By Sina D’Amico, RDN
It is no secret this past year has been filled with many unexpected circumstances. In fact, the American Psychological Association found that stress levels have increased by 67% in 2020 based on their annual Stress in America survey.1 This led us to get creative with at-home work, make new recipes and find ways to get outdoors to ease a bit of our worries.
A large focus was put on keeping up our physical health, and now it’s time to give our mental health that same attention. There are certain nutrients that play a role in stimulating the neurotransmitters that affect can our mental wellbeing. Focusing on our nutrition and adding more of these nutrients to meals can be a way to use your food to improve mental health.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
This category of good fat not only plays a role in heart health but is also essential to brain health. The two main forms, EPA and DHA, are thought to act as antidepressants in the brain when consumed in the diet. Various studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids, along with other courses of treatment, can help improve mood and depression-related symptoms.2
Think: salmon, tuna, sardines, walnuts and soybeans
B vitamins are important players in mental health. Vitamin B12 and folate specifically are needed for the production of mood-boosting hormones norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. Low levels can lead to depression-related symptoms.3
Think: milk, eggs, meat, leafy greens, nutritional yeast
Adequate intake of magnesium helps your brain relax. This is due to the effect it has on GABA and stress hormone regulation. GABA is a neurotransmitter that slows down your brain activity. Without enough magnesium, GABA release is reduced and makes it feel like there is no off button to our brain.4
Magnesium also works to stop the overflow of stress hormones (specifically cortisol) from entering the brain. Cortisol in excess, along with other stress hormones, contributes to feelings of anxiety, depression, concentration and many others.4
Think: whole grains, leafy greens, legumes and seeds
Vitamin D levels are associated with sunlight. Depending on climate and location, there are areas where sunlight is hard to come by for months at a time. This can be a challenge to maintain adequate vitamin D levels in our bodies. If levels in our bodies are too low, it can lead to depression and seasonal affective disorder.5
Think: egg yolk, salmon, fortified milk
Zinc helps regulate our body’s responses to stress by downplaying the effect cortisol release has on the brain. Cortisol is released in response to stress to regulate how body systems respond – think of an increased heart rate and breathing. If we are under constant stress it can lead to a deficiency of zinc, which over time will reduce our body’s ability to respond to stress.6
Think: oysters, meats, egg yolks, pumpkin seeds
Many of these nutrients are already included in our daily meals. We’ve been using the food to boost our mental health without even realizing it. Now, adding these nutrients can now become part of our routine as one more way to keep us healthy, physically and mentally.
Sina D’Amico is a Sports Nutrition Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh where she works with Women’s Soccer and Track & Field. She works to ensure that the athletes are learning sustainable fueling habits for both in and out of season.
- American Psychological Association. (2020, October). Stress in American 2020, A National Mental Health Crisis. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/report-october Accessed December 26, 2020.
- Harrar S. (2012, January). Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Mood Disorders. Today’s Dietitian, Vol 14 No 1. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/011012p22.shtml#:~:text=Research%20suggests%20omega-3s%20can%20help%20mild%20to%20major,and%20postpartum%20depression%20to%20bipolar%20disorder%20and%20schizophrenia Accessed December 26, 2020.
- Behavioral Nutrition. (2020, January 8). B Vitamins and Mental Health. https://behavioralnutrition.org/b-vitamins-and-mental-health/ Accessed December 27, 2020.
- Alban D. How Magnesium Relieves Anxiety and Stress (Detailed Review). Be Brain Fit. https://bebrainfit.com/magnesium-anxiety-stress/ Accessed December 26, 2020.
- Gracious BL, Finucane TL, Friedman-Campbell M, Messing S, Parkhurst MN. (2012). Vitamin D deficiency and psychotic features in mentally ill adolescents: A cross-sectional study. BMC Psychiatry 12, 38 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-244X-12-38
- Muza, A. (2020, May 8). Zinc and Stress: Is Zinc Good for Your Nerves? Cates Nutrition. https://www.catesnutrition.com/zinc-and-stress/ Accessed December 27, 2020.