By: Carolyn Mish, Contributing Writer
Mental health struggles are a difficult and complex issue that many teenagers face at some point during adolescence. Pinpointing the causes and physical stressors that can contribute to negative feelings can be helpful when looking to combat mental health issues. A potential stressor that can exacerbate the underlying physical conditions that contribute to mental health is a vitamin deficiency. Vitamin deficiencies, such as a b-complex, iron, or omega-3 deficiency, are when the body fails to absorb the necessary number of vitamins and minerals it needs. An unhealthy or unbalanced diet may be responsible for the lack of nutrients, or it may be due to an underlying health condition. Either of these is cause for concern: vitamin deficiencies can cause numerous types of symptoms, including anemia (a lack of healthy red blood cells, which results in fatigue, lightheadedness, heart palpitations, and paleness), visual changes, and neurological problems. Alongside these physical consequences to vitamin deficiencies, there is evidence that vitamin deficiencies can impact mental health.
A majority of Western diets are lacking in omega-3 fatty acids, as well as essential vitamins such as B-12, E, and iron. This is due to the overwhelming presence of processed foods, and an overabundance of dairy and lean meats. A connection emerges in the presence of vitamin deficiencies in people suffering from mental health issues. Omega-3 fatty acids are important when maintaining a healthy diet. The brain’s composition of lipids is very similar to omega-3s; they are even part of the same family of proteins. The presence of these lipids is vital to a healthy developing and functioning central nervous system, and when someone is deficient in omega-3s, they may experience cognitive symptoms including depression and anxiety.
Folate, vitamin B-12, and magnesium are also linked to depression. If a deficiency is diagnosed by a doctor through a blood test, supplementing the deficient nutrient through vitamins has been shown to decrease symptoms. All of these nutrients can also be provided in a rich, balanced diet. But is that possible in the Western world?
In places where traditional diets are rich in oils, vegetables, and unprocessed foods, such as the Mediterranean and Japanese diets, the risk of depression is 25-35% lower. This is due to the balance of their traditional diets, as well as the presence of fermented foods, which contribute to a valuable variable: healthy gut bacteria.
While there are bad bacteria that are capable of making us sick, our GI tracts rely on good bacteria to line our intestines and stimulate the neurons in our gut that communicate with our brain. This is why probiotics such as yogurt and other fermented foods are vital to gut health: they replenish the body’s supply of good bacteria. Good gut health is vital to a healthy body for a multitude of reasons, but one is unexpected: it’s necessary for good mental health.
To regulate mood and combat feelings of anxiety and depression, the brain relies on neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters act as the body’s chemical messengers and are integral to communication between the brain and body. Serotonin is a key neurotransmitter that implements the connection between the brain’s neurons and other cells. Over 95% of serotonin is produced in the gut. This connection is referred to as the gut-brain link. When the gut biome is full of healthy, good bacteria supplemented by a balanced diet, serotonin production is stimulated. The more serotonin your body can produce, the more regulated your mood will be. This is the goal of many antidepressants: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (or SSRIs) such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and sertraline (Zoloft) aim to improve serotonin production, thus reducing depressive feelings. However, neuroscientists believe subtle changes to a diet that impact gut health can be a good first step to taking care of both your body and mind.
To ensure you are receiving enough essential vitamins, omega-3s, and iron, include a variety of important food groups. Omega-3’s are abundant in seafood such as salmon and sardines, as well as greens like avocados and Brussel sprouts. A Mediterranean style diet that emphasizes fruits and vegetables, as well as nuts, seeds, and fish, while limiting dairy and lean meats can give your body the healthy carbohydrates and vitamins it needs to keep you feeling good. Vitamin B-12, which is a major contributor to mood, is present in whole grains and meat products. Dark, leafy greens also get you the iron and vitamins you need to properly function. These are all food groups that you can include to have a well-rounded, healthy diet that is good for your body and mind.
Diet changes are not a cure for depression: they are simply an important step to take when examining your routine. The connections between diet, the gut, and mental health are abundant, and emphasize the importance of a balanced and nutritious diet. Data shows that altering the diet to target specific conditions is ineffective due to the individual genetic differences in metabolisms, foods, and complexities of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and ADHD. However, if you notice that nutrient-rich food groups are missing from your daily diet, don’t hesitate to make changes to include them. If you think you may be suffering from a vitamin deficiency or are suffering from mental health struggles, do not hesitate to reach out to a physician.