Nutritional imbalances can play a key role in mental health issues and contribute to anxiety, depression, poor concentration and attention, poor memory and sleep issues such as insomnia, etc.
The macro nutrients (proteins, fats, carbohydrates) and micro nutrients (vitamins, minerals, certain amino-acids and essential fatty acids) we absorb from our diet regulate and fuel all the fundamental biochemical systems responsible for our mental health.
What we eat – and more importantly, what we digest and absorb – is one of the most important components of mental health.
Currently, in our Western societies, we tend to suffer from substantial nutritional deficiencies, due to intensive farming methods, poor soil quality, inadequate diets, stress, pollution and unhealthy lifestyle habits:
- 1 in 20 adults in England – 3 million people – are affected by malnutrition Elia, M. (2015). The cost of malnutrition in England and potential cost savings from nutritional interventions. [online] Southampton: BAPEN and National Institute for Health Research Southampton Biomedical Research Centre. Available at: http://www.bapen.org.uk/pdfs/economic-report-short.pdf [accessed 23 Aug. 2017].
- 92% of Americans are deficient in one or more essential vitamins and minerals (2017). More than 92% of Americans are deficient in one or more vitamins. [online] Happy Brain Movement. Available at: http://www.happybrainmovement.com/vitamins/ [accessed 30 Oct. 2017].
- 80% are deficient in vitamin D
- Over 99% are deficient in the essential omega-3 fatty acids Hyman, M. (2008). The UltraMind Solution. New York: Scribner, p. 306.
- Obesity is a growing worldwide epidemic, and obese individuals have high rates of micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) deficiencies, in particular vitamin D, chromium and thiamine Via, M. (2012). The malnutrition of obesity: micronutrient deficiencies that promote diabetes. [online] ISRN Endocrinology. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3313629/ [accessed 23 Aug. 2017].
- A tendency to certain nutritional deficiencies is also individual to each person, depending on genetics
The impact of nutritional deficiencies on mental health
Chronic malnutrition or malabsorption, resulting in deficiencies of important nutrients can manifest as various mental health symptoms such as:Lake, J. (2009). Integrative Mental Health Care. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, p. 236.Sathyanarayana Rao, T., Asha, M., Ramesh, B. and Jagannatha Rao, K. (2008). Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. [online] Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 50 (2), pp. 77–82. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2738337/ [accessed 23 Aug. 2017].Liu, X., Yan, Y., Li, F. and Zhang, D. (2016). Fruit and vegetable consumption and the risk of depression: A meta-analysis. [online] Nutrition, 32 (3), pp. 296-302. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0899900715003974 [accessed 23 August 2017].
There is a correlation between poor nutrient intake with mood disorders such as depression.Davison, K. and Kaplan, B. (2012). Nutrient intakes are correlated with overall psychiatric functioning in adults with mood disorders. [online] The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 57(2), pp. 85–92. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22340148 [accessed 23 Aug. 2017].
Symptoms of depression could point to a deficiency in:
- Vitamins B3, B6, B9, B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Iron – the production of serotonin depends on sufficient iron levelsKharrazian, D. (2013). Why Isn’t My Brain Working?. Carlsbad, CA: Elephant Press, p. 310.
- Omega 3
- Specific essential amino acids such as tryptophan
- Essential nutrients such as choline
Symptoms of anxiety and panic could point to a deficiency in:
- Vitamins B6, B12
- Vitamin D
- Omega 3
Kuan-Pin S, et al., (2015). Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in prevention of Mood and Anxiety Disorders. Clin. psychopharmacol. Neurosci. 13(2): 129-37 Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4540034/
“Individuals who are chronically sleep deprived often have low blood levels of several vitamins and minerals”.Lake, J. (2009). Integrative Mental Health Care. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, p. 290.
Sleep issues could point to a deficiency in:
- Vitamins B6, B12
- Omega 3
Lake, J. (2009). Integrative Mental Health Care. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Holford, P. (2004). Patrick Holford’s New Optimum Nutrition Bible. London: Piatkus.
Symptoms of exhaustion could point to a deficiency in:
- Vitamin B5, B9, B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
Holford, P. (2004). Patrick Holford’s New Optimum Nutrition Bible. London: Piatkus., Lake, J. (2009). Integrative Mental Health Care. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., p. 290.
Symptoms of hyperactivity could point to a deficiency in:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
Cruchet, S., Lucero, Y. and Cornejo, V. (2016). Truths, Myths and Needs of Special Diets: Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism, Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity, and Vegetarianism. [online] Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 68 (Suppl. 1), pp. 43–50. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27356007 [accessed 23 Aug. 2017]., Antalis, C., Stevens, L., Campbell, M., Pazdro, R., Ericson, K. and Burgess, J. (2006). Omega-3 fatty acid status in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. [online] Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, 75(4-5), pp. 299–308. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16962757 [accessed 23 Aug. 2017].
Mood swings could point to a deficiency in:
- Vitamin B complex
- Vitamin E
- Omega-3 fatty acids
Patrick, R. and Ames, B. (2015). Vitamin D and the omega-3 fatty acids control serotonin synthesis and action, part 2: relevance for ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and impulsive behavior. [online] The FASEB Journal, 29 (6), pp. 2207–2222. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25713056 [accessed 23 Aug. 2017].
Symptoms of irritability could point to a deficiency in:
- Vitamin B12
- Omega 3
Kaplan, B., Crawford, S., Field, C. and Simpson, J. (2007). Vitamins, minerals, and mood. [online] Psychological Bulletin, 133 (5), pp. 747-60. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17723028 [accessed 23 Aug. 17].
Symptoms of poor concentration and attention could point to a deficiency in:
- Vitamin B1, B5, B12
- Omega 3
- Vitamin D
Poor memory and Alzheimer’s disease could point to a deficiency in:
- Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, B7 (Biotin) B9, B12
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin C
- Omega 3
Littlejohns. T.J., et al., (2014). Vitamin D and the risk of dementia and alzheimers disease. Neurology 83(10): 920–928 Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4153851/
Nutritional imbalances, hormones and neurotransmitters
Nutrition plays a vital role in the production of neurotransmitters and hormones, which in turn play an essential role in mental wellbeing.
Neurotransmitters for mood, calm, sleep, etc. must be continually produced from the nutrients in the food that we eat, digest and absorb. These neurotransmitters include:
- Serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates our mood, alertness, sleep and appetite
- GABA, the neurotransmitter that makes us feel calm, relaxed and focused
- Dopamine, the neurotransmitter that gives us focus, motivation and pleasure
- Acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter essential for attention and memory
- Optimal levels of sex, stress and thyroid hormones, are important for mental health, and require good amounts of cholesterol and essential fatty acids, as well as protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals
- Optimal levels of insulin are necessary to ensure stable blood sugar, which is essential to mood, anxiety levels, cognitive function, etc.
Parletta, N., Milte, C. and Meyer, B. (2013). Nutritional modulation of cognitive function and mental health. [online] The Journal of nutritional biochemistry, 24 (5), pp. 725-743. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23517914 [accessed 22 Aug. 17].
Causes of nutritional imbalances
There are many factors that can contribute to nutritional deficiencies and imbalances. Work with your health practitioner to diagnose your nutritional imbalances, and identify their causes, so that you can fix them.
The primary cause for nutritional imbalances is usually an unhealthy diet. If your diet predominantly consists of the list below, there is a good chance it’s not providing you with the nutrients you need for a healthy brain and moodsGreenblatt, J. (2011). Breakthrough Depression Solution. Forest Lake: Sunrise River Press, p. 76.:
- Packaged, prepared and processed foods, which are devoid of healthy nutrients and full of the wrong kinds of nutrients
- Fried foods and “junk foods”
- High intake of refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour (white breads, white pasta, etc.)
- Low intake of whole foods and fresh foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains and moderate amounts of meat, poultry and fish
It has been shown that diets consisting of mainly fast foods and processed foods are associated with an increase in depressive symptoms, while diets which have high concentrations of vegetables, fruits and fish are associated with a lower risk of depressive symptoms.Minocha, A. (2014). Is It Leaky Gut Or Leaky Gut Syndrome? Shreveport, LA: Logos Enterprises LLC., Kharrazian, D. (2013). Why Isn’t My Brain Working?. Carlsbad, CA: Elephant Press., Perlmutter, D. and Colman, C. (2004). The Better Brain Book. New York: Riverhead Books.
Even if you do have a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, unless they are organic (which has been shown to correlate with higher concentrations of antioxidants and polyunsaturated fatty acids) and local, they often contain fewer micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants) than they traditionally would have due to:
- Poor soil fertility, often due to intensive farming methods which deplete the soil of micronutrient (minerals and vitamins) density
- Deficiencies associated with poor soil fertility include selenium, zinc, iodine and magnesiumForman, J., Silverstein, J., Committee on Nutrition, Council on Environmental Health and American Academy of Pediatrics. (2012). Organic foods: health and environmental advantages and disadvantages. [online] Pediatrics, 130 (5), e1406–e1415. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23090335 [accessed 23 Aug. 17]. Jones, D., Cross, P., Withers, P., DeLuca, T., Robinson, D., Quilliam, R., Harris, I., Chadwick, D. and Edwards‐Jones, G. (2013). REVIEW: Nutrient stripping: The global disparity between food security and soil nutrient stocks. [online] Journal of Applied Ecology, 50 (4), pp. 851–862. Available at: https://www.stir.ac.uk/research/hub/publication/12920 [accessed 23 Aug. 17].
- Long transportation distances can deplete the nutritional content of vegetables and fruit
- Excessive pesticide and herbicide use
If you have a well balanced diet but don’t digest and absorb your food adequately, you may still have nutritional deficiencies.
Poor digestion can be due to:
- Rushed meals on the run can cause high cortisol and lowered HCL (stomach acid) and digestive enzymes
- Insufficient chewingDr. Mercola, (2013). 7 Important Reasons to Properly Chew Your Food. [online] Available at: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/07/31/chewing-foods.aspx [Accessed 23 Aug. 17].
- Smoking, drinking significant amounts of alcohol and chronic drug use can lead to vitamin and nutrient deficiencies
- Skipping meals and eating irregularly can cause imbalances in blood sugar which can contribute to mental health issues
Daubenmier, J., Kristeller, J., Hecht, F., Maninger, N., Kuwata, M., Jhaveri, K., Lustig, R., Kemeny, M., Karan, L. and Epel, E. (2011). Mindfulness intervention for stress eating to reduce cortisol and abdominal fat among overweight and obese women: an exploratory randomized controlled study. [online] Journal of Obesity. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21977314 [accessed 23 Aug. 17].
Gut issues, such as leaky gut, gut dysbiosis, low stomach acid or insufficient digestive enzymes which are usually caused by poor diet, ageing, toxins and stress, further hamper digestion and absorption of nutrients:
- Gut dysbiosis is the disturbance of normal levels of gut bacteria, with reduced levels of good bacteria, and increased levels of bad bacteria. Gut dysbiosis can hamper digestion and absorption of nutrients
- Leaky gut, also known as intestinal permeability, is when the tight junctions of the gut become permeable, and allow particles of undigested foods and other substances such as microbes and toxins to pass into the bloodstream. Leaky gut can compromise proper digestion and absorptionBennet, S., Ohman, L. and Simrén, M. (2015). Gut microbiota as potential orchestrators of irritable bowel syndrome. [online] Gut Liver, 9 (3), pp. 318–331. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25918261 [accessed 23 Aug. 17].
- A lack of hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes will cause poor digestion and absorption of nutrientsÖztürk, N., Kurt, N., Özgeriş, F., Baygutalp, N., Tosun, M., Bakan, N. and Bakan, E. (2015). Serum Zinc, Copper, Magnesium and Selenium Levels in Children with Helicobacter Pylori Infection. [online] The Eurasian Journal of Medicine, 47 (2), pp.126-9. Available at: http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/26180497 [accessed 23 Aug. 17].
Our state of mind can have a big impact on how fast we eat, how well we chew, digest and absorb our food:
- Stress and anxiety increase cortisol which in turn slows our digestion by reducing the production of digestive enzymes
- This is why the opposite of “fight of flight” is considered to be “rest and digest”
- Anger and resentment increase cortisol, constrict blood flow to the digestive organs, and hamper digestion
- When we do not pay attention to eating our food, we tend to eat faster and chew less, which hampers the digestive process
- When our attention is distracted, we will likely consume more of a certain food, possibly an unhealthy one, and require a stronger taste (more sugar and salt)Kennedy, P., Cryan, J., Quigley, E., Dinan, T. and Clarke, G. (2014). A sustained hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis response to acute psychosocial stress in irritable bowel syndrome. [online] Psychological Medicine, 44 (14), pp. 3123–3134. Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/psychological-medicine/article/sustained-hypothalamicpituitaryadrenal-axis-response-to-acute-psychosocial-stress-in-irritable-bowel-syndrome/35D038B846D5A0C6087B8AD67C62299D [accessed 23 Aug. 17].
Genetic mutations can cause imbalances in certain nutrients. For instance, the MTHFR polymorphism can cause low folate, low B12, and high homocysteine.
This can lead to mental health issues arising from low B vitamins leading to low neurotransmitters and other neuroendocrine and chemical imbalances.
Pyroluria is a genetic condition which can cause low B6 and low zinc in particular. It can contribute to anxiety, in particular social anxiety, and depression.
It can be accompanied by poor mouth health, morning nausea, motion sickness, joint pain, pale skin among other things.