May is quickly approaching and that means it will soon be mental health awareness month. The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), is dedicated to improving health and wellness for everyone with a brain, which includes you! This year’s theme for mental health awareness month is “You Are Not Alone”. Now more than ever this is important. COVID-19 has uprooted lives and isolated us from family and friends. For many, there has never been a time when loneliness has been so forefront. In all honesty, it’s going to take more than one month in a year to improve mental health but shedding light on such an important facet of wellness is vital. Each year 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience a mental illness and 17% of American youth experience a mental health disorder (2). A 12-month prevalence according to NAMI research shows 19% of American adults experience anxiety, 8% depression, 4% post-traumatic stress disorder, and 1% obsessive-compulsive disorder (2). According to researchers at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) depression is the leading cause of disability individuals 15-44 in the United States (3). According to the American Psychological Association, 67% of adults say that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused increased stress, which leads to physical and emotional stress (4). On a daily basis the environment surrounding us, the foods we consume, the way we move our bodies, and the thoughts we have all affect our mental health.
Think of your brain like a computer (which you likely have been staring at a lot these days), it takes in stimuli from your surroundings, processes it, and sends it back to the body. It’s on 24/7, which includes while you are sleeping. It regulates your heartbeat and breathing. Factor in emotional, spiritual, and physical characteristics and you have the human experience! The human body is amazing, and our brains allow us to experience all it has to offer, so why wouldn’t we provide it with the appropriate nourishment. Understanding ways to incorporate food to nourish mental health and feel better is an important piece of the puzzle when working to improve your overall quality of life. Without a healthy mind, it’s harder to have a healthy life and even function on a daily basis. Food is something that everyone has in common and cannot live without. It is a part of our communities and how we interact with each other, it’s emotional and it is physiological. It can be exciting to learn about what food does for you and how good it can make you feel! It’s not your enemy and can be one of your biggest allies. With a little guidance and an interest to improve how you feel, there are basic practices you can follow that help improve mental health and in conjunction physical health too. Your computer (brain) is going to function best when it’s fully charged and has the right inputs (nutrients) on a daily basis.
What foods and nutrients help improve your mental health?
Research suggests that B vitamins may have a positive effect on mood outcomes and are important modifiable factors in neurological and psychiatric conditions of at-risk and healthy adults (5). There are many B vitamins, but Folate (vitamin B9) and Cobalamin (vitamin B12) are two important B vitamins for brain health. Your brain is a part of the central nervous system (CNS). Both Folate and B12 are water-soluble vitamins that function as coenzymes for metabolic reactions. They are essential for the production of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters are essential for the optimal function of neurological processes and regulating mood (6).
These B vitamins are naturally occurring in foods such as meats like pork and fish, milk, yogurt, eggs, and dark leafy greens…just to list a few!
This is a fat-soluble vitamin that is found to be protective of brain health, immune function, and calcium balance. You can get it through foods, supplementation, and sunlight. It is sometimes known as the “sunshine vitamin”. When your skin is exposed to sunlight a series of reactions take place to manufacture vitamin D3 (7). Many Americans are deficient in vitamin D depending on dietary patterns, climate, and genetics.
Good food sources of vitamin D include seafood, fatty fish like salmon, egg yolk, fortified milk, fortified cereals, fortified orange juice.
This is an essential trace mineral that takes part in cellular processes and is important for neural functions and other biological processes (8). Zinc is important in regulating the body’s stress response. The stress hormone, Cortisol, is released when the body is stressed. If the body is chronically stressed zinc may become deficient and not be able to downplay cortisol effects (9). Dysregulation of Zinc and the body’s stress response leads to a vicious cycle that may lead to mental decline (9).
Dietary sources of Zinc include lean meats, poultry, fish, oysters, baked beans, pumpkin seeds, fortified cereals, and dairy.
Magnesium plays an important role in nerve transmission, neuromuscular transmission, and excessive cell excitement (10). Magnesium helps regulate the overflow of stress hormones. Chronic excess of stress hormones is detrimental to mental health, which includes increased incidents of anxiety, depression, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease (10).
Foods that are rich in Magnesium include poultry, eggs, seafood, beans, peas, and lentils, nuts, and seeds.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids:
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) are important for brain health. Omega-3 is derived from α-linolenic acid (a fatty acid), which needs to be supplied through the diet (11). Omega-3 fats are important for cell membranes and impact the function of cell receptors within the cell membranes. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential and since the body cannot make them from scratch, it needs to be supplied from the foods you eat (11).
Foods that are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids included salmon, tuna, vegetable oils, walnuts, leafy vegetables, flax seeds, and flaxseed oil.
It’s critical to understand how what you eat affects your mental health! Some evidence suggests that mental health and diet are related, however nutrition is only one part of maintaining a healthy mental status. If you have questions about mental health, are struggling with a mental illness, or struggling emotionally, ask your doctor for resources. There is no shame in using other therapies from your mental health medical professional.
For general information on mental health:
One Pan Lemon Garlic Salmon
Recipe adapted from Recipe adapted from Cafe Delites
- 4 – 6 (6 oz or 170 g) salmon fillets, skin removed
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
- 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Olive oil cooking spray
- 1 teaspoon Kosher salt (or sea salt flakes)
- 1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
- 4 bunches asparagus (24 spears), woody ends removed
- 1 lemon , sliced to garnish
- 1/3 cup beans/peas or any other greens
- Preheat oven broiler (or grill) to high heat. Line a baking sheet with aluminium foil. Arrange oven shelf to the second top shelf (about 8-inches from the heat element).
- Place the salmon on a large baking tray. Rub each fillet evenly with the garlic and parsley to evenly coat; pour over the lemon juice. Spray with a light coating of olive oil spray and season with salt and pepper. Arrange the asparagus and greens around the salmon in a single layer,and place the lemon slices over the top.
- Broil (or grill) for 8-10 minutes, or until salmon is cooked through to your liking (we find 8 minutes i
- Serve with the asparagus and beans/peas. Enjoy!
- InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. How does the brain work? 2009 Oct 8 [Updated 2018 Oct 31].Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279302/
- You are not alone. National Alliance on Mental Illness Web site.https://www.nami.org/Home. Accessed April 12, 2021.
- Mental Health Awareness. Center for Disease Control Web site. https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/resources/diseases/mental.htm . Accessed 12 April 2021
- Stress in America 2020: A national mental health crisis. American Psychological Association Web site.https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/report-october#:~:text=Nearly%208%20in%2010%20adults,the%20course%20of%20the%20pandemic. Accessed April 12, 2021.
- Young LM, Pipingas A, White DJ, Gauci S, Scholey A. A systematic review and meta-analysis of b vitamin supplementation on depressive symptoms, anxiety, and stress: effects on healthy and ‘at-fisk’ individuals. Nutrients. 2019;11(9):2232. Published 2019 Sep 16. doi:10.3390/nu11092232
- Kennedy DO. B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy–A Review. Nutrients. 2016;8(2):68. Published 2016 Jan 27. doi:10.3390/nu8020068
- Penckofer S, Kouba J, Byrn M, Estwing Ferrans C. Vitamin D and depression: where is all the sunshine?. Issues Ment Health Nurs. 2010;31(6):385-393. doi:10.3109/01612840903437657
- Zinc: fact sheet for healthcare professionals. National Institute of Health Web site. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/. Accessed April 12. 2021.
- Petrilli MA, Kranz TM, Kleinhaus K, et al. The emerging role for zinc in depression and psychosis. Front Pharmacol. 2017;8:414. Published 2017 Jun 30. doi:10.3389/fphar.2017.00414.
- Lopresti AL. The effects of psychological and environmental stress on micronutrient concentrations in the body: a review of the evidence. Adv Nutr. 2020;11(1):103-112. doi:10.1093/advances/nmz082.
- Lang K. Omega-3 fatty acids and mental health. Global Health Journal. 2020;4(1):10-30. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S241464472030004X. Accessed April 12, 2021.