It comes as no surprise that anxiety and depression are pervasive health issues that touch the lives of people in almost every community. According to a recent statistic published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of every six adults in the US will have depression at some point in their life. Sadly, the National Institute of Mental Health states that the prevalence of those suffering from depression was highest among the younger population, specifically those between the ages of 18–25. What is more, low mood and depression are often closely linked with anxiety disorders which can give rise to feelings of fear, stress and panic. These physiological responses may not only interfere with day-to-day social activities but may also negatively impact employment opportunities. Clearly, mental health and well-being should be a top priority on your health checklist.
Nutrients and mental health
The aetiology of mental health disorders has been extensively researched, and epidemiological studies have identified that both genetic and environmental factors play a role in the development of mental illness. Since every individual is unique, it is recommended to speak to a healthcare practitioner to identify a treatment plan that’s right for you. In the meantime, stay active and considering natural remedies such as deep breathing and meditation may help curb the side effects of a mental illness. Below are some nutrients that may be helpful in managing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- Magnesium. Magnesium is required for the proper functioning of the central nervous system. Unfortunately, up to 50% of the US population is estimated to be consuming a magnesium-deficient diet. Several studies suggest that low levels play a role in anxiety. Some food sources of magnesium include wheat bran, almonds, cashews, and hazelnuts.
- Fish oil. The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are very important for normal brain function and have been found to play a critical role in both depression and anxiety. Some food sources of omega-3 fatty acids include anchovies, salmon, and sardines.
- Vitamin D. Vitamin D plays an important role in mood regulation. Unfortunately, it is estimated that 1 billion people worldwide have low vitamin D levels, which can be linked to an increased incidence of depression and other mental health disorders such as schizophrenia. Aside from sunshine, some food sources of vitamin D include sardines, fortified milk and eggs.
- Vitamin B. Vitamin B supports the proper functioning of the brain and nervous system and the body’s requirement for vitamin B increases when under stress. Some food sources of vitamin B include sunflower seeds, liver, and soybeans.
- Ashwagandha. Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that has been used for centuries as a natural remedy to help the body manage stress and anxiety.
- L-Theanine. L-theanine is an amino acid found naturally in green tea that helps to elevate levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), an important neurotransmitter. Studies show that L-theanine may help promote a calm, relaxed mood without causing drowsiness.
- 5-HTP. 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is an amino acid that is essential for the body to make serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a central role in the regulation of mood and anxiety. Studies have shown that 5-HTP may have anti-anxiety effects such as reduced panic attacks in those living with panic disorders.
Are nutritional supplements necessary?
Along with knowing which nutrients may be beneficial for mental health, it is easy to become overwhelmed with food options and the plethora of nutritional supplements on the market. In an ideal world, you would get all the nutrients you require from organic, nutrient-dense, whole foods, grown close to home. The reality though, is that most of us do not live on a farm where we harvest local, organic produce all year long. Therefore, nutritional supplements may be worth considering for a variety of reasons.
- Depleted soil. Even if you eat the most nutritious, organic produce, you often end up consuming foods that appear to be a healthy choice, but often lack the rich nutrient profile they originally had. Modern farming practices have stripped the soil of certain minerals like selenium, zinc and magnesium. If the soil is depleted of certain nutrients, the food grown in that soil will also lack those same nutrients.
- Cold storage and transportation. Long-term storage, over-processing, harvesting, and shipping practices can all cause food to lose its nutritional value. Fruits and vegetables for example have their highest nutrient content when they are ‘alive’ (still growing), or immediately after they are picked. Unfortunately, as soon as they are harvested and stored in a cold environment (like a refrigerator), their nutritional value quickly declines. Grapes, for example, have lost up to 30% of their vitamin B by the time they hit the shelves. Fresh asparagus, stored for one week, has already lost about 90% of its vitamin C content. Not only do most people purchase their products from the grocery store, where cold, long-term storage is already in effect, but then they take that nutrient-deprived food and store it in their refrigerators at home, which causes further vitamin and mineral degradation.
- Cooking. It’s probably safe to assume that most people do not follow a raw food diet. Food is most often enjoyed when it’s cooked and prepared in a variety of ways. However, cooking, canning, or any sort of processing can further destroy the nutrient content of foods.
- Ageing. Unfortunately, the body makes less of some nutrients as we age. For example, coenzyme Q10 plays a vital role in our bodies by generating energy in cells by boosting mitochondrial function. At the age of 50, the body makes less CoQ10 than it did previously. The same is true for vitamin D – older skin is not as efficient as younger skin at producing vitamin D in response to sunlight, and therefore many older adults have low vitamin D levels, which has been linked to bone health issues and poor immune outcomes.
- Prescription medications. Many commonly prescribed medications can deplete the body with essential nutrients. For example, common diuretics (water pills) can deplete the body of magnesium, potassium, sodium and zinc. As another example, birth control pills can deplete the body with folic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin C, and zinc.
So, when Hippocrates said: ‘Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food,’ he understood that nutrients found in food can have a real beneficial impact on our health, including our mental health and well-being. However, fast forward some 2000 years later and our food alone may not quite be the ‘medicine’ that it once was. With that in mind, many individuals may find that taking good quality nutritional supplements can help to fill in the nutrient gaps.
If you think nutritional supplements might be right for you, it is wise to speak with your healthcare practitioner in advance to ensure there are no contraindications with your prescription medications.
Natasha Paroutis is the nutrition director of CustomVite.