As a society, we’ve come a long way in recognizing how debilitating mental health problems can be. Therapy is well accepted now, and talking about our feelings from a young age is encouraged. The same goes for our understanding of nutrition–the more we understand the body and its workings, the more we can often see a direct correlation between what we eat and how we feel and perform.
Patients and mental health clinicians have long been interested in finding effective alternatives to psychiatric medications, many of which come with unpleasant side effects. Whether it’s a case of being too demotivated to shop and cook or a multitude of other reasons, it is no surprise that research shows that people who suffer from mental illnesses generally tend to have significantly worse nutritional deficiencies than others. Is this connection largely just coincidental? Proper assessment is really on a case-by-case basis. But just like eating junk might make us feel physically depleted, the same goes for our mental health.
When it comes to treating mental illness, researchers have been studying the interaction between nutrition and mental health for decades.
If you are interested in improving your nutritional intake to improve your mental health, here are some suggestions for changes you can make:
- Omega-3 fatty acids. In many mental health disorders, patients tend to show a significant deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids. Conversely, an increase in omega-3 intake has been shown to lead to improved mental health. Increasing your consumption of fatty fish such as mackerel and salmon is a great way to obtain this nutrient–and if you aren’t a fish eater, some nuts and seeds such as walnuts and flax seeds are also good sources of omega-3s. An omega-3 supplement capsule can also be a good option, although it’s always best to discuss supplementation with your doctor or registered dietitian.
- Magnesium. Another nutrient that is often found to be deficient in patients suffering from depression is magnesium. Magnesium can be found in unrefined grains (especially whole wheat), nuts, and green vegetables. This nutrient can also be taken as a supplement, preferably after consulting with your doctor or registered dietitian.
- Folate and various B vitamins. Patients suffering from depression and bipolar disorder have shown improvement in symptoms of these disorders when introduced supplementarily. If you would like to increase your intake of folate, foods that you should consider include spinach and other leafy vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and some fruits such as papayas, oranges, and grapefruits. Foods high in vitamin B6 include many protein sources such as fish, chicken, turkey, and a number of legumes, nuts, and seeds. Vitamin B12 can be found in all animal products. Taking supplements is of course an option as well, but again, you should consult with your doctor or registered dietitian (although vegans should be taking a B12 supplement, regardless of mental health status).
- Tryptophan. While there’s not exactly such a thing as a tryptophan deficiency, the body uses tryptophan to build serotonin, a neurotransmitter that may be deficient in patients suffering from depression, so an increase in tryptophan consumption has been shown to help with symptoms of depression. Sources of tryptophan include red meat, turkey, chicken, brown rice, and some legumes such as peanuts.
- Caffeine. All nutritional changes mentioned above are nutrients that can be increased, but sometimes reducing or eliminating something from your diet may be helpful. For example, many patients suffering from mental illness, particularly anxiety, may find an improvement by decreasing their caffeine intake.
Making changes in your nutritional routine isn’t always easy, but when it comes to protecting your mental health, you may find it to be well worth it. Addressing any mental health concerns you may have with your doctor or a mental health professional is critical, but improving your diet is a step you can take at home with very little to lose.
- Lim SY, et al. (2016) Nutritional factors affecting mental health, Clinical Nutrition Research 5(3)
- Kakhan SE, Vieira KF (2008) Nutritional therapies for mental disorders, Nutrition Journal 7(2)
- Low Dog T (2010) The role of nutrition in mental health, Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 16(2)