Feeling off balance or a bit depressed? Nutrition and our mental health

Your nutrition can play a key role in the onset, severity, and duration of feeling depressed. It can also affect daily mood swings and the balance of your neurotransmitters.

Are you feeling tired all the time?

Vitamin B12 deficiency could be the culprit. A study recently published in the British Medical Journal discovered that 12% of 19-39-year-olds were B12 deficient, despite eating the RDA of B12 (1.5 micrograms).

Low levels of a vitamin can result from eating a poor diet or not being able to absorb the vitamins you consume. Older adults, vegetarians, and people with digestive disorders such as coeliac or Crohn's disease may struggle to absorb enough B12. The problem is that B12 is one of the few vitamins where no upper limit has been formally agreed by dietetic bodies.

Some of us just require more B12 than others, especially pregnant woman. A lack of B12 can sap your energy because it affects the way your red blood cells carry oxygen.

Feeling off-balance or moody?

Without enough B12, the actual nerves in our spinal cord can start to wither. This will leave you feeling dizzy and wobbly. Also, being low in this nutrient can alter the production of our mood-regulating neurotransmitters (happy hormones).

Any nerve damage could also affect your brain, causing you to be more forgetful or confused. It can also cause pins and needles in your hands and feet, which indicates low levels of B12.

Eating patterns

Did you know that many of the same food patterns that precede depression are the same food patterns that occur during depression? These patterns may include skipping meals, poor appetite, and a desire for sweets.

Often, people who follow extremely low carbohydrate diets can also run the risk of feeling depressed or blue. This is because the brain chemicals that promote a feeling of well-being, tryptophan, and serotonin, are triggered by carbohydrate-rich foods. Therefore, it is very important to get the balance right.

A high serotonin level - which is occasionally referred to as our 'satisfaction' brain chemical - gives individuals a sense of happiness and counteracts the desire to overeat sugary and refined carbohydrate foods.

Maintaining optimum serotonin levels is possibly one of the most important, yet most ignored, means of reducing the urge to binge-eat and drinkWe make serotonin from tryptophan, so eating tryptophan-rich foods such as turkey, chicken, and milk naturally boosts serotonin levels.

Omega-3 acids

It is now established that the fatty omega-3 acids, found in oily fish such as mackerel, sardines, and salmon, as well as chia seeds and flax seeds, are well known to stimulate the brain’s chemical receptors which are built from fats. Therefore, consuming enough omega-3 in your diet is important for that serotonin 'message' to be received.

Foods to help our neurotransmitters function

Certain foods contain the starting materials for some of our brain’s neurotransmitters. If our diet is deficient in some of these nutrients or precursors, then our brain will not be able to produce some vital neurotransmitters.

Neurological and mental disorders may occur when the balance of our neurotransmitters becomes upset. Some examples of neurotransmitter precursors include;

  • Aspartic acid: used to make aspartate; found in peanuts, potatoes, eggs, and grains
  • Choline: used to make acetylcholine; found in eggs, liver, and soybeans
  • Glutamic acid: used to make glutamate; found in flour and potatoes
  • Phenylalanine: used to make dopamine; found in beets, soybeans, almonds, eggs, meat, and grains
  • Tryptophan: used to make serotonin; found in eggs, meat, skim milk, bananas, yogurt, milk, and cheese
  • Tyrosine: used to make norepinephrine; found in milk, meat, fish, and legumes

Vitamin D deficiency

A lack of vitamin D is now known to be linked to fatigue, a weaker immune system and is thought to cause depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Vitamin D is an immune-boosting vitamin, so a vitamin D deficiency can lead to feeling tired, cause a lack of energy, and frequent illnesses, such as colds and common viruses.

A vitamin D deficiency can also make symptoms of depression worse due to being withdrawn and fatigued. During the winter months, it may be advisable to take a vitamin D3 supplement, as it is not easy to derive enough of this vitamin from our diet alone.

Are you drinking enough fluids?

However, whilst food plays a vital role in nutrition and depression, it is essential to remain hydrated! The human brain is 80% water, so even the slightest drop in hydration levels can raise our stress hormones. This has the potential to cause damage to our brain over time.

Please bear in mind that the role of B vitamins in depression isn't clear, and more research is needed. Also, no supplement can replace proven depression treatments such as antidepressants and psychological counselling.

Are you eating enough of the right nutrients for your brain? Do you understand how and when to balance these requirements?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Great Dunmow CM6 & Chelmsford CM1
Written by Hayley Smith, ANutr, MASC(Eating disorders/CBT), Dip (Sports Nutri), BA Hons Psy
Great Dunmow CM6 & Chelmsford CM1

I am a Registered Associate Nutritionist. I work as a Weight Management & food-wellness coach at Springfield Hospital Chelmsford and my home clinic near Great Dunmow Essex.

My specialisms include:
Weight Loss
Healthy Eating
Sports nutrition
Inflammation & Gut Health
Lowering blood sugar, cholesterol levels & cardiovascular risk
Eating disorders

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