Nutrition and Mental Health
How Your Second Brain Influences Your Mood
Have you ever had a gut feeling and it turns out you were right? Or felt a moment of fear deep in the pit of your stomach? We already instinctively know from these experiences that the role of our gut goes far beyond digesting the food we eat. In fact, our gut’s connection to our mood and mental health is so strong because of an underling system of neurons lining our guts, the enteric nervous system (ENS), which scientists have nicknamed the “second brain.” In addition to our central nervous system (CNS), which connects our brain to our spinal cord, the brain-gut connection also communicates through this lesser known nervous system This system has the capacity to produce important neurotransmitters that have a direct impact on our mental wellness and is key to understanding the gut-brain connection. The ENS is located in our stomach, and it is known to have the ability to affect our emotions, which is why maintaining a healthy gut is vital to helping us regulate our mental wellness. It's no wonder a growing and robust body of evidence has shown the damaging impact of unhealthy diets and deficiencies in key nutrients on mental health, as well as the promise of specific nutritional supplements for supporting and increasing mental wellness.
Your Gut, Your Mental Health and Nutrition
According to research, below are 3 specific ways nutrition impacts our mental health and mood:
Gut-brain connection: Emerging research has shown that our gut microbiome plays a critical role not just in our physical health, but in our mental health, via the vagus nerve and ENS system as discussed above. Pre and probiotics are a great way to promote a healthy microbiome, which helps to restore both our physical and mental health.
Inflammation: Studies are increasingly linking inflammation to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, which isn’t surprising given the link between inflammation and many other chronic health issues like diabetes. For example, processed sugar has been found to decrease brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports healthy neurons. Decreased BDNF has been linked to depression.
Nutrients: The conversion of amino acids into neurotransmitters require enzymes. Nutrients, along with enzymes, are necessary to support a healthy and balanced production of neurotransmitters. SSRIS, or selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors, are common prescription medications for anxiety and depression that correct an imbalance in serotonin. Nutrients play an important role in the synthesis of key neurotransmitters too.
Wait, What are Neurotransmitters?
We’ve mentioned neurotransmitters a few times above, so you may be wondering – what’s the connection between neurotransmitters and mental health? Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that help nerve cells communicate and transmit signals. Research has linked mood disorders like anxiety to imbalances in certain neurotransmitters like serotonin. That’s why many people struggling with anxiety and depression are prescribed drugs known as SSRIs – or selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors – to correct this imbalance. Here’s where it get’s exciting. Nutrients, including vitamins, amino acids, and trace minerals are the building blocks of balanced neurotransmitters. Science is showing that the correct amount of these nutrients in our body is key to proper neurotransmitter levels, which is why practitioners are increasingly understanding that balanced diet, and supplementation where appropriate, is key to preventing and/or alleviating symptoms of mental health challenges like anxiety. Below is a brief overview of major neurotransmitters and their function.
Overview of Neurotransmitters
We understand this may be a lot of new information to absorb, so we break down the key components to using nutrients, supplements and food as natural remedies for depression and anxiety, or to improve your mental health generally, below.
The following guide will provide an overview of the nutrients essential for mental health, particularly anxiety, and the foods that contain them, as well as a guide to nutritional supplements that can be used to support your mental health since it can sometimes be hard to reach therapeutic thresholds through food alone.
What Nutrients are Best for Mental Health?
Amino acids, fatty acids such as Omega-3, B Vitamins and several minerals are essential for cognition, behavior and mood regulation. Common deficiencies in people with anxiety include iron, zinc, selenium, vitamin d, omega-3 fatty acids, b-vitamins, folate and magnesium. Below you will find a list of key dietary essentials and the best food sources for ensuring you have the proper amount. For optimal mental health, ensure that 80% of your diet is made up of these dietary essentials.
Essential Amino Acids
Amino acids are necessary building blocks necessary for vital functioning. Our body produces hundreds; however, we need 20 to function properly, nine of which cannot be produced by the human body. These nine amino acids can only be obtained by food, or plant and animal sources, and are called essential amino acids. Below is an overview of amino acids particularly important to maintain balanced mental health.
Minerals and Vitamins for Stress, Anxiety and Mood Regulation
We’ve been told since childhood that vitamins and minerals are important for our physical health. What we aren’t told is that these nutrients play a key role in our mental health and mood regulation too. Deficiency has been linked to increased depressive mood,anxiety, and other neuropsychiatric disorders. Below we list key vitamins for stress, anxiety and mood regulation.
Similarly, our cells depend on adequate levels of minerals in your body to enable the chemical reactions necessary to produce key hormones and chemicals that regulate mood. Often, our natural diets alone are not enough to achieve the necessary levels of these minerals.
Supplements as Natural Anxiety Remedies
Increasingly, people are seeking solutions to deal with anxiety without medication. Science has shown nutrition is a great starting point for improving mental wellness, but it can be hard to reach the recommended levels of key nutrients through food alone. If you’ve ever Googled “how to calm anxiety at night” or been generally curious about the supplements available to support mental health, the waterfall of sometimes competing information can seem overwhelming. But natural supplements can be a powerful over the counter medicine for anxiety and stress. We break down the supplement landscape below so you can feel empowered to take control of your mental wellness journey and approach supplementation with confidence.
Best Anxiety Supplements
Please note that there is always a risk for side effects due to our unique body chemistry. Common supplement side effects include nausea and vomiting, headache, and fatigue. Should you experience any of these, please consult with a medical provider.
Diet and Mental Health
Food is an important first line of defense against anxiety. We abide by the 80/20 rule: aim for 80% of your diet to be made up of healthy, whole foods like those listed below. 20% can be made up of things that are less healthy or treats, because, hey, we’re not perfect!
The following foods in particular are recommended based on common nutritional deficiencies linked to anxiety disorders. These food sources are nutrient-rich with the essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals necessary to maintain a balanced diet and mental wellbeing.
Foods to Reduce Anxiety
Written by Camila Smith, LCSW, Doctor of Health Sciences
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