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How Nutrition Impacts Mental Health

  • May 17, 2021
  • Patients and Families

The relationship between nutrition and mental health is a hot topic, and it was the subject of a recent panel discussion at the APA’s online Annual Meeting in early May. A panel of experts reviewed research on the potential roles of nutrition in the causes of, recovery from and potential resilience against psychiatric illness.

Umadevi Naidoo, M.D., director of Nutritional and Metabolic Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and a chef and culinary instructor, discussed the gut microbiome, which “helps us understand how and why nutrition impacts the brain and therefore mental health.” The gut microbiome is made up of 100 trillion microbes and it is connected to the brain by the vagus nerve, which allows for continual bi-directional chemical messaging. Signals from stimuli in the gut are carried by the vagus nerve to the brain.

Some types of foods can disrupt the gut microbiome and should be limited, including, not surprisingly, foods high in trans fats, processed foods, refined carbohydrates, artificial sweeteners, coffee and alcohol. Dr. Naidoo pointed out that reactions are very individual. Everyone’s microbiome is unique, and some people may react to certain types of foods while others do not. Foods that support the gut microbiome include beans, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables, foods high in fiber, yogurt and fermented foods (such as kombucha, miso, pickles, sauerkraut).

The panel of experts also reported on the benefits of specific diets and the use of micronutrients to help treat mental health conditions. The diet with the most evidence for improving symptoms of depression is the Mediterranean Diet. This diet generally emphasizes eating fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts; using olive oil; eating dairy products, fish and poultry in moderation; and limiting red meat and sweets. It also emphasizes getting plenty of exercise and enjoying meals with family and friends.

Micronutrients—vitamins and minerals—are crucial to healthy development, disease prevention, and wellbeing. We get micronutrients from the foods we eat, except for Vitamin D, which our bodies can produce after exposure to the sun. Though people only need small amounts of micronutrients, consuming the recommended amount is important.

While many uncertainties remain, among the micronutrients with potential mental health benefits are omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and folate (vitamin B9), panelist Jessica Principe, M.D., reported. For example, folate and omega-3 fatty acids were found to help with depression in combination with other treatments. A specific type of folate, folinic acid (known as leucovorin) has been found to have a positive effect on people with autism spectrum disorder. Omega-3 fatty acids have also shown positive effects for symptoms of anxiety and symptoms of ADHD.

Vitamin D supports many neuropsychiatric functions, yet about one in four adults has a Vitamin D deficiency.  Recent research has found that supplementation with Vitamin D was beneficial in addressing symptoms in people with major depressive disorder. Dr. Principe also reported research showing benefits from Vitamin D supplementation for treating children with ADHD when used in combination with methylphenidate (brand names Ritalin, Concerta and others).

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