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Food and Your Mood: 7 Key Nutrients for Mental Health

Many people are unaware of the impact that nutrition has on mood, emotions, and cognition. Just by changing the foods you eat, you can elevate your mood and improve mental clarity.  Eating a nutrient-dense whole foods diet provides your mind and body with the metabolites it needs for healthy brain function. While evidence for the impact of food on mental health has a long history, nutrition has finally now entered the mainstream of psychiatry.  Nutritional therapy is promoted as cutting-edge treatment for a range of mental disorders, from schizophrenia to depression.

“Food is a very effective and underutilized intervention in mental health,” Dr. Drew Ramsey stated at a recent annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. “We want to help our patients have more resilient brains by using whole foods…by helping get patients off of processed foods, off of white carbohydrates, and off of certain vegetable oils.”

A growing body of research has established the overall importance of a whole-foods, nutrient-dense diet, and also supports the use of natural supplementation for targeting specific illnesses. Nutrition is important for the overall mental health of children and adolescents, as well as for preventing the development of depression, anxiety, and other conditions. Here are seven key categories of nutrients that you can easily include in your diet, and some food sources that are high in these important nutrients.

1. Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Omega 3 fatty acids are at the top of the list for supporting brain activity and mental health. However, the Standard American Diet (SAD) is extremely deficient in omega 3’s. They play important roles in the activity of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. Additionally, they help with membrane fluidity, the survival of neurons, and other metabolic processes that impact brain health.

Omega 3 supplementation, such as using fish oil capsules, has been shown to improve symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD and schizophrenia across multiple studies. The best sources of omega 3 fatty acids are seafood, especially oysters and other mollusks, fatty fish (sardines, mackerel, salmon), and some nuts, especially walnuts.

2. Vitamin D

Vitamin D is as important for the brain as it is for your bones. Many studies have discovered a link between low vitamin D levels and mental illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia, although studies of the effects of supplementation with synthetic vitamin D have demonstrated mixed results in relieving symptoms.

The best source of vitamin D is the sunshine, so spend time outdoors when you can. Some important dietary sources include fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), liver, full-fat dairy, and egg yolks.  Cod liver oil, a traditional folk remedy, is an excellent source of naturally-occurring vitamin D, as well as omega 3 fatty acids.

3. Amino Acids

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins from which brain tissue and chemistry are formed. Some amino acids are precursors of mood-regulating neurotransmitters, such as:

  • Tryptophan: Needed for serotonin production. Foods high in tryptophan include nuts, seeds, red meat, poultry, eggs, and fish.
  • Cysteine: Converts to the powerful antioxidant glutathione. Research shows that glutathione levels can impact depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and addictions, as well as degenerative neurological disorders (Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s).
  • Tyrosine (found in beef, lamb, chicken, fish, pork, nuts, eggs, avocados, bananas), phenylalanine (found in liver, eggs, chicken, pork, fish, and beef) and methionine (found in meats, shellfish, eggs, and nuts) are also important for the production of neurotransmitters.

In general, the best sources of amino acids are proteins found in seafood, meats, eggs, and nuts.

4. B Vitamins

B Vitamins are important for the production of a number of brain chemicals. Folate (B9) deficiency is linked to depression. B9 deficiency has also been found in people who respond poorly to antidepressants. Liver, beef, leafy green vegetables, and beets are all great sources of B vitamins. 

Vitamin B12 is also a key nutrient for mental health, and B12 deficiency has been linked to depression.  Animal foods are the exclusive source of bioavailable vitamin B12, a special concern for those on a vegetarian or vegan diet.

5. Minerals

Zinc, magnesium, and iron have all been linked to brain function, but other trace minerals are likely to play a role as well. Zinc deficiency is linked to depression and it supports immune function. Additionally, zinc deficiency is linked to ADHD in children. Zinc is abundant in liver, oysters, pumpkin seeds, beef, and shrimp.

Magnesium and iron deficiency have also been linked to both depression and anxiety, and they play a variety of roles in brain chemistry. The best sources of iron are liver and organ meats. Spinach and other leafy greens provide a modest amount of iron as well. Magnesium is found in fish (mackerel, sardines), some nuts, leafy greens, and other sources.

6. Plant-Based Antioxidants

The health benefits of antioxidant compounds have been widely touted, and “antioxidant” is now a household word. But what are antioxidants?

Antioxidants, including compounds called “polyphenols” (found in many fruits, herbs, and vegetables), benefit cellular function throughout the body, including brain cells, by combatting so-called “free radicals” that cause oxidative stress and damage to cells. Oxidative damage has been linked to depression and dementia.

The best way to increase your intake of antioxidants is not through supplementation, but rather through a diet rich in dark berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, goji berries), grapes, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and a wide variety of other plant food sources.

7. Probiotics

Research shows that the health of the gut microbiome (the community of bacteria that inhabit the digestive tract) is linked to brain health and emotional health, including anxiety and depression. An imbalance in the gut bacterial flora can create chronic inflammation underlying a variety of disease processes throughout the body, which can negatively impact the nervous system and brain.

We can support beneficial microbes and improve the health of the gut by eating probiotic foods. The best sources of probiotics are cultured vegetables, such as sauerkraut or kimchi. Yogurt and kefir are good probiotic dairy sources. Apple cider vinegar is a great prebiotic, which helps to feed the beneficial bacteria.

Bad Mood Foods

Along with the good foods, there are some foods that are definitely bad for your moods. Not surprisingly, topping the list are processed foods with added sugars and artificial sweeteners, which give you an intense blood sugar high followed by a crash. Alcohol can also wreck havoc on your moods; while a glass of wine may help you wind down, alcohol is actually a depressant that reduces serotonin levels. Finally, margarine, trans-fats, and other processed vegetable oils, such as corn oil and canola oil, should be avoided and swapped out for healthy fats like cold-pressed olive oil and coconut oil.

Nutrition to Fuel a Healthy Mind

It is important to recognize that what we eat contributes to the long-term health of our bodies, minds, and spirits. By incorporating a variety of nutrient-dense foods into your diet, you can rest assured that you are giving your mental health a boost. At Inner Works Acupuncture, we offer whole food nutritional therapy to make sure we are nourishing our bodies and minds in the best way possible. Contact us today to learn more.

Inner Works Acupuncture is a holistic wellness clinic in Portland, Oregon. Contact us today at 503-227-2127 to make an appointment.

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