Three steps to improving your mental health using nutrition
In our previous blog ‘Food and Mood’, we talked about the links between nutrition and mental health, including the latest research on the gut-brain axis. In this post we provide three foundational steps to improving mental health via diet and supplementation.
Please note that these steps are not intended as medical advice, nor to replace your existing protocol for managing mental health. Always discuss any changes you wish to make with your doctor or specialist.
When it comes to diet, there are a number of foods which are directly linked with inflammation, stress and mental health issues (1). The most problematic inflammatory foods are sugar, gluten, dairy, artificial trans fats and highly processed vegetable oils - you should completely remove these from your diet if you want optimal mental health.
Sugar spikes your insulin levels and increases inflammatory cytokine production in the body.
Gluten is a common allergen linked with inflammation and intestinal damage.
Dairy contains casein and lactose which cause digestive issues and inflammation in some people.
Artificial trans fats found in margarine and processed foods promote systemic inflammation in the body.
Vegetable oil including soybean, corn, canola and sunflower oil are high in Omega 6 which will provoke an inflammatory response if not balanced with Omega 3.
Bolster your diet with seasonal fruit and vegetables, wild or grass-fed meat and bone broth, wild fish and healthy fats. The goal should be to eat foods that are nutrient dense, high in antioxidants and low in both toxins and inflammatory properties. There are some important nutrients that are linked with mental health, including:
Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid which improves cognitive function, learning and mental health. Clinical studies have shown that Omega-3 can be used to effectively treat depression(2). Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines are good whole food sources, and you can supplement with Extra Virgin Cod Liver Oil (EVCLO) to ensure you get enough Omega-3 on a daily basis.
Vitamin D, the ‘sunshine vitamin’ has been found to contribute to improvements in mental health(3). You can get vitamin D through your diet by including liver, grass-fed butter, eggs, and oily fish. However the best source of vitamin D comes from sun exposure, which kicks off your body’s natural production of vitamin D (we wrote about this in an earlier blog post). During the cooler months, supplementing with Vitamin D3 may be beneficial. EVCLO is a great natural source of Vitamin D3. If you are in the UK this is recommended between October and March - something that the NHS advocates along with most functional practitioners.
Selenium - Selenium is an essential micronutrient and there are studies showing that a low selenium intake is linked with poorer mood(4). Selenium is found in nuts including brazil nuts and walnuts, although the amount can vary due to soil quality. Additional Selenium supplementation may be necessary for some people (you can check your personal selenium requirements via a simple urine test - find out more here).
Tryptophan - Tryptophan is required for the biosynthesis of serotonin, which we covered in more detail in our recent post about food and mood. Good whole food sources of tryptophan include meats, dairy (if tolerated), fruit, nuts and seeds(5). However people recovering from gut issues may like to supplement with 5HTP, as this crosses the blood brain barrier more readily. Another option is Serotonin Brain Food which contains Tryptophan along with supporting cofactors B3, Magnesium, Zinc and Rhodiola Rosea to improve bioavailability.
Maintaining a healthy gut microbiome is critical for your mental health and wellbeing. Probiotics have been shown in a number of recent studies to improve depression and other mental health issues. In a small 2015 study, probiotics significantly improved depression scores as well as reducing C-reactive protein (a marker for inflammation). In a separate 2017 pilot study, probiotics were again found to relieve symptoms of depression, as well as helping gastrointestinal upset. A systematic review of all research in this new area concluded that the evidence for use of probiotics is “compelling”, however further trials are needed. The relatively new field of psychobiotics, which focuses on treating mental health issues with probiotics has so far focused on the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium as the most effective strains of beneficial bacteria.
You can add probiotics to your diet by eating fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi, or supplementing with a high quality probiotic such as Gutpro.
1. Stress, Food, and Inflammation: Psychoneuroimmunology and Nutrition at the Cutting Edge
2. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses
3. Vitamin D and Depression: Where is all the Sunshine?
4. Selenium intake, mood and other aspects of psychological functioning
5. Influence of Tryptophan and Serotonin on Mood and Cognition with a Possible Role of the Gut-Brain Axis