Your mind and mood are intimately connected with your diet. While dietary modifications and supplements may not result in miraculous improvements overnight, a balanced whole-foods diet with plenty of healthy fats – and getting at least 30 minutes of exercise daily – is the best way to improve your mental health.
Here are a few of the most important nutritional factors than affect depression, autism, PTSD, and many other mental health problems:
- Sugar. A diet high in sugar or carbohydrates is one of the most detrimental to your mental health. While the brain needs some blood glucose to function, too much can interfere with your neurotransmitter balance, especially serotonin. The same is true for artificial sweeteners which are known neurotoxins.
- Processed Foods. Preservatives, MSG, food dyes, artificial flavors and colors have been documented as culprits in ADHD, depression, and autism.
- Probiotics. Well-documented studies have shown that an imbalance in gut flora leads to mental health issues. Balancing your good bacteria in your digestive tract with daily probiotics can make a big difference in your mental health.
- Animal-based Omega-3 fat: Your brain is almost 50% comprised of DHA – an Omega 3. Without adequate levels of it, our brains (and minds) simply cannot function as designed. However, DHA is almost exclusively derived from animal sources (the one exception is marine algae derived DHA). Vegetarian sources can be difficult to convert. Foods like salmon, mackerel, sardines are great sources of Omega 3s. Failing that, a high-quality krill oil supplement is preferred, especially with the antioxidant astaxanthin.
- Vitamin B-12. Another vitamin deficiency that can contribute to depression is vitamin B12 deficiency, which affects about one in four people. Vegetarians are particularly susceptible. A daily sublingual supplement is most effective.
- Coconut Oil. Another saturated fat, coconut oil also contains lauric acid, which is essential to brain cell function. Studies have shown that 2 tablespoons a day can reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
- Vitamin D. One study found that people with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who had normal levels. The best way to get vitamin D is through regular year-round exposure to sunshine or a safe tanning bed. Your next option, if these two superior options are not available, is to use a vitamin D3 supplement – or Cod Liver Oil—just make sure to check your levels regularly to make sure you’re maintaining optimal levels.
- Exercise. There’s a veritable mountain of well-done scientific research pointing to the fact that exercise is one of the most potent treatments for depression. Unlike drugs, it is FAR more consistently effective than placebo when done properly.
- Sound sleep is another critical issue. You can have the best diet and exercise program possible, but if you aren’t sleeping well your mental health can suffer. Sleep and depression are so intimately linked that a sleep disorder is actually part of the definition of the symptom complex that gives the label depression. Make sure to get between 7-9 hours a night.
- Amino Acid Supplements. Certain amino acids can help regulate neurotransmitters. However, it is important not to self-prescribe, as over use or combinations with medications can result in dangerous conditions.
Lauryn Axelrod, CHHC, Nutrition Coordinator