When making decisions about your diet consider how nutrition and mental health are linked.(Getty Images)

If you struggle with depression, anxiety or another mental health condition, therapy, exercise, self-care or medication may be part of your mental health toolbox. But what about nutrition?

“Treatment is not as simple as addressing one thing,” says Georgie Fear, a Canada-based registered dietitian. “We are whole people, with various causes and contributors to mental health disorders, including nutritional status.”

Enjoying Food Can Improve Your Health

Recent studies suggest that what you eat (and don’t eat) is an important component to addressing mental health. For example, 2016 research published in the British Journal of Nutrition shows that people with higher Alternative Healthy Eating Index scores (a marker for balanced nutrition) have lower levels of anxiety. And a 2010 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that diets rich in vegetables, fruit, meat, fish and whole grains have been linked to better mental health outcomes than diets that were high in processed foods, refined grains and sugary products. According to Fear, specific nutrients may increase the effectiveness of popular treatments for depression such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs.

However, it’s important to realize that while nutrition affects mental health, mental health also impacts nutrition. People with depression are less likely to spend the little energy they have on preparing healthy meals and getting the nutrients they need, Fear says. “There’s still a lot that we don’t know about nutrition for mental health,” she says. “But the good thing about the knowledge that we do have is that it’s consistent with what we already know promotes overall health.”

If you struggle with mental health, it’s worth evaluating your intake of these seven nutrients. Simply keeping a food journal can help raise awareness about what nutrients might be lacking from your diet, says Dr. Rob Danoff, a family medicine physician and director of the family residency program at Jefferson Health–Northeast in Philadelphia. However, you can also consider talking to your doctor, registered dietitian or nutritional psychiatrist to determine how much you’re getting – and how much you need – of these and other beneficial nutrients.

Omega-3 fatty acids. “The brain is constantly making new brain cells and connections between those cells, called synapses,” Danoff says. “Omega-3 fatty acids strengthen those connections.” They also play a critical role in reducing inflammation, which can impair brain function, he says. Observational research published in 2013 in the British Journal of Nutrition found that people who get the most DHA, one type of omega-3 fatty acid, have up to a 50 percent reduced risk of anxiety disorders.

How to get a boost: Eat fatty fish, including salmon, mackerel and herring, to increase your DHA intake. Fish oil capsules are rich in DHA, but Danoff recommends choosing whole foods first. Unfortunately, vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as walnuts and avocados, do not contain DHA, and only a small portion of their fatty acids are converted to DHA. DHA-fortified milk as well as vegan DHA supplements containing algae can help increase levels in vegetarians and vegans.

Amino acids. The amino acids that make up dietary protein are intricately involved in the production of neurotransmitters that allow brain cells to properly communicate with one another, Danoff says. For example, the body makes dopamine from the amino acid tyrosine and serotonin from tryptophan. Low levels of either of these neurotransmitters may impact mental health. Fear notes that increasing the body’s levels of tryptophan may decrease anxiety.

How to get a boost: The nine essential amino acids your body relies on are found in meats, dairy and eggs. Quinoa and soybeans are also considered “complete” protein sources. For a steady stream of amino acids, Fear suggests including a rich source of protein in every meal and snack.

B Vitamins. B vitamins – thiamin, riboflavin, folate, B-6 and B-12 – are responsible for helping your body convert food into energy and are tightly linked with mood and brain function, Danoff says. A 2013 study published in The Journal of Nutrition found that thiamine (B1) deficiencies are associated with a higher risk of depressive symptoms in older adults. Meanwhile, people with depression show levels of folate, also called B9, that are an average of 25 percent lower than levels in those without depression, according to a 2000 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

How to get a boost: Great sources of B vitamins include whole grains, meat, fish, eggs, dairy, legumes, leafy greens and seeds and nuts, Fear says. B-complex supplements can be useful when your diet is not enough to achieve a healthy level of the nutrient.

Carbohydrates. Carbs fuel the production of the feel-good chemical serotonin, meaning that low-carb and ketogenic diets can depress mood and energy levels, Danoff says. What’s more, Fear notes that low-carb diets influence how the brain distributes and responds to the serotonin it makes. A 2016 British Journal of Pharmacology study suggests that antidepressant drugs such as SSRIs that work by impacting serotonin may be less effective when consuming a diet with 45 percent or more of its calories coming from fat.

How to get a boost: Choose whole carbohydrate sources such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, Danoff says. Refined and processed sugars are linked with energy and mood swings as well as inflammation and poor mental health outcomes, he says.

Probiotics. “In recent years, more research has shown that there is a connection between the gut and brain – through the ‘gut-brain axis’ – and that gut health can affect pain, sleep, depression and anxiety,” says Matthew J. Kuchan, a research fellow and lead scientist for nutrition and brain health at Abbott Research. In fact, a 2017 study published in Scientific Reports shows that eating probiotic-rich foods that are known for aiding in digestive health may also help to alleviate symptoms of depression.

How to get a boost: Foods that are rich in probiotics include Greek yogurt, kefir, kombucha and pickled vegetables, such as sauerkraut and kimchi.

Vitamin D. Vitamin D levels and mental health are highly correlated, according to recent findings. An Iranian Journal of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences study of young women found that the higher their vitamin D levels, the lower their risk of anxiety. While it’s currently unknown how vitamin D could influence mental health, vitamin D is a precursor to hormones that could influence brain function, Danoff says.

How to get a boost: Sunlight is the predominant source of vitamin D, but there are also foods rich in the nutrient. Fatty fish, egg yolks and milk are all good sources, Fear says. She recommends that everyone have their levels checked because deficiencies are very common. In fact, a 2011 Nutrition Research study found deficiencies in 41.6 percent of U.S. adults studied.

Iron. The nutrient helps in delivering oxygen to every cell in your body, as well as the creation of neurotransmitters and myelin, a substance that increases how fast cells can send signals to one another, Danoff says. It is a primary cause of anemia, which is associated with fatigue, depression, apathy, brain fog and irritability, he explains.

How to get a boost: Roughly 10 million people are iron-deficient in the U.S., with half of those having iron deficiency anemia, according to 2013 research in Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine. The richest sources of iron include red meat and shellfish, but iron-fortified cereals, egg yolks, peanuts and beans also contain the nutrient. Supplementation is most commonly necessary in premenopausal women who lose significant amounts of iron during menstruation as well as in vegetarians and vegans.

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K. Aleisha Fetters, Contributor

K. Aleisha Fetters, MS, CSCS, is a freelance Health & Wellness reporter at U.S. News. As a cert…  Read moreK. Aleisha Fetters, MS, CSCS, is a freelance Health & Wellness reporter at U.S. News. As a certified strength and conditioning specialist with a graduate degree in health and science reporting, she has contributed to publications including TIME, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, Runner’s World, and Shape. She empowers others to reach their goals using a science-based approach to fitness, nutrition and health. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram, find her on Facebook or the Web or email her at [email protected]

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