin D absorption, such as gut issues, alcohol and smoking, and a lack of Vitamin K2, as well as having at-home jobs and low exposure to sunlight.
Unlike B vitamins, Vitamin D is fat-soluble. For proper absorption of Vitamin D, the ability of the body to absorb fat from food needs to be ideal. This means having good gut health is critical. This article has some useful tips on how to maintain proper gut health and also explains the role of the GI system in maintaining mental health.
Food sources for Vitamin D include fish like salmon, liver meat, and free range eggs, but this is not a viable option for vegans and vegetarians. They are also not the most bioavailable forms, i.e., absorbing Vitamin D from food is difficult for the body. If you consider taking supplements to make up for the lack of vitamin D, we advise getting a Vitamin D3 + K2 supplement, for best results.
Magnesium: This wonder mineral is often called the fifth but forgotten electrolyte. It’s involved in more than 3000 enzymatic reactions inside our bodies and has far-reaching effects, like energy boosting, providing cramp relief, nervous system support, and more.
Magnesium helps with mental health mainly by improving quality of sleep, aiding relaxation and calmness, and reducing stress and anxiety. It helps with serotonin regulation which greatly improves mood.
Foods rich in magnesium include dark chocolate and fatty fish. This article talks about how magnesium can help sleep and lists some useful sources of Magnesium. The best source would be to directly consume Magnesium Bisglycinate supplement powders mixed with water, or as instructed by a healthcare professional or on the bottle.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: O3 FAs, that is to say, long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) like EPA and DHA have an overwhelmingly positive effect on the human body especially with their anti-inflammatory effects. They benefit almost every system in our body, and can easily be obtained through fatty fish like salmon or mackerel. The human brain is highly dependent on PUFAs for functioning, and they may have a great role in helping with depression, bipolar disorder, and general mood stabilization(13,14,15). For those who cannot easily obtain fish, fish oil supplements are a good source of Omega-3 FAs. Krill oil supplements would be even better than regular fish oil supplements because they contain Astaxanthin, which adds to the beneficial anti-inflammatory effects. If you are vegan or vegetarian, walnuts could be useful. But they are full of antinutrients, so you must ensure to soak them overnight to obtain the best results.
- Probiotics: The gut and GI tract are deeply intertwined with our mental health. Besides the well-known Central and Peripheral Nervous Systems, the gut is home to the Enteric Nervous System which works almost independently. It regulates the release of neurotransmitters, digestion, immunity, and much more. In addition to the ENS, the bacteria flourishing in your gut also play a role in regulating your mood. There is a delicate balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut. The good bacteria, called probiotics, help to maintain gut health and promote health, while the bad bacteria do the opposite. You need a balance of both these bacteria, instead of only good or only bad ones. The ecosystem of bacteria living in your gut is termed the gut microbiome. To have a healthy gut microbiome, eat fermented foods like kimchi, kefir, or curd/yogurt. If you cannot consume cabbage or cruciferous vegetables and avoid dairy, for example if you suffer from thyroid conditions, then avoid those foods. Instead, try coconut milk curd and apple cider vinegar with the mother. Or, you could supplement probiotics. Ensure to get probiotics that contain soil-based strains to avoid SIBO – Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth.
And there you have it. Try to add foods that contain these nutrients to your regular diet. Even beyond just mental health, these nutrients have great benefits and are essential for our daily functions. If you cannot access or avoid these foods due to diet restrictions, consider supplementing them. But be careful to only choose the supplements that are clean and safe to use. This article has tips on how to identify which brands are effective and safe to use.
Pamper Your Mental Health
If you are struggling to cope with your mental health issues, know that you are not incompetent or alone. There are others who feel this way, who could help you. Support groups and communities for mental health can help you find people who empathize with your struggles. Yoga, mindfulness, and meditation can help you feel more connected with the universe and the world around you. When you don’t have the energy or resources to indulge in these activities, try simply changing your diet. It’s an easy effort to make, and can have far-reaching benefits.
Think of your mental health as a garden that you must water and tend to. As long as you care for the garden, beautiful flowers can bloom. But neglect it, and the garden will slowly perish. When it comes to mental health, you are both the gardener and the flower of your mental state. No external source can care for your garden as well as you can, because you understand what your garden needs more than anyone else. Water your garden, tend to the flowers, and sow seeds for healthy blossoms in the future – it will be a beautiful one.
8.Association between Vitamin D Supplementation and Mental Health in Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review - PMC
9.Effect of Long-term Vitamin D3 Supplementation vs Placebo on Risk of Depression or Clinically Relevant Depressive Symptoms and on Change in Mood Scores: A Randomized Clinical Trial | Complementary and Alternative Medicine | JAMA | JAMA Network
11.Global and regional prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in population-based studies from 2000 to 2022: A pooled analysis of 7.9 million participants.
12.High prevalence of vitamin D deficiency among the South Asian adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis
14.Possible antidepressant mechanisms of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids acting on the central nervous system - PMC