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Food For Thought: Nutrition and Mental Health

Jennifer Martin, Social Media Intern


Have you ever heard the saying “You are what you eat”? It is usually thought of it as a way of saying that if you eat healthy foods, you will feel well, or the opposite, when you eat poorly, you feel bad. This usually implies physical feelings of “well” and “bad”, however there is a lot to be said about how the food we eat can impact one’s mental health. Growing amount of research is pointing towards what is referred to as the Gut-Brain connection, suggesting that what we eat may not only have a physical impact on the body, but a mental and emotional impact as well.

The subject of nutrition and how it effects the brain can be a bit complex but hopefully after reading through the following information, you will have a better understanding and appreciation for the complexity of the human body and be able to take this information to guide you towards improving your nutrition. 

Food contains both macronutrients and micronutrients. A macronutrient is the nutrient that provides energy in the form of calories that the body needs in larger amounts for proper functioning and carrying out life’s daily activities. Macronutrients consist of Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Lipids also known as dietary fats. Consuming a combination of all three macronutrients is important for ensuring proper growth and development. Micronutrients are also an important factor in health, and these are the vitamins and minerals that are found in the foods we eat. Vitamins and minerals aid in many of the body’s important processes including energy production, hormone production, immune function, blood and bone health. 

The Macronutrient Protein is made up of 9 essential amino acids, meaning that they are not made by the body so they need to be consumed in the food we eat, and 11 non-essential amino acids that the body makes on its own. Three of the amino acids, tryptophan, tyrosine, phenylalanine are precursors to neurotransmitters which are chemical messengers used by the nervous system to transmit messages between neurons and different parts of the body which play a large part in everyday life and how we function. Neurotransmitters keep the brain functioning and also has an effect on mood. There are many neurotransmitters in the body but 3 of the main neurotransmitters responsible for mood are Dopamine, Serotonin, and Norepinephrine. More than 90% of the body’s total serotonin actually reside in the gut, where it also helps regulate the movement of the digestive system. 

Certain vitamins and minerals are needed to facilitate the process in which neurotransmitters are made from proteins and amino acids.  Vitamins A, B6, B12, Folate, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, Magnesium, Calcium and vitamin K are just a few of the important micronutrients that play a key role in that. Omega 3 fatty acids in the form of EPA are also essential. In particular, vitamins A, C and E, and the minerals copper, zinc and selenium are known as antioxidants which are compounds that stops the chemical reaction known as oxidation. Oxidation leads to the productions of free radicals that cause chain chemical reactions in the body that damage cells. Antioxidants can be produced by the body or consumed by eating food or supplementation and they help to counteract the negative effects of free radicals on the body. One of the negative effects being inflammation which is linked to many diseases. Deficiencies in vitamins B6, B12 and folate have shown to contribute to depressive symptoms and those who are depressed typically show lower levels of these nutrients. 

Research over the years has shown that those who have major depressive disorder tend to have higher inflammation than those who do not have depression. Depression is not an inflammatory disease, however, inflammation in the body decreases the availability of monoamine neurotransmitters which include serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.  Increased inflammation occurs in those with depression but has also been found to be increased in those with other psychiatric diseases including bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and schizophrenia. It is interesting to note that the connection between the mind and the body is incredible and acts as a two-way street in many cases in that stress and anxiety can increase inflammation, just as inflammation in the body can contribute to symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

I want to answer a question that might be on your mind as you’re reading this. “Well what about just taking a multivitamin?” While a daily supplement may seem to provide more than enough of a lot of the vitamins and minerals the body needs, it does so in a way that is off balance from what would or should occur naturally. What this means is that while getting all of the nutrients in a supplement form in the same dose at the same time could be convenient, it may also end up creating issues with nutrient absorption. On one hand, some nutrients are better absorbed in conjunction with other nutrients, while others can actually inhibit absorption.  Diving into the topic of supplementation is slightly out of the scope for this week’s blog, however, this information is here to provide a basic overview of the subject and allow you to have a starting point for any future research you may want to do on the subject matter. If there is a deficiency in any of the vitamins or minerals that play a role in the process in which neurotransmitters are made, it could potentially affect your mental health. A great way to get the vitamins and nutrients you need is by eating them! To be sure you are eating a diverse and balanced diet, consider incorporating the following foods. Refer to the chart below to get some ideas for how to fill your plate with a variety of foods that will provide the nutrients highlighted so far.

While there is no available evidence that would say that diet alone will be the cure all for depression and anxiety, there is reason to start thinking about what we eat in a different way as it pertains to our mental health as well as physical health – Food for thought so to speak. When taking care of mental health, it is always important to seek all treatment necessary and recommended by your health care providers and continue to engage in the therapy or other treatment you need that is best for you. Being mindful of a healthy diet and how it may affect certain processes in your body is just one component of a multi-faceted approach to support you on your mental health journey. 

This subject matter is pretty complex and there is so much to read about when it comes to the connection between what we eat and certain physical and mental health outcomes. Below are some additional resources that will expand on some of the topics covered in this week’s discussion.

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