The role of micronutrients in mental health
Mood, food and gut health - all seems to be connected.
Mental health and mood are influenced by a number of environmental factors like nutrition, sleep and physical activity. For instance, the supply of the essential amino acid tryptophan is vital because of its role as a precursor for the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin – also known as one of the three happiness hormones and a key element in mood.
In recent years serotonin has attracted researchers’ attention, as it seems to play a key role in the communication between gut and brain via what is known as the gut-brain axis. The happiness hormone connects the central nervous system with the enteric nervous system in the wall of the gut. Researchers estimate that 90% of serotonin is produced in our gut – but only 10% in our brain! Interestingly, specific gut bacteria help the gut produce serotonin. Therefore, dysregulation of brain activities promoted by dysbiosis may have an enormous impact on mood disorders.
Nutrition may play an important role in this context. For instance, the consumption of prebiotics, which promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, could indirectly support positive mood.
Micronutrients are closely related to mental health
Food can affect mood. And even more, mood influences what we feel like eating. Individuals in a positive mood tend to make healthier food choices as they think about future health benefits. In contrast, individuals with negative feelings focus more on indulgence. They crave comfort foods, often rich in salt or sugar.
Mood balance and mental health are also closely related to micronutrient supply, as certain micronutrients play an important role in metabolic processes in the brain.
The micronutrients most needed for maintaining mental health are vitamins D, B1, B2, B6, B12, folic acid, pantothenic acid, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron and selenium. Table 1 describes selected brain-related functions of these micronutrients.
Poor mood has been associated with deficiency of a number of key micronutrients. For example, there are associations between lower levels of folic acid, vitamins B6 and B12 and depressed mood. In addition, lower levels of vitamin D, zinc and selenium have been reported to lead to poorer mood as well as depression and anxiety.
Why are older people more prone to depression?
Older people are particularly vulnerable to depression. Studies have shown that up to a third of persons living in residential or nursing homes have significant symptoms of depression. In addition, micronutrient deficiencies are common in older people. A study estimated that 35% of persons aged 50 years or older in Europe, USA and Canada have a demonstrable deficiency of one or more micronutrients. Critical micronutrients with regard to mental health are vitamins D, E, B1, B2, B12, folic acid, iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc.
Interventions showed that a combination of physical activity and nutritional supplementation with micronutrients like vitamins B, D, E, zinc, calcium and magnesium significantly ameliorates depressive symptoms and improve mental health. In addition, the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids and certain plant extracts may have an impact on mood balance. A promising adaptogen – biologically active plant substance that helps the organism adapt to increased physical and emotional stress situations – is ashwagandha, which seems to reduce stress symptoms.
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