Why Is Nutrition Good for Mental Health

June 20, 2024   •  Posted in: 

As the saying goes, “You are what you eat.” New research shows this statement is more valid than we ever realized. Nutrition plays an incredibly important role not only in physical health but also in mental health. The mind and the body are deeply connected. The food you consume—and the nutrients your body gets from it—can affect your mental health so powerfully it can even lower your risk of developing certain mental health disorders.

In this article, we’ll go over the role of nutrition in mental health, including brain functions affected by nutritional intake, the role of essential nutrients, and mental illnesses strongly linked to nutritional deficiencies.

The connection between nutrition and the brain

Nutrition isn’t just about filling our stomachs; it’s about nourishing our brains and supporting our mental well-being. The connection between what we eat and how we feel is profound, and emerging research has shed light on the deeply interwoven relationship between nutrition and mental health.

A nutritious diet plays an essential role in several brain functions. Here are some of the most important ones.

Neurogenesis

Neurogenesis is the process in which new neurons are created in the brain, especially in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory and learning. While neurogenesis primarily occurs during prenatal development, it continues to some extent throughout your life.
Nutrition can influence neurogenesis by providing essential nutrients that support the growth and development of new neurons[1].

For example, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to enhance neurogenesis and promote the survival of new neurons in the hippocampus. Additionally, certain antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals play a role in neurogenesis by protecting brain cells from damage.

When our brains can create new neurons, our cognitive abilities improve – including memory, concentration, problem-solving, and learning new information. Research has found nutrition may even play a role in preventing cognitive decline and dementia in older people[2].

Neuroplasticity

To define it simply, neuroplasticity is the brain’s remarkable capacity to restructure and adjust based on various factors such as learning, experiences, and environmental changes. Nutrition significantly contributes to this process by supplying the essential components needed to form and maintain connections between neurons, known as synapses[3].

The strength of our synapses underlies all learning. When we learn something new, such as a new skill or piece of information, synaptic connections between neurons may be strengthened. Conversely, when certain connections (or skills) are not used frequently, the synaptic connections may weaken.

Getting key nutrients—particularly omega-3s—is essential for helping synapses form and function properly.

Mood regulation

Nutrition can significantly influence mood regulation and emotional well-being, partly because certain nutrients strengthen neurogenesis. Specific neurotransmitters that play essential roles in mood have been found to have a direct link with nutrition and diet.

For example, serotonin, a neurotransmitter known as the “happiness hormone,” is synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan[4]. Omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and magnesium also play essential roles in mood regulation and can even help prevent mood disorders (such as depression) and anxiety.

Neuroprotective properties

Certain nutrients have neuroprotective properties, which means they help protect the brain from damage and degeneration. Antioxidants can protect the brain from free radicals or unstable atoms that damage brain cells and contribute to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease[5].

What nutrients are crucial to brain health?

Our brains are incredibly complex organs that require constant nutrients to function well. And certain vital nutrients, which we describe below, play a crucial role in supporting brain health.

Here are some primary nutrients your brain needs to stay in top shape.

Omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish (like salmon) and walnuts, are essential for building cell membranes in the brain and promoting communication between brain cells (neurotransmitters). Research suggests a deficiency in omega-3s may be linked to an increased risk of depression and cognitive decline.

Antioxidants

Antioxidants, compounds that help protect the body against harmful molecules called free radicals, can be found in colorful fruits and vegetables. They also help protect the brain from oxidative stress—the damage caused by free radicals—and inflammation, which are linked to neurodegenerative diseases and mood disorders.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D, often called the “sunshine vitamin,” is essential for mood regulation and brain function. Research has found links between low levels of vitamin D and an increased risk of depression and other mood disorders. Some vitamin D is obtained from sun exposure, but it’s also found in certain foods, like fortified dairy products.

Vitamin B

B vitamins, including folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12, produce certain neurotransmitters like GABA and serotonin[6] and play a crucial role in mood regulation. Vitamin B deficiencies have been associated with an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and difficulties sleeping.

Magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral crucial for neurotransmitter function. It has been linked with improved mood and reduced anxiety. Magnesium also plays an important role in regulating the stress response and promoting relaxation. Sources of magnesium include nuts, seeds, leafy greens, and whole grains.

Which mental health disorders does nutrition play a significant role in?

Research shows many specific mental illnesses are highly linked with nutritional factors, and certain nutritional deficiencies can increase your risk of developing these disorders. The opposite is true in many cases – consuming certain nutrients can help protect you against these disorders.

This doesn’t mean nutritional deficits cause these mental illnesses; the causes of mental health conditions are complex and can rarely be narrowed down to one single factor. A combination of biology, genetics, and environment causes most mental health conditions. However, the research is clear nutrition does play a role.

Depression

Several nutrients have been studied for their potential impact on depression. Omega-3 fatty acids, for example, have been associated with a reduced risk of depression. Antioxidants may also protect against depressive symptoms by reducing oxidative stress (damage from free radicals) and inflammation in the brain.

On the other hand, a deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids, especially EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), has been linked to an increased risk of depression[7]. These fatty acids are crucial in brain function and mood regulation as described earlier. Research suggests low levels of omega-3 fatty acids can impair neurotransmitter signaling and contribute to inflammation of the brain, both of which play a role in depression.

Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to an increased risk of depression. Vitamin D plays a role in neurotransmitter synthesis and neuroplasticity. Insufficient vitamin D levels may affect the production of neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine, that help regulate your mood.

Other nutritional deficiencies that can cause an increased risk of depression include[8]:

  • B vitamins
  • Magnesium
  • Zinc
  • Protein
  • Iron

Anxiety

Research shows magnesium helps to regulate neurotransmitter function and may have a calming effect on the nervous system. Eating foods rich in magnesium or taking magnesium supplements could help to reduce symptoms of anxiety. Zinc has also been found to reduce anxiety. Deficiencies in these nutrients could have the opposite effect and increase your risk for anxiety[9].

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

While research on the role of nutrition in ADHD is ongoing, and there’s no definitive proof[10], some studies suggest certain nutrients may influence ADHD symptoms. For example, omega-3 fatty acids support cognitive function and attention, which can help improve ADHD symptoms for some people. Iron deficiency has also been associated with an increased risk of ADHD symptoms in some studies[11].

Schizophrenia

Nutritional factors may also be relevant to schizophrenia risk and symptoms. For example, research has shown neonatal (in the womb) vitamin D deficiency may be more common in individuals with schizophrenia and could contribute to symptoms such as cognitive impairment[12]. In addition, researchers have found people with schizophrenia may be more likely to have a vitamin C deficiency, although they’re still learning more[13].

Holistic mental health treatment in Washington State

At The Center: A Place of HOPE, we deeply respect the link between body and mind. Scientific research proves nutrition is a core part of your mental health, and it’s vital you learn how to care for yourself holistically.

That’s why our Whole Person Approach offers mental health treatment that addresses your life’s physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual elements. Your treatment team will comprise multidisciplinary professionals like mental health therapists and nutritionists.

Contact us today to learn how we can support your mental health journey and walk with you as you start living a healthy, happy, and fulfilled life.

We Treat Depression, Anxiety, Eating Disorders, Trauma, PTSD, Addiction & OCD

Contact Our Caring Admissions Team

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1 – http://www.gssiweb.org/sports-science-exchange/article/sse-149-nutrition-and-neurogenesis
2 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805706/
3 – https://www.nutritional-psychology.org/neuroplasticity-behavior-and-dietary-intake-rewiring-the-brain-for-better-or-worse/
4 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10362063/
5 – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0753332215303103
6 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4772032/
7 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6683166/
8 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10255717/
9 – https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-strategies-to-ease-anxiety-201604139441
10 – https://chadd.org/about-adhd/nutrition-and-adhd/
11 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4212392/
12 – https://www.nature.com/articles/s41380-021-01025-0
13 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9380709/

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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