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  • Writer's pictureKellie Blake RDN,LD,IFNCP

Nutrition for Mental Health

Updated: May 22, 2022

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

  • 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year

  • 1 in 20 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year

  • 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year

  • Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10-34

  • 1 in 15 U.S. adults experience both a substance use disorder and a mental illness

  • Mood disorders are the most common cause of hospitalization for all people in the U.S. under age 45

  • Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.

  • 90% of those who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness.

While the development of a substance-use or mental health disorder is multi-factorial, nutrient insufficiency/deficiency and gut microbiome alterations are important considerations. The research indicates that mental health symptoms can be significantly improved (and even prevented) with nutrition and lifestyle strategies.

Nutrition for Improved Mental Health:

My approach to healing brain health symptoms starts with an investigation of gut function. Dysbiosis (an imbalance in the microbiome) is common in those with depression (and other mental health disorders), which can lead to neuroinflammation (brain inflammation) and altered neurotransmitter, hormone, and vitamin production in the gut. Healing the gut with targeted nutrient supplementation, nourishing foods, and the removal of triggering substances or stressors can provide powerful relief.

In addition to establishing a healthy gut, maintaining healthy blood sugar levels is vital. Blood sugar fluctuations and elevated insulin levels (even in those without diabetes) are implicated in depression. A meal plan that's high in plant-based fiber and adequate in healthy fat and protein can help to normalize blood sugar and optimize insulin levels. Avoiding high glycemic-low fiber and processed foods, artificial dyes, sweeteners, and food additives, as well as allergic or sensitive foods such as gluten, dairy, soy,

and corn can also help keep blood sugar and insulin levels in control.

Brain-Boosting Nutrients:

Focusing on brain-boosting nutrients is also powerful for improving brain health symptoms. Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, the B vitamins, and magnesium are of particular interest.

1. Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is important for neural cell signaling and quieting neuroinflammation. Choose fatty fish twice per week to help increase intake.

2. Vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency are very common, especially in those with mental health symptoms. Inadequate vitamin D levels impair immune function, but also affect oxidation and inflammation in the body. There are very few good food sources of vitamin D and sun exposure isn’t always possible, so vitamin D3 supplements are often helpful.

3. B vitamins act as coenzymes in many cellular processes and B vitamin deficiency predisposes patients to neurological disease. A large portion of the population are either deficient or marginally deficient in one or more B vitamins. B vitamins can be found in leafy greens, animal products, eggs, legumes, and nutritional yeast.

4. Magnesium is a co-factor required for many of the pathways, enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters associated with regulating mood and more than 70 percent of Americans have inadequate intake of this important brain nutrient. Magnesium is found in dark chocolate, nuts, seeds, legumes, and leafy greens.

Intermittent Fasting:

Another tool in my toolbox for improving brain health symptoms is intermittent fasting, which has been shown to reduce neuroinflammation. I typically recommend a 12-hour overnight fast but there are many different ways to fast and this should be personalized.

Lifestyle Modification for Improved Brain Health:

While improving nutritional status itself can dramatically improve symptoms of depression and other brain health disorders, lifestyle modification in several areas can work in conjunction with nutrition-related changes to enhance results. Some ideas include:

  1. Create and maintain a routine schedule. It can be very therapeutic to maintain a healthy routine. Healthy sleep, exercise, and mealtime routines can work together to improve brain health symptoms.

  2. Create time for daily self-care to effectively manage stress. Examples include a relaxing bath, gratitude journaling, healthy exercise, yoga, meditation, reading, listening to music, cooking healthy meals, and prayer.

  3. Create a healthy social support system and avoid isolating. Work to stay connected and engaged with those you love.

  4. Learn a new hobby or volunteer. Challenge yourself with a new hobby or volunteer, which can help boost confidence and take the focus off the internal struggle you may be experiencing.

  5. Seek individual or group therapy. Telehealth has really opened up the options in this area. Being connected to a counselor or others with similar struggles can help ease mental health symptoms.

A targeted nutrition and lifestyle approach to mental health can actually prevent or reverse symptoms and improve quality of life. While these types of changes can seem challenging, they should nevertheless be the first line of defense.

If you're struggling with brain health symptoms, contact us for a free 15-minute discovery call.


Dr. Leslie Korn – culinary medicine lecture

Dr. Daniel Amen – “The End of Mental Illness”

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