Eating for Mental Health
Today I would like to talk a bit about the crucial role food plays in mental health. Nutritional deficiencies have been found to play a role in the development of mental disorders including anxiety, depression, dementia, cognitive function, ADHD, bipolar disorder, OCD & schizophrenia.
So how can we eat to support and improve mental health? The short answer is a whole food diet including quality protein, fats, plenty of vegetables & fruits, nuts, seeds & whole grains. But to be a bit more specific…
Firstly we need quality protein. Our body breaks down protein into amino acids which it then uses to build the neurotransmitters essential for mental health. The best sources of protein are meat, eggs, nuts & seeds, whole grains & legumes. If you are eating only plant sources of protein, then it is important to eat a good combination daily of nuts, seeds, grains & legumes to get all the amino acids your body needs.
Secondly we need quality fat. Our brain loves fat, especially omega-3 fatty acids. It has been estimated that grey matter in our brain contains 50% omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids & significantly lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids have been found in depressed patients. The more deficient a person becomes, the greater the impact on mental health. Omega-3 fatty acids are also anti-inflammatory & inflammation plays a significant role in mental disorders. Additionally fatty acids support the growth of neurons. The best sources of omega-3’s are fatty fish (such as salmon, sardines & trout) and grass fed beef. Other sources include sea vegetables, walnuts, flax & chia seeds.
The B complex vitamins are also required for the synthesis of neurotransmitters & again a deficiency in B vitamins is linked to depression. Additionally, we burn through a lot of B vitamins during times of stress. B vitamins of special importance for mental health include vitamins B3, B6, B12 & folate (B9). The best food sources of B vitamins are again meat, eggs, whole grains, legumes, nuts & seeds.
If you are supplementing your B-vitamins, you need to include a full vitamin B complex. You also need to take care of the form of the vitamins. I don’t recommend self-prescribing – if you aren’t seeing a naturopath, then many health food shops now employ naturopaths who can give you advice on quality products.
Magnesium is our relaxation mineral & so important for stress, anxiety & mood. It is needed for regulation of various neurotransmitters & blood sugar; & for numerous cellular functions that play a part in depression. Magnesium deficiency has been linked to both depression & anxiety. Also, like B vitamins, we need a lot more magnesium during times of stress. Good food sources include nuts & seeds, fruit & vegetables (especially dark green leafy vegetables), whole grains & cacao.
Zinc is essential in numerous enzymatic reactions in the brain & deficiency has been linked to increased depressive symptoms. Zinc is also essential for the integrity of the gut & digestion, which is intricately linked to mental health. It is best found in meat (especially red meat), liver, shellfish (oysters are exceptionally high), seeds (especially pumpkin) & nuts.
Chromium is a less commonly known mineral. It is important for blood sugar regulation, reduces carbohydrate cravings & enhances insulin sensitivity. Blood sugar dysregulation is another key factor in mood disorders. Chromium may be especially beneficial when depression is accompanied with carbohydrate craving. Some of the best food sources of chromium include broccoli, green beans, potatoes, liver, meat & whole grains. The important thing to note is that with whole grains & potatoes; the chromium is found in the outer husk/ skin – thus why eating our foods whole & unrefined is so important. Not to mention the outer husk or skin is also where most of the fibre is; which also regulates blood sugar.
There are many other nutrients I could discuss, but the final one I will give mention to is vitamin D, a fat soluble compound that is incredibly important for brain development, & once again deficiency has been associated with depression (and depression scores worsen in winter, when we get less sunshine). Food sources include fish liver oils, beef liver, butter, egg yolk, cheese, sprouted seeds & mushrooms that have been left to dry in the sun. It is difficult however to obtain adequate vitamin D from food – our best source is actually sunlight on the skin.
In herbal medicine we have so many beautiful herbs for supporting mental health, stress, anxiety, depression & sleep. As this is a post about eating for mental health I just want to highlight a couple of herbs that you can use in the kitchen to support stress & mood.
Turmeric is such an incredible herb. It is beautiful for reducing inflammation & oxidative stress throughout the body, including the brain.
Lemon balm is beautiful for reducing anxiety & supporting sleep. It is especially beneficial for those with stress-related digestive symptoms. It’s so easy to grow & you can throw the leaves in a salad, soup or casserole & it makes a lovely tea. You can add in some chamomile & lavender for additional support.
Additionally I sell some lovely herbal tea blends for stress, resilience, sleep & calm.
I’ll finish by saying, as I have before that while food is my preferred source of medicine, sometimes nutritional supplementation is needed. This is often the case in mental disorders where deficiency is an issue. If you feel that nutritional deficiencies might be contributing to poor mental health or mood, or would like herbal medicine support, you can contact me here to book an appointment for a full naturopathic consultation.
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