Nutrition and Mental Health

(Originally posted on on Jan 17th, 2013)

Last week we discussed the impact of mental health on the body and previously we have explored the importance of exercise and the brain. This week we are going to put a little more detail to the argument that diet and nutrition play an important role in mental health.

A lot of people who have not studied biology or anatomy seem to view the brain as this mysterious grey goo rather than an organ like the liver or heart. So let’s start by breaking it down as simply as possible. The brain is a bunch of cells like any other part of the body. There are many different types of cells that provide structure and maintenance but the main cell is a neuron. Neurons are the important cells that form connections between each other and all together they create large networks that work to process and transmit information. These networks then form even more connections with each other to create even larger organizations. This is the general structure of our brains and the functional component responsible for all the thought, reasoning, emotion, memory, movement, and sensation that we do.

Back down at the cell level, each neuron stretches out with long string-like projections (called “Dendrites” and “Axons”) to make those network connections. Like an electrical wire, without a rubber covering the signal will lose intensity and possibly not reach the end of the wire. In the case of neurons this sheath is made up of more cells that are flattened like a pancake and wrapped around and around the strings of the neurons. These flattened cells are called the Myelin Sheath. Where the cells connect with each other the cell sending a signal will release a wave of Neurotransmitters, which are proteins that interact with specific receptors embedded in the membrane (outer skin) of the receiving cell. These receptors trigger a response in that cell which then either continues the signal down the line or performs a specific action. This is how the brain and the neurons throughout our bodies work.

As an organ made up of many cells the brain requires nutrients to continue functioning. Different structures require different ratios of the basic nutrients; protein, carbohydrates, fat, minerals and vitamins but in general a healthy, whole food diet will provide us with what we need. The Standard North American Diet (SAD) falls short of this though and this affects our mental health. This idea may not yet be part of the mainstream healthcare mind set but the research is piling up and cannot be ignored for long.

When using a clinical evaluation tool called the Mini Nutritional Assessment (MNA) cognitive ability was shown to decrease with decreased nutrition1. Diets of whole foods and high in fruits and veggies have been shown to decrease the risk of developing cognitive impairment2 and Alzheimer’s disease3,4,5. Vitamin E levels have shown similar abilities6. Despite this, specific healthy diets have not demonstrated any ability to reverse cognitive decline7,8 but healthy fats have been shown to have a protective effect against further decline8 and general nutritional supplementation has been shown to increase the effectiveness of pharmacological treatments5. Selenium levels have also been shown to be significantly lower in patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease leading to some speculation about the role of general inflammation and oxidative stress from free radicals being involved in cognitive decline9.

The influence of nutrition on Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has also been researched extensively. Supplementation with healthy fats and zinc have both been shown to lead to clinical improvement in children diagnosed with these conditions10,11. Zinc has also been suggested to have a role in enhancing both Omega-3 and pharmacological treatments for these conditions12.

In one long term study a link was shown between low levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in the cord blood at birth (meaning the amount being received by the fetus in the womb) and the development of ADHD by the age of 10American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2011;94(6):1592-9.″>13.

These are just some of the examples of the research supporting the impact of nutrition on mental health. A lot of research has looked at depression and anxiety, as well as bipolar mood disorder but that would have taken much longer to tell you about it all. As it stands I don’t suggest that you look at one article and decide that you need more selenium to get the effect you want. I’ve said it many times before on this blog, a good balanced healthy diet of whole foods with lots of veggies and fruit is the best thing for your body and your brain.

Thanks for reading.
Dr. Ben

Reference List
1. Isaia G, Mondino S, Germinara C, Cappa G, Aimonino-Ricauda N, Bo M, Isaia GC, Nobili G, and Massaia M. Malnutrition in an elderly demented population living at home. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics 2011;53(3):249-51.

2. Lee Y, Back JH, Kim J, Kim SH, Na DL, Cheong HK, Hong CH, and Kim YG. Systematic review of health behavioral risks and cognitive health in older adults. International Psychogeriatrics 2010;22(2):174-87.

3. Boost your memory by eating right. How diet can help–or harm–your cognitive fitness. Harvard Womens Health Watch 2012;19(12):1

4. Féart C, Samieri C, and Barberger-Gateau P. Mediterranean diet and cognitive function in older adults. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care 2010;13(1):14-8.

5. Shea TB, Rogers E, and Remington R. Nutrition and dementia: are we asking the right questions? Journal of Alzheimers Disease 2012;30(1):27-33.

6. Mangialasche F, Kivipelto M, Mecocci P, Rizzuto D, Palmer K, Winblad B, and Fratiglioni L. High plasma levels of vitamin E forms and reduced Alzheimer’s disease risk in advanced age. Journal of Alzheimers Disease 2010;20(4):1029-37.

7. Vercambre MN, Grodstein F, Berr C, and Kang JH. Mediterranean diet and cognitive decline in women with cardiovascular disease or risk factors. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2012;112(6):816-23.

8. Vercambre MN, Grodstein F, and Kang JH. Dietary fat intake in relation to cognitive change in high-risk women with cardiovascular disease or vascular factors. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2010;64(10):1134-40.

9. Cardoso BR, Ong TP, Jacob-Filho W, Jaluul O, Freitas MI, and Cozzolino SM. Nutritional status of selenium in Alzheimer’s disease patients. British Journal of Nutrition 2010;103(6):803-6.

10. Matsudaira T. Attention deficit disorders–drugs or nutrition? Nutrition and Health 2007;19(1-2):57-60.

11. Arnold LE, Bozzolo H, Hollway J, Cook A, DiSilvestro RA, Bozzolo DR, Crowl L, Ramadan Y, and Williams C. Serum zinc correlates with parent- and teacher- rated inattention in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology 2005;15(4):628-36.

12. Arnold LE, Pinkham SM, and Votolato N. Does zinc moderate essential fatty acid and amphetamine treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder? Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology 2000;10(2):111-7.

13. Kohlboeck G, Glaser C, Tiesler C, Demmelmair H, Standl M, Romanos M, Koletzko B, Lehmann I, and Heinrich J. Effect of fatty acid status in cord blood serum on children’s behavioral difficulties at 10 y of age: results from the LISAplus Study. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2011;94(6):1592-9.


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