Oct 12th 2015

Health Check: seven nutrients important for mental health – and where to find them


Dietary nutrients are critical for brain structure and function, so they have a potentially profound impact on mental health. An increasingly robust body of research points to the detrimental effect of unhealthy diets and nutrient deficiencies, and to the protective value of healthy diets – along with select nutritional supplements as required – for maintaining and promoting mental health.

Research literature suggests dietary improvement and nutritional interventions may help reduce the risk, or even arrest the progression, of certain psychiatric disorders. Clinical studies support the use of certain nutrients, which influence a range of neurochemical activities beneficial for treating mental disorders, as medicinal supplements.

Evidence from clinical research supports the use of several nutritional medicines for certain psychiatric disorders: omega-3 fatty acids; N-acetyl cysteine (NAC); S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe); zinc; magnesium; vitamin D; and B vitamins (including folic acid). Other natural compounds such as amino acids, plant-based antioxidants and microbiotics (derived from fermented food or laboratory synthesis) are also known to influence brain health.

But while some evidence supports these natural compounds as having brain chemical-modulating effects, or having a role in treating certain mental disorders, we cannot currently name particular foods as being effective for the treatment of mental illness. The best nutritional advice at this point is to cultivate an unprocessed wholefood diet, with judicious prescriptive use of nutrients (if required) based on advice from a qualified health professional. 

In the meanwhile, here are seven key nutrients that may positively influence brain health, and the foods they appear in.

1. Omega-3

Polyunsaturated fats (in particular omega-3 fatty acids) have a vital role in maintaining proper neuronal structure and function, as well as in modulating critical aspects of the inflammatory pathway in the body. Taking omega-3 supplements appears beneficial for addressing symptoms of depression, bipolar depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. And it may potentially help prevent psychosis.

Omega-3 fats can be found in nuts, seeds and oysters, although the highest amounts exist in oily fish such as sardines, salmon (especially King salmon), anchovies and mackerel. Due to higher levels of mercury, larger fish, such as mackerel, should be consumed in moderation.

2. B vitamins and folate

We need B vitamins for a range of cellular and metabolic processes, and they have a critical role in the production of a range of brain chemicals. Folate (B9) deficiency has been reported in depressed populations and among people who respond poorly to antidepressants.

Several studies have assessed the antidepressant effect of folic acid (the synthetic form of folate) with antidepressant medication. Some show positive results in enhancing either antidepressant response rates or the onset of response to these medications. 

Folate is found in abundance in leafy green vegetables, legumes, whole grains, brewer’s yeast and nuts. Unprocessed meats, eggs, cheese, dairy, whole grains and nuts are, in general, richest in B vitamins. If you’re going to take supplements, it’s advisable to take B vitamins together as they have a synergistic effect.

3. Amino acids

Amino acids are the building blocks for creating proteins, from which brain circuitry and brain chemicals are formed. Some amino acids are precursors of mood-modulating chemicals; tryptophan, for instance, is needed to create serotonin. Another example is cysteine, a sulphur-based amino acid that can convert into glutathione – the body’s most powerful antioxidant.

When given as a supplement, an amino acid form known as N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) converts into glutathione in the body. We have evidence that it’s helpful in bipolar depression, schizophrenia, trichotillomania and other compulsive and addictive behaviours. Another amino acid-based nutrient known as S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe) has antidepressant qualities.

Amino acids are found in any source of protein, most notably meats, seafood, eggs, nuts and legumes.

4. Minerals

Minerals, especially zinc, magnesium and iron, have important roles in neurological function.

Zinc is an abundant trace element, being involved in many brain chemistry reactions. It’s also a key element supporting proper immune function. Deficiency has been linked to increased depressive symptoms and there’s emerging evidence for zinc supplementation in improving depressed mood, primarily alongside antidepressants.

Magnesium is also involved in many brain chemistry reactions and deficiency has been linked to depressive and anxiety symptoms. Iron is involved in many neurological activities and deficiency is associated with anxiety and depressive symptoms as well as developmental problems. This is, in part, due to its role in transporting oxygen to the brain.

Zinc is abundant in lean meats, oysters, whole grains, pumpkin seeds and nuts, while magnesium is richest in nuts, legumes, whole grains, leafy greens and soy. Iron occurs in higher amounts in unprocessed meats and organ meats, such as liver, and in modest amounts in grains, nuts and leafy greens, such as spinach.

5. Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble compound that’s important as much for brain development as it is for bone development. Data suggests low maternal levels of vitamin D are implicated in schizophrenia risk, and deficiency is linked to increased depressive symptoms. But there’s little evidence to support the use of vitamin D supplements for preventing depression

Vitamin D can be synthesised via sunlight: 15 minutes a day on the skin between 10am and 3pm during summer, although be sure to seek professional health advice regarding skin cancer concerns. Aside from sunlight, vitamin D can also be found in oily fish, UVB-exposed mushrooms and fortified milk.

6. Plant-based antioxidants

An increase in oxidative stress and damage to brain cells has been implicated in a range of mental disorders, including depression and dementia. Antioxidant compounds (such as “polyphenols”, which are found in fruits and certain herbs) may “mop up” free radicals that damage cells to provide a natural way to combat excessive oxidation.

Consuming natural antioxidant compounds through your diet is better than taking supplements of high doses of synthetic vitamin A, C or E, as the oxidative system is finely tuned and excess may actually be harmful.

Fruits and vegetables contain these antioxidant compounds in relative abundance, especially blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and goji berries; grapes; mangoes and mangosteen; onions; garlic; kale; as well as green and black tea; various herbal teas; and coffee.

7. Microbiotics

Research shows a connection between the bacteria in our guts and brain health, which may affect mental health. When the composition of the gut microbiota is less than optimal, it can result in inflammatory responses that may negatively affect the nervous system and brain function.

A balanced microfloral environment is supported by a diet rich in the foods that nourish beneficial bacteria and reduce harmful microbial species, such as Helicobacter pylori. Beneficial microflora can be supported by eating fermented foods such as tempeh, sauerkraut, kefir and yoghurt, and also by pectin-rich foods such as fruit skin.

What now?

Diets high in sugary, fatty and processed foods are associated with depression and poor brain health. While nutrient supplementation can have a role in maintaining proper brain function and treating certain psychiatric disorders, nutrients should, in the first instance, be consumed as part of a balanced wholefood diet.

There is now enough research evidence to show the importance of nutrients for mental as well as physical well-being. A discussion about diet and nutrition should be the starting point in conversations about mental health, just as it is for physical health.

If you’re interested in participating in a clinical trial prescribing nutrients for treating depression (SE Queensland and Victoria only), visit nutrientsdepressionstudy.

Acknowledgement: Dr Drew Ramsey contributed to this article.


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Dr Jerome Sarris is a Senior Research Fellow at The University of Melbourne.

Jerome Sarris moved from clinical practice to academic work, and completed a doctorate at The University of Queensland in the field of psychiatry. He undertook his postdoctoral training at The University of Melbourne, Department of Psychiatry; The Centre for Human Psychopharmacology, Swinburne University of Technology; and The Depression Clinical & Research Program at Harvard Medical School (MGH). He has a particular interest in anxiety and mood disorder research pertaining to nutraceutical psychopharmacology, and in Complementary and Integrative Medicine research.

Jerome Sarris has 95 publications (1st/2nd or Senior author on over 90% of publications), and has published in many eminent psychiatry, psychopharmacology, and nutrition/natural product journals. He has been awarded over $4.3 million dollars in personal and study grants, including being CIA on two large NHMRC Project Grants. Sarris is a founding Vice Chair of The International Network of Integrative Mental Health.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jun 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."
Jun 11th 2021
EXTARCT: "A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can."
Jun 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we apply that test to the world as a whole, how much moral progress have we made over the past two millennia? ...... That question is suggested by The Golden Ass, arguably the world’s earliest surviving novel, written around 170 CE, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire. Apuleius, the author, was an African philosopher and writer, born in what is now the Algerian city of M’Daourouch."
Jun 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Research we’ve done, which looked at 37 adults with type 2 diabetes, found that over two weeks, prolonged sitting was associated with high blood sugar levels. But we also found that when people stood up or walked around between periods of sitting, they had lower blood sugar levels. Other studies have also had similar results."
May 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Paul Van Doren's legacy lies in a famous company, and in his advice to young entrepreneurs to get their hands dirty, and to know what goes into making what they are selling."
May 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "May 7th marked three hundred and ten years since the philosopher David Hume was born. He is chiefly remembered as the most original and destructive of the early modern empiricists, following John Locke and George Berkeley." .... " Shocking as it may (and should) sound, Hume is implying nothing less than that the next time you turn the key in your car ignition, you are as justified to expect the engine will start as you are in believing it will turn into a pumpkin. For there is a radical contingency that pervades all our experience. We could wake up tomorrow to a world that looks and behaves very differently to the one we are in now. Matters of fact are dependent on experience and can never be known a priori — they are purely contingent, and could always turn out different than what we expect."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."