The 5 Pillars of Good Mental Health #1b- Specific Nutrients for a Healthy Mind
Updated: Jan 21
Specific Nutrients and where to get them
Welcome back to my series on the 5 Pillars of Good Mental Health. In this blog series I am going through what I think are the most important and foundational ways to support your mental health naturally.
If you missed the first article, on Food First, you can check it out here.
I am rarely short of words, and while I was writing the last blog I realized that I wanted to include common nutrient deficiencies and comment on when thoughtful supplementation is a good idea or should at least be investigated. And of course it made that blog waaayyy too long so here we are with a "1B" article.
Because low mood, depression, and anxiety can actually be a side effect of a nutrient deficiency.
Your brain and nervous system are organs and organs need nutrients to function properly.
Before you start taking medication for depression or anxiety, make sure the following nutrients are optimized:
Symptoms of low iron include fatigue, low mood, and shortness of breath or a fast heartbeat (sounds like a panic attack to me).
Iron is a super easy blood test that your doctor should have no problem doing. Getting your Ferritin (stored iron) checked too can be helpful to see how much you've got in the bank.
Iron is found in both animal foods like meat, and plant foods like green leafy veggies. We tend to absorb the iron found in animal foods better, but some folks have no problems getting their iron from plants. However, in my experience this is highly individualized.
If you get tested and you have low iron (or even low-normal; ie: within range but at the bottom end of the range), I would suggest taking a supplement (as well as upping your iron-containing foods) until things are looking better.
It is important to get an iron supplement which is well-absorbed, as cheap iron supplements are often highly constipating (which means your $ is literally going down the toilet, but only after it has done a number on your guts).
Iron Bisglycinate is my favourite form of supplemental iron. It seems to absorb quite easily and is non-constipating.
Another fun way to keep your iron up is by using cast iron pans! Cooking in cast iron has been shown to contribute to dietary intake of iron.
Low B12 is linked to neurological symptoms, which can include physical signs like muscle weakness and weird sensations like numbness or tingling, and also mental or emotional signs like brain fog, weakness, tiredness, memory loss, behaviour changes, and depression.
Vitamin B12 is only naturally found in animal foods.
If a plant food says it contains B12, it has been fortified with a synthetic vitamin. This means that people who don't eat any animal foods have a higher risk at being B12 deficient.
Your risk also increases if you have any kind of digestive issue, or if you take a medication called a Proton Pump Inhibitor (or PPIs - often prescribed for reflux or stomach ulcers). Your ability to absorb B12 also reduces as you age.
B12 is another super easy blood test, and another one that I would recommend supplementing with if you are low or low-normal. Doctors will sometimes even prescribe B12 shots in a mega-dose to get your levels up. B12 supps are inexpensive and easy to come by. If you have a digestive issue or take PPIs, then go for a sublingual B12 that dissolves under your tongue.
There is still so much we don't know about Vitamin D, but we do know that being low in it is associated with a whole host of issues, from low immunity to depression.
We get Vitamin D naturally from the sun on our skin, and it seems basically impossible to get enough if you live away from the equator. We get even less now due to recommendations to stay out of the sun and use sunscreen all the time. Vitamin D also occurs in small amounts in egg yolks (if the chickens have access to the sun - ie: those cage eggs aren't going to cut it) and is fortified in some dairy products.
And because we don't know enough about Vit D, the range of recommended doses for supplementing are wild - from 400IU to 5000IU/day!
In case you can't tell from my suggestions for the 2 previous nutrients - I'm a fan of testing! Now Vitamin D is a bit trickier because it is not covered in either Canada or New Zealand (the two countries that I have been fortunate to live in). However, I have got myself tested in both countries for around $60 and I think it is a worthwhile expense.
Vitamin D is fat-soluble so it stores in your body. It's not like iron where you need to go get tested every 3-6 months. But I do think it is really helpful to get your levels tested and then supplement appropriately from there.
I got tested when I was pregnant, right at the end of summer, and even though I have taken about 1000IU of Vit D (almost) daily for years now, and I spend probably too much time in the sun, my levels were still low. I upped my dose to 2000IU/day and got tested 6 months later and they were in optimal range.
This is how I think Vitamin D should be dosed - based on your individual baseline.
As for the type of supplement you should take - Vitamin D3 is the most absorbable kind and is generally derived from lanolin. It comes in drops or capsules, usually alongside something like olive oil, coconut oil or flax oil (like I said - fat soluble).
If you want a plant-based option then you are looking at D2 which will either be made in a lab or derived from mushrooms. This form tends to be less well-absorbed so make sure to get re-tested in 3-6 months to ensure that the D is actually getting into your body!
Omega 3 fatty acids come from fatty fish, algae, and some plant foods. Omega 3s are considered "essential" fatty acids because we need to consume them in our diet and can't manufacture them in our bodies.
They contain 2 kinds of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) which have super long names, so we’ll just call them EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA have been studied extensively and have been shown to have therapeutic actions within the body.
Omega 3s are necessary for proper brain function, and in many of the studies where benefits were found, people had low omega 3 levels to begin with - meaning that we may be treating a deficiency when we use them.
Unfortunately, blood testing for omega 3 levels is not readily available and so they are usually recommended based on how much you are getting in your diet and your symptoms.
Early research shows they might help other mental health issues as well, and can act preventatively.
The recommended dose is 1-2gm/day of an EPA/DHA combination (usually found in either fish oil or algae supplement). To get this amount from food this looks like about 3 servings of oily fish each week. **
When looking for an omega 3 supplement you want one that is high quality, with independent testing for things like heavy metals (mercury in fish is a major problem), PCBs, and rancidity. Ask for advice from your healthcare practitioner or a trusted health shop advisor.
If you do not eat fish and want to use omega 3s for your mental health, please look for an algae supplement as opposed to flax oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds, etc. While these are great things to have in your diet regularly to bolster your levels, they have not been shown to have the same therapeutic effect as fish oil or algae, which directly contain the EPA and DHA active components.
**If you want to get this nutrient from food you can! Good sources of DHA and EPA include salmon, mackerel, anchovies, herring, and tuna (a bit). The important thing to be sure of is that your fish source is good - low mercury content (especially for tuna), and either well-managed wild fisheries or carefully selected farmed fish (that's controversial, but that's an article for another day). In Canada, look for the OceanWise sticker to help you choose.**
Magnesium is a mineral which we all need in quite large quantities. The recommended daily amount (RDA) of magnesium is 300-420mg for an adult, depending on your age and sex.
It is naturally found in leafy greens, legumes, and nuts, but common industrial farming practices means that our soil is often deficient in magnesium (and many other minerals), meaning that our food ends up with less in it. Many people also simply don’t eat enough of these foods to get their daily dose of magnesium.
Muscle tension, twitching eyes, poor blood sugar regulation, sleep issues and low mood can all be signs of low magnesium, and studies have shown that magnesium supplementation can be helpful for many of these issues.
The kind of magnesium that you take matters. Minerals are always bound to something, and so labels will say “Magnesium ______”. Common kinds of magnesium include magnesium oxide, magnesium citrate, and magnesium glycinate/bisglycinate.
I don’t recommend Mg oxide as it has a laxative effect. Magnesium bisglycinate is my personal go-to, though Mg citrate has also been shown to be well-absorbed. Citrate can also have a mild laxative effect for some people though so it depends on the state of your bowels!
Magnesium is another nutrient that we don’t have easy testing for, and so we rely on diet analysis and symptoms. Chat to a trusted herbalist, naturopath or dietician if you're unsure.
You are an individual.
There you have it! You can see why we needed a 1-B for this section – it is a whole story unto itself.
As you can maybe already tell, mental health issues do not have a 1-size fits all approach, and nor should they. Your story, background, genetics, and diet are not the same as the next person - so why should we settle for the same treatment as that person?
Working with a herbalist or other holistic health practitioner who can help you to identify your individual triggers and needs can go a long way to helping you feel better!
Stay tuned for the second pillar of mental health – coming up soon! And if you don't want to risk missing it (or any of the other articles), then sign up to my email list. You'll also get a sweet little freebie I made, just cuz I love ya :)