You might be surprised to learn how an undiagnosed nutritional deficiency is impacting your mental health and overall wellness. For many years now, we have known that mental health issues (such as anxiety, brain fog and depression) tend to be the result of chemical imbalances in the brain, not personal or moral failures. The question, however, should be, where did these imbalances in the brain come from? While traumatic experiences and unhealthy lifestyle choices certainly play a role in mental health, nutrition impacts our mental health as well. In fact, certain nutritional deficiencies can have a tremendous influence on your mental well-being.
Some nutritional deficiencies may cause your brain to lack the building blocks for the maintenance and regeneration of brain tissue. Other nutrients are used to produce neurotransmitters needed to regulate mood, cognition and other functions. And of course, the impact of these nutritional deficiencies often depends on your genes. Your friend or partner may not notice a mild deficiency, but it could leave you unable to peel yourself out of bed.
Being deficient in certain vitamins or minerals due to a poor diet could be impacting your brain function more than you realize.
So which nutritional deficiencies impact our mental health, and what are the best ways to combat these deficiencies?
The Methylation Trio: Vitamins B6, B9 and B12
Perhaps the link between methylation difficulties and poor mental health is what initially captured your interest in genetics and functional medicine. When I was still a student, the world of natural health started paying attention to the effects of MTHFR mutations. Sure, the amusing name may have had something to do with it, but the effects of our genes on our nutritional needs changed everything for many people.
The infamous MTHFR gene comes in a few variations that slow down the methylation cycle, leading to higher needs for certain vitamins to prevent a build-up of homocysteine. Folate, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 break down homocysteine, freeing its downstream products up for neurotransmitter generation. Not only does a deficiency in neurotransmitters lead to problems such as anxiety and depression, but homocysteine also worsens mental health through driving up inflammation.
Niacin, or vitamin B3, is enjoying an increased level of fame now thanks to the anti-aging potential of its derivatives, including NMN and NR. But almost 70 years ago, something else caught the attention of nutritionally-minded doctors. Dr Abram Hoffer found that many patients with schizophrenia were able to enjoy significant recoveries with high doses of vitamin B3. Even though some later clinical trials seemed to “debunk” his case studies, your vitamin B3 needs may be written in your genes. More recent research shows that mutations in the NAPRT1 gene increase the risk of schizophrenia in situations of vitamin B3 deficiency. Its protective effects are thought to be from preventing an accumulation of oxidized adrenaline, and possibly through improved cellular energy production.
Lack of Vitamin D
Vitamin D, the “sunshine” vitamin, is involved in a wide range of functions including immune system balance and maintaining antioxidant status. Now, it turns out that these properties can boost your mental health too. Research shows that vitamin D supplementation can significantly relieve depression and insomnia, for example. These benefits are linked to improved antioxidant status and reduced inflammation.
Ask anyone in functional medicine: most people are deficient in magnesium, a mineral used by over 300 physiological reactions in the body. These include cellular energy and neurotransmitter production, so a deficiency can contribute to problems such as age-related cognitive decline, depression or trouble sleeping. However, getting magnesium into the brain isn’t always straightforward, despite the need. Studies show that a specific supplemental form, magnesium threonate, can cross the blood-brain barrier and be more effective for mental health than other versions. For example, it can boost cognition and reduce amyloid-beta plaque, which is responsible for Alzheimer’s disease, more efficiently.
We think of zinc as a nutrient to support immunity and skin health, protecting us against viral infections and acne. However, it also increases expression of the gene that produces brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is essential for the generation of new neurons, with impairments in the process of brain regeneration linked to mental illness such as depression. For this reason, a study of overweight and obese people with depression showed a significant decrease in symptom scores with zinc supplementation.
Zinc deficiencies are one of the more rare nutritional deficiencies, but it can happen.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids have demonstrated benefit in a wide range of mental health problems. They include depression, ADHD, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia and even the genetic condition, Huntington disease. For example, a clinical trial testing one gram of EPA (a type of omega-3 fatty acid in fish) per day found that it halved depression scores in 53% of volunteers.
How does it work? Omega-3 fats form part of the cell membranes, where they are on standby to produce anti-inflammatory signals. When they are still inside the cell membrane, they can increase its flexibility, which is especially important for neurons because this allows them to move and make connections with other cells.
The gut-brain connection may help to solve many mysteries of mental health. Your intestinal bacteria are responsible for controlling inflammation, neurotransmitter production, and more, meaning they affect the entire body. In the case of mental health, one study showed that a combination of Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum was able to significantly relieve depression. The probiotics raised levels of tryptophan and lowered kynurenine, an inflammatory substance made from tryptophan in situations of inflammation. Tryptophan is the backbone of serotonin, so its “theft” to produce kynurenine is likely one underlying cause of depression.
Carnitine, commonly taken as acetyl-l-carnitine, is a not-so-nonessential nutrient for brain health. Multiple studies show that it can enhance cellular energy production; protect brain cell membranes; control inflammation and relieve oxidative stress. These effects mean that acetyl-l-carnitine has demonstrated benefit in areas such as depression and age-related cognitive decline. Most of its benefits come from the ability to promote energy production, especially energy generation from fat.
Choline is found in foods such as eggs, but you can take a supplement too if necessary. The best form is citicoline, which does not have the risk of conversion in to the toxic TMAO. Choline works by providing structural support for the cell membranes, as well as aiding dopamine and acetylcholine production. While acetylcholine is involved in general cognitive function, dopamine is required for motivation, focus and learning. Research demonstrates that supplementing with choline can improve test scores on psychomotor function and reduce impulsivity, at least in people not severe enough to warrant a diagnosis of ADHD. Here, the added stimulatory support makes taking often reckless risks unnecessary to feel sufficiently stimulated.
Mental health can be complicated to treat, but if there’s a chance that switching up your diet could improve your mental health, why not try it? While different types of psychotherapy, including talk-based therapies, do have their place, there’s a lot to be said about nutritional deficiencies and how they impact your mental health. Taking a CircleDNA test could help you figure out any vitamins and minerals you’re genetically at risk of a deficiency in. This way, you can be cognizant of eating more foods high in those vitamins and minerals.