The ever-growing New Age movement constantly reminds us about the mind-body connection.
‘Positive vibes only’ and ‘what you think you become’ are some of the repeated phrases underlining the influence your mind has over your body.
Let’s flip the script…because what’s discussed less often is how what you put into your body affects your state of mind. Yes, we’re talking about the important relationship between diet and mental health.
“Optimal nutrition is the most important factor in keeping your brain healthy,” according to Dr Mark Hyman, author of The Ultra Mind Solution – the New York Times best-selling book on this topic.
He wrote: “What you put in your mouth provides all the raw materials to build the structure of your brain cells and keep all the communications systems running coherently so you can think, emote, learn, and remember.
“…the real cause of the epidemics of mental and physical illness in this country is our SAD diet – the Standard American Diet – which is nutrient-deficient and packed with chemicals that poison our bodies.”
Nutrients Essential To Supporting Optimal Mental Health
As the brain is such a complex organ with so many functions, we’d be here a long while covering how a multitude of nutrients in the diet influence the workings of the brain.
However, there are a few key nutrients found in an optimal diet that are worthy of special recognition when it comes to looking after your mental health.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids play a key role in the healthy functioning of the brain and deficiencies have been linked with mood disorders, anxiety, and even depression.
The results of a study completed in 2005 involving 33 healthy young patients were quite startling.
An omega 3 supplement, along with a placebo (olive oil), were given over a five-week period to the participants, with researchers performing various tests throughout.
They concluded: “The mood profile was improved after omega-3 with increased vigor and reduced anger, anxiety and depression states.”
Another in-depth study published in 2020 looked at how omega-3s from marine food affected brain development, and the prevention and treatment of mood and other brain disorders.
They concluded: “Supplementing with marine omega-3s may benefit behaviour, mood, and certain brain disorders. Considering that most of any given population is deficient in EPA and DHA, and that supplementing with marine omega-3s is safe, taking a daily marine omega-3 supplement may be a cost-effective strategy for supporting brain and mood health.”
Foods highest in omega 3 fatty acids are fish sources including mackerel, salmon, and cod liver oil capsules. But if you’re vegan – or just not a fishy kinda person – then you can also find decent amounts of omega-3s in foods such as flaxseed, walnuts, and Brussels sprouts.
While a healthy balanced diet filled with plenty of fruits and vegetables will help deliver your vitamin and mineral needs, vitamin D is a key player when it comes to brain health.
Of course, our bodies naturally produce vitamin D when we get enough exposure to sunlight. But hey, it’s the UK – and so your body could well be deficient at times, especially during the winter months.
But how exactly does vitamin D support healthy brain function?
In 2018, five researchers looked closely at this and published their findings in the Cureus Journal of Medical Science.
They reference 33 other studies which showed that vitamin D was essential for early life brain development, for healing from brain injuries, and highlighted how deficiency is linked to mental illnesses and brain disorders.
They concluded: “Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to many problems such as dementia, depression, diabetes mellitus, autism, and schizophrenia. It is important that this topic is emphasized since correcting the deficiency state can help prevent many negative health consequences.”
Foods high in vitamin D include oily fish, red meats, egg yolks, and fortified breakfast cereals. However, vitamin D supplementation is also a good option if these foods are not on your menu.
Key minerals: magnesium and zinc
Magnesium is a key mineral that plays a critical role in brain function and mood since it is essential for optimal nerve transmission. However, some health experts believe that more than half of the population in the Western world are deficient in magnesium due to poor diet, stress, and other environmental factors.
One study published in 2006 suggested that dietary deficiencies in magnesium goes hand-in-hand with depression. The researchers stated that magnesium supplementation was “usually effective for treatment of depression in general use”, and had shown great results within seven days in some major depressive cases.
Foods high in magnesium include leafy greens, almonds and cashew nuts, avocadoes, and dark chocolate.
Meanwhile, zinc rich foods – such as poultry, nuts, seeds, legumes and shellfish – also have a positive impact on brain health. This is because zinc plays a part in modulating the brain and body’s response to stress, and 300 or more enzymes use zinc to help them play their role in the body.
An article titled, ‘Zinc: An Antidepressant’, was published in Psychology Today almost a decade ago. Author and medical doctor Emily Deans wrote: “In humans, zinc has been found to be low in the serum of those suffering from depression.
“In fact, the more depressed someone is, the lower the zinc level.”
The Impact of Processed Foods on Mental Health
Diets high in refined sugars are harmful to the brain. In addition to worsening your body’s regulation of insulin, they also promote inflammation and oxidative stress.
Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function — and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders.
Excessive sugar intake was associated with poor cognitive function, following a notable study in Malaysia involving more than 1,200 people.
Meanwhile, ditching junk food and improving your diet could be the answer to easing anxiety and depression, according to research published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience.
The study revealed that for adults under 30 eating lots of fast food significantly increased perceived mental distress.
These results are not entirely surprising because it’s known that the trans-fats – aka man-made, unhealthy fats – which are found in high amounts in fast-food meals have an adverse effect on the brain and nervous system.
At one time, margarine was hailed as a healthier alternative to butter, yet its trans-fatty acids were later shown to be harmful to the brain and pose a mental health risk.
In a scientific paper published in 2016, researchers wrote: “Trans-fat from the diet is incorporated into brain cell membranes and alter the ability of neurons to communicate.
“This can diminish mental performance. Relationship between T-fat intake and depression risk was observed.”
Quite a lot to digest there, eh?
Stress, losing a loved one, or simply having a lot going on in your life, can hit hard mentally. But it's important to remember that the quality of food on your plate also has an enormous impact on your mental health.
Cognitive and physiological effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in healthy subjects
The importance of marine omega-3s for brain development and the prevention and treatment of behaviour, mood, and other brain disorders
The role of vitamin D in brain health: a mini literature review
Rapid recovery from major depression using magnesium treatment
Habitual sugar intake and cognitive impairment among multi-ethnic Malaysian older adults
Assessment of dietary factors, dietary practices and exercise on mental distress in young adults versus matured adults
New data on harmful effects of trans-fatty acids