How nutrition impacts mental health

still life of fresh salmon with ingredients

Although much has been written, conjectured and researched regarding the connection between nutrition and mental health among adolescents, there is a scarcity of data available providing longitudinal study designs to date. However, a new international collaboration published in the current issue of The Lancet Psychiatry lays out a case for the fields of psychiatry and public health to work together in recognizing the relationship between mental health and nutritional deficiencies.

In this collaborative, Jerome Sarris, Ph.D. and colleagues from the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research present a synopsis of evidence relating the connection between diet and nutrition as key factors in mental health.

According to Dr. Sarris, “Although the determinants of mental health are complex, the emerging and compelling evidence for nutrition as a crucial factor in the high prevalence and incidence of mental disorders suggests that diet is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology and gastroenterology.”

This was a systematic review of twelve prior studies pertaining to the relationship between nutrition and mental wellness in the adolescent population was undertaken in October 2014 by Deakin University in Australia. The synthesis of this literature provided evidence of the association that exists between diet quality and mental health conditions such as low mood, depression and anxiety.

This research team posits the question of whether children and adolescents with mood disorders eat more junk food as a form of self-medication or if a poor diet sets a mood disorder in motion.  The team noted that dietary intake can have a direct impact on certain biological systems that underpin depression, such as the immune system and levels of brain proteins and that one of the common markers in patients with depression is systemic inflammation.

The authors of this research point out a dearth of long-term studies and their findings highlight the significance of nutrition in relation to mental health. They point out that the average age of onset for anxiety and mood disorders is six years and 13 years, respectively, and how early intervention in improving dietary intake can possibly contribute to substantial mental health benefits in children and teens.

An earlier study, authored by Felice Jacka, Ph.D., demonstrated a clear association between “mood and food” when a follow-up survey was administered two years after the initial survey.  In a population of 2,054 adolescents aged 11 to 18, a survey was designed to provide information about key behaviors and conditions such as diet, mental well-being, level of physical activity and perceptions of home and school. Two years later, the participants completed the survey again. By examining the data over the two-year period, it was shown that the teens who reported changes in their diet quality over the study period were matched by changes in mental health during that same period. The teens whose diets got worse experienced deterioration in their mental health and those whose diet improved had improved mental health.

Things to include in a teen’s diet

Dietary choices do have an impact on mood and mental health. Although the evidence at this point is limited, the existing data does suggest that certain nutrients may support emotional well-being. These nutrients include:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids: These improve heart health by reducing the “bad” cholesterol and increasing the “good” cholesterol. In addition, people who took omega-3 supplements reported mood improvement. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil and walnuts
  • Magnesium: This nutrient helps the body produce energy, as well as assisting the muscles, arteries and heart to work properly. There is some evidence suggesting that magnesium supplements may help patients recover more quickly from depression.  Magnesium is found in leafy green vegetables, nuts and avocados.
  • Tryptophan: This amino acid can help the body produce a chemical called serotonin, which is found to be depleted in people with depression. Tryptophan can be found in red meat, dairy products, soy and turkey.
  • Folic acid and vitamin B12: These B vitamins play an important role in metabolism and the production of blood cells. There is a connection to the production of dopamine and noradrenalin, commonly found at reduced levels in people with depression. Increasing a person’s levels of folic acid and vitamin B12 may increase the response to medications that treat depression. Folic acid is found in leafy greens and fruits. Vitamin B12 is found in fish, shellfish, meat and dairy products.

This new collaboration from International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research supports the idea of a nutrition-based solution to assist in mental health care. In addition to the above nutrients, their research includes vitamin D, S-adenosyl methionine (SAM-e), choline, iron and zinc. The authors add that, while it is preferable that these nutrients be provided through diet, the use of supplements may also be acceptable.

White River Academy, places an emphasis on character development in adolescent males with behavioral issues, offering life skills classes and community service oriented programs to instill qualities that lead to a productive and successful life post-recovery. For questions about White River Academy and our treatment programs for mental health disorders or substance abuse, please call 866-520-0905.

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