To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, we take a look at the role which nutrition can play in mental wellbeing.
Initiatives like Mental Health Awareness Week are a great way to help focus attention on the importance of mental wellbeing in a variety of different arenas, from work life to family life.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that there is little or no link between our physical and mental health - in reality, the two go hand in hand with one often influencing the other.
That's why as well as things like mindfulness or meditation potentially improving your mental outlook, ensuring you get the nutrients you need can be equally beneficial – and often overlooked.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been headline news for the past few years, especially for their effects on mood, concentration and brain health. Omega-3 covers a range of fatty acids including eicosapantaoneic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA), both of which found in plentiful quantities in oily fish. EPA and DHA are important in the maintenance of brain cell membranes while DHA is associated with transmission of important mood-regulating hormones such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.
As a result, low levels of omega-3 in the body are associated with mood disturbance, cognitive issues (such as mental processing speeds and memory),depressive symptoms and low energy (1, 2). The good news is that many trials show supplementation can help reverse this, improving mood, cognitive function and elevating energy levels (3, 4). This is particularly important in the UK, as the standard British diet lacks the oily fish intakes in east Asian or Mediterranean diets.
Fish oil supplements offer a convenient way to supplement with omega-3, particularly if you’re not a fish fan. Pharmaceutical-grade fish oil supplements ensure low levels of heavy metals and dioxins, adding more peace of mind, especially for pregnant woman or those trying to conceive.
Over 1 billion people worldwide don’t get enough vitamin D. Though we can obtain vitamin D from sunlight exposure, various hurdles stand in the way including naturally low levels of sun exposure experienced in the UK, especially in winter. This has led to the Government suggesting everyone should consider supplementing with vitamin D, particularly in darker months.
Vitamin D supplements show great promise for supporting mental health and mood, not to mention many other benefits including immunity and muscle function. Vitamin D may work by altering the quantity of mood-regulating substances such as serotonin and how they operate (5).
This has shown to have a positive effect on mental health. In a randomized, double-blind control trial, vitamin D was shown to reduce depressive symptoms associated with major depressive disorder (MDD), having an overall positive effect on mental health. (6)
The European Food Safety Authority states that “a decline in magnesium status is associated with various symptoms such as depression...”. Magnesium is responsible for the production and use of over 600 enzymes in the body, many of which are vital for the normal function of our brain chemistry. Most of us don't get enough magnesium and the result can be detrimental to mood and mental health. Known as the relaxing mineral, trials show (7, 8) that supplementing with magnesium can:
• Decrease anxiety and anxiety symptoms
• Decrease depressive symptoms
• Improve serotonin levels in the brain
Many other studies also link magnesium to an anti-anxiety effect, important as anxiety and related disorders are rising in prevalence worldwide. (9)
Magnesium supplementation can improve the ability of the brain to recognize and form new connections, affecting everything from how we think to how we learn and recall. This enhanced brain plasticity could also benefit anxiety and related disorders, such as phobias and post-traumatic stress disorders (10).
Studies have also found that magnesium reduces the severity of insomnia, improves the length of sleep and decreases the time taken to achieve a full sleep.
Low mood can often be brought on by low energy levels so finding ways to boost your energy can help improve your outlook. As well as taking part in exercise, it is worthwhile looking at supplements which can help provide that extra spark.
Coenzyme Q10 is a vitamin-like substance which occurs naturally within every cell in the human body and is crucial in producing cellular energy. Heart and skeletal muscles have the highest energy requirements of all tissues and are particularly reliant on adequate Q10 as a result.
Ageing, stress, exercise and illness all impair our ability to produce Q10 effectively, which is why supplementing your diet with Q10 can help. When choosing a Q10 supplement, look for those which are the most bioavailable i.e. those which are best absorbed by the body and those which have been used with success in clinical trials.
Overall, there are many ways to tackle conditions such as stress, anxiety and low mood. Through the benefits of nutrition and with appropriate supplement choices, you can contribute to your own positive health which is ultimately its own reward.
1. Su KP. Mind-body interface: the role of n-3 fatty acids in psychoneuroimmunology, somatic presentation, and medical illness comorbidity of depression. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr (2008) 17(Suppl 1):151–7.
2. Sublette, M., Ellis, S., Geant, A. and Mann, J. (2011). Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) in Clinical Trials in Depression. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 72(12), pp.1577-1584.
3. Fontani, G., Corradeschi, F., Felici, A., Alfatti, F., Migliorini, S. and Lodi, L. (2005). Cognitive and physiological effects of Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in healthy subjects. European Journal of Clinical Investigation, 35(11), pp.691-699.
4.Kiecolt-Glaser, J., Belury, M., Andridge, R., Malarkey, W. and Glaser, R. (2011). Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: A randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 25(8), pp.1725-1734.
5.Kjærgaard, M., Waterloo, K., Wang, C., Almås, B., Figenschau, Y., Hutchinson, M., Svartberg, J. and Jorde, R. (2012). Effect of vitamin D supplement on depression scores in people with low levels of serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D: nested case—control study and randomised clinical trial. British Journal of Psychiatry, 201(05), pp.360-368.
6. Sepehrmanesh, Z., Kolahdooz, F., Abedi, F., Mazroii, N., Assarian, A., Asemi, Z. and Esmaillzadeh, A. (2015). Vitamin D Supplementation Affects the Beck Depression Inventory, Insulin Resistance, and Biomarkers of Oxidative Stress in Patients with Major Depressive Disorder: A Randomized, Controlled Clinical Trial. Journal of Nutrition, 146(2), pp.243-248.
7. Tarleton, E., Littenberg, B., MacLean, C., Kennedy, A. and Daley, C. (2017). Role of magnesium supplementation in the treatment of depression: A randomized clinical trial. PLOS ONE, 12(6), p.e0180067.
8. Eby, G. and Eby, K. (2010). Magnesium for treatment-resistant depression: A review and hypothesis. Medical Hypotheses, 74(4), pp.649-660.
9.Dowbiggin, I. (2009). High Anxieties: The Social Construction of Anxiety Disorders. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 54(7), pp.429-436.
10. Abumaria, N., Yin, B., Zhang, L., Li, X., Chen, T., Descalzi, G., Zhao, L., Ahn, M., Luo, L., Ran, C., Zhuo, M. and Liu, G. (2011). Effects of Elevation of Brain Magnesium on Fear Conditioning, Fear Extinction, and Synaptic Plasticity in the Infralimbic Prefrontal Cortex and Lateral Amygdala. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(42), pp.14871-14881.