Tuesday 16 October 2018

Nutrition for a healthy mind

Nutritional psychiatry is a burgeoning and promising area of research. It has mainly gathered pace through the insight that the brain and gut continually communicate with one another. Can nutrition and supplementation reduce our psychological disease burden?


More and more research is taking place to demonstrate the link between the health of the gastrointestinal tract and neurological disorders. According to nutritional psychiatrists, the gut-brain axis is key to controlling anxiety and depression. 

Food for thought

There is sufficient evidence that the provision of essential nutrients through food or supplements can help to prevent or treat mental and physical health problems. Research in this area has, for example, already demonstrated that omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) and prebiotics and probiotics can alleviate anxiety, stress and symptoms of depression. 

Many researchers are also interested in the approach to mental illness mechanisms with, for example, fermented foods. In addition it seems that L-theanine, beta-alanine and theacrine have an important role to play. According to researchers at the Hofstra University in New York, these substances can help to improve the brain’s alertness. But this is definitely not all we can do in terms of prevention and recovery.


List of foods

The “World Journal of Psychiatry” has published a list of foods in response to systematic literature reviews into food and the mind. This list shows which foods contain the most nutrients of which, in literature, it is proven that they play a role in the prevention and the recovery of depressive disorders. This concerns the following nutrients: 

Folic acid
• Iron
• Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA)
• Magnesium
• Potassium
• Selenium
• Thiamine
• Vitamin A

• Vitamin B6
• Vitamin B12
• Vitamin C
• Zinc

The foods with the highest scores were seafood, especially double-shell types (such as oysters and mussels). Of the various types of meat, offal had the highest score and in vegetable products, these were leafy greens, lettuce, sweet pepper and cruciferous vegetables. In these foods, it is not difficult to recognise some of our primeval dishes which we probably ate in the land-water ecosystem.


Brain-selective nutrients

The minerals iron, zinc and selenium in the list of foods shown above are brain-selective nutrients. Two other minerals that belong to this list are copper and iodine. Brain-selective nutrients are the nutrients that we need for optimum brain development. Summarised below is why they are so important for our brain.

Iodine deficiency during pregnancy leads to cretinism, a form of dwarfism which can also cause mental retardation. There is even a theory that the extinction of the Neanderthals was in part accelerated by a lack of iodine. An indication of this is that the common characteristics of the Neanderthal are similar to those associated with cretinism. In the areas where Neanderthals lived, good sources of iodine were not available (Dobson, 1998).

In iron deficiency mild hypoxia occurs in the brain, resulting in suboptimal brain processes. This also causes the neurotransmitter levels to fall, with an adverse impact on visual attention, capacity to learn and verbal performance. Iron deficiency is often found in people with ADHD.

Copper is essential for the production of myelin, the insulating layer around the nerves, responsible for optimal conduction of nerve signals. A copper deficiency leads to hypomyelination and mental retardation. Demyelination is also found in Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis and could possibly also play a role in ADHD and autism (Bartzokis, 2012).

Zinc is important for brain metabolism because it plays an important role in the hippocampus. This organ in the brain is involved in storing new memories, orientation and downregulation of the stress response. Zinc is also involved in the metabolism of neurotransmitters.

Selenium combats oxidation of the important fish fatty acid DHA and arachidonic acid (AA). When DHA and AA oxidise, the supply to the brain and eyes reduces, which can result in damage.  


Acceptation of nutritional interventions

Dr Alex Richardson, based in the department of physiology, anatomy and genetics at the University of Oxford, believes that nutritional intervention is not a treatment in itself, but that it can be a very welcome addition. Professor Felice Jacka, Director of the ‘Food and Mood Centre’ and founder and chairman of the ‘International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research’ (ISNPR), is firmly in favour of the use of nutritional interventions and supplementation as an approach for psychological problems. Her research has shown that the Western diet is not varied enough. There is a need for a greater consumption of nutrient-dense foods and high-quality sources of protein.

Acceptance of nutritional interventions and the resulting recommendations are dependent on research. Although there is already sufficient evidence that nutritional intervention can improve both the patient’s recovery and cost-efficiency, more studies involving humans are required. However, practical problems will then be encountered, for example, it is important to monitor the effects over a long period of time, meaning the drop-out rate is higher and it takes longer for results to become available. Individual differences and synergism between foods also make research more complicated. But there are also positive signals. 


Awareness in society

As a result of research, the importance of a healthy diet and an active lifestyle is increasingly getting through to people and society. The therapeutic potential is increasingly being recognised. Mental health is an area in which the unmet needs of the client are significant and are still growing. It appears that nutritional psychiatry may meet some of these needs. More research, improved education, information and training is required for clients, but also for professionals.



LaChance LR, Ramsey D. Antidepressant foods: An evidence-based nutrient profiling system for depression. World J Psychiatr 2018; 8(3): 97-104

Dobson JE, The iodine factor in health and evolution, The Geographical Review, 88, 1-18, 1998.

Bartzokis, Neuroglialpharmacology: Myelination as a shared mechanism of action of psychotropic treatments, Neuropharmacology 62(7):2137-53 · January 2012.