Depression, Anxiety and Insomnia: the Role of Nutrition in Mental Health

Do you or anyone you know suffer from depression, anxiety or insomnia?

Have you considered the role that nutrition plays in these common yet debilitating conditions?

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests ensuring adequate nutritional intake can help alleviate the symptoms of these conditions.

Nutrition, food intolerances, hormone imbalances and brain hormones have a profound effect on ones emotions and nerve function if out of balance.

It is not widely understood that nutrition has a part to play in one’s mental health. Yet there have been many studies done that indicate mental health conditions are caused by a combination of “physical” and “psychological” factors and we now know that many physical factors can have a profound negative effect on mental health, contributing to and predisposing mental illness including anxiety, depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder and even schizophrenia. Therefore, addressing and alleviating the physical contributing factors assists the person to address and handle the psychological aspect of the problem.


Correct nutrition is vital to health and wellbeing. All the organs in the body rely on the correct nutrients to function at their optimum levels. Nutrients (vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, amino acids, and glyconutrients) can increase or decrease the levels of important chemicals in the body as well as influencing hormonal balance, toxicity, immune function, inflammation and the blood’s coagulability.

A deficiency of any single nutrient can alter brain function and lead to depression, anxiety and other mental disorders (Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine).

The brain is perhaps the most delicate organ in the body, using as much as 30% of all the energy we derive from food. Actually, the brain operates like a chemical factory that constantly produces dozens of neurotransmitters, which act as messengers to start, continue or stop biochemical processes.Certain of these neurotransmitters also influence our moods. The only raw materials for these processes are vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, and other nutrients.

Emotional disturbances and Biochemical Imbalance

Research has shown that biochemical imbalances occur in the body’s nervous system and hormonal levels when there is emotional disturbance and distress.

Recurring patterns of a number of biochemical factors have been identified in individuals who report experiencing symptoms related to anxiety, depression, ADHD, eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia) and other mental or behavioral conditions.

For instance, common biochemical imbalances (including nutritional deficiencies) related to depression and anxiety which have been observed in clinical practice are:

  • Decreased availability of neurotransmitters such as Serotonin, Dopamine, Norepinephrine, GABA and acetylcholine
  • Increased levels of toxic neurochemicals
  • Lower levels of Magnesium, Zinc or Potassium
  • Deficient levels of vitamins such as B5, B6, B9 (Folic Acid), B12
  • Undersupply of key cofactors  i.e. amino acids

We also now know that there are 4 neurotransmitters (brain biochemicals that include hormones etc.),which physically affect our frame of mind. When we have enough of all four our emotions seem to be stable. These neurotransmitters are:

  • Dopamine (norepinephrine/epinephrine): a hormone that is essential to the normal nerve activity of the brain. It acts as a natural energizer and mental focuser
  • GABA: an amino acid occurring in the central nervous system, associated with the transmission of nerve impulses. It acts as a natural sedative.
  • Endorphin: a protein substance in the brain. It acts as a natural painkiller.
  • Serotonin: an amino acid (amine) that works in brain chemistry. It acts as a natural mood stabilizer and sleep promoter

Toxic substances and overloads also create biochemical imbalances, causing depression, and should be tested for if the depression is unexpected and without apparent reason. Additionally, the presence of heavy metals (lead, cadmium, mercury) can inhibit thyroid function. The thyroid produces hormones used to regulate blood calcium levels and the central nervous system. Prolonged organic or synthetic toxicity robs the body of nutrients.

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies have a key part to play. For instance, during stressful periods the need for certain nutrients may increase and our body’s stores can become depleted, or toxic substances can leach certain nutrients from the body leaving a deficiency. Our regular food intake may be inadequate to combat what ails us. If a deficiency sets in various illnesses can result.

Below is a list of certain vitamins, minerals and amino acids with some of the clinical studies showing their effect on wellbeing:

  • Zinc: Deficiency may cause anorexia, loss of libido and fatigue, all of which suggest depression and respond to zinc replacement (Tasman Jones C. Zinc deficiency states. Adv Intern Med 26:97-114, 1980). Children with zinc deficiency are irritable, tearful and sullen. They are not soothed by close body contact and recent disturbances. (Moynahan EJ. Zinc deficiency and disturbances of mood and visual behavior. (Lancet I:91, 1976)
  • Folic Acid or B9: Folate deficiency is associated with a wide variety of psychiatric symptoms including depression as well as with neurologic symptoms of weakness,numbness, stiffness and spasticity, both with or without muscular atrophy (Howard JS.Folate deficiency in psychiatric practice. Psychosomatics 16:112-115)
  • Vitamin B6: Is commonly low in people who are depressed. This is particularly true in people taking birth control pills or estrogen in any other form as estrogen blocks the activity of B6.(Melvyn R. Werbach, M.D., Nutritional Influences on Mental Health 2nd Edition. Depression:234)
  • B12: Early manifestations of B12 deficiency may include depression, generalized weakness, fatigue, indigestion and diarrhea. (Goodman KI, Salt WB 2nd. Vitamin B12 deficiency. Important new concepts in recognition. Postgrad Med 88(3): 147-50, 1990). Depression is common among patients with a vitamin B12 deficiency syndrome (Melvyn R. Werbach, M.D., Nutritional Influences on Mental Health 2nd Edition. Depression:238)
  • Magnesium: A critical mineral used in sending messages along the nerves. Mild deficiency is commonly associated with anxiety. (Seelig MS, Berger AR, Spieholz N.Latent tetany and anxiety, marginal Mg deficit and normocalcemia. Dis Nerv Sys 36:461-4, 1975) Children with chronic magnesium deficits may be characterized by excessive fidgeting, anxious restlessness, psychomotor instability and learning difficulties in the presence of a normal IQ (Durlach J. Clinical aspects of chronic magnesium deficiency, in MS Seelig, Ed. Magnesium in Health nad Disease, New York, Spectrum Publications, 1980)
  • Amino acids: Are the building blocks that make up protein. One form of the amino acid methionine is called SAMe. The most common reported effect of SAMe is mood elevation in depressed patients.(Spilman M, Fava M., S-Adenosylemethionine (Ademetionine) in psychiatric disorders:historical perspective and current status. CNS Drugs 6(6):416-25,1996).


What is MTHFR Gene Mutation?

MTHFR specifically is a gene that holds the instructions for the enzyme methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase.

When functioning properly, it is highly efficient at helping our bodies convert vitamin B9 (folate), folic acid into a usable form called methylfolate.  This process is called methylation.

When the MTHFR gene is mutated, the capacity to convert vitamin B9 into methylfolate is reduced by 40-70%.

Converting folate into a useable form is essential for DNA (protein building blocks) synthesis and repair, neurotransmitter production i.e. serotonin, melatonin, dopamine just to name a few, detoxification, and immune function.


When the MTHFR gene is mutated, the capacity to convert vitamin B9 into methylfolate is reduced by 40-70%. 

When the MTHFR gene is mutated, the capacity to convert vitamin B9 into methylfolate is reduced by 40-70%.


In simpler terms imagine your DNA is a cookbook and your genes that give instructions to your cells are the recipes within that cookbook. If one of those recipes got a little mixed up (gene mutation) it can affect all the other recipes within that cookbook that call for that same recipe (gene).

Essentially that is what a mutation is – a slight change to the instructions that can have sometimes small, sometimes significant impacts on other genes.

The “folate in most processed fortified foods i.e. cereals and bakery goods and vitamins is folic acid which is harmful to those with the Gene Mutation”.


Are all MTHFR mutations the same?

No. There are over fifty types of MTHFR gene mutations, possibly more that have yet to be discovered.  The two that are most commonly studied and tested for are C677T and A1298C.

C677T mutation

  • We inherit one copy of each gene from our mother and father. If you test positive for the C677T mutation there are two possibilities.
  • Heterozygous – having one copy of the C677T mutation and one normal copy translating to an estimated 40% loss of function.
  • Homozygous – having two copies of the C677T mutation translating to an estimated 70% loss of function.

A1298C mutation

  • There is debate about whether those with the A1298C mutation experience diminished function. Some say no but in our experience definitely!


We inherit one copy of each gene from our mother and father.

We inherit one copy of each gene from our mother and father.


In cases where an individual is compound heterozygous – having one C677T mutation and one A1298C mutation – there is an estimated 50% loss of function.


What could MTHFR gene mutation affect?

Recently there is more of an understanding of what can be affected and so far, researchers have found a connection between MTHFR gene mutation and the following;

  • Tongue and lip ties, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression, recurrent miscarriage, asthma, prostate cancer, bladder cancer, multiple sclerosis type symptoms, anxiety, insomnia, severe PMT,


Can we supplement with folic acid?

Unfortunately, folic acid which is a synthetic vitamin found in fortified foods and almost all vitamin supplements is considered harmful to people with MTHFR mutations.

People who have low levels of the MTHFR enzyme are not able to convert it into a usable form.

The unconverted folic acid attaches itself to the same receptors in the body used to absorb folate, effectively blocking the body’s ability to absorb any usable folate consumed from your green vegetables.


Processed and fortified foods such as cereals and baked goods, and almost all vitamins contain the synthetic form of folate which is harmful to those with the Gene Mutation

Processed and fortified foods such as cereals and baked goods, and almost all vitamins contain the synthetic form of folate which is harmful to those with the Gene Mutation


Many lab tests do not distinguish between folic acid and folate when measuring blood levels. If folic acid intake is high, the results may show an individual has adequate amounts of folate when in fact what they actually have are high levels of unusable folic acid (but very little of the natural folate).


The good news!

Our DNA is not our destiny.

DNA is like a musical instrument. It’s there, but in order to make music it needs something or someone to play it. That something is epigenetics.  Epigenetics literally means “above” genetics. The epigenome is a second genome that plays the first like a violin, turning genes on and off like sheet music.

What is that sheet music?  Our lives. Our choices. The food we eat. The way we interact with stress. Whether or not we get enough sleep. And for those with the MTHFR mutation, how you compensate for it in order to support overall function.


Lifestyle and dietary choices can have a big impact on those with the Gene Mutation

Lifestyle and dietary choices can have a big impact on those with the Gene Mutation


You have the MTHFR mutation. What now?

Unfortunately, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to MTHFR.  Supplementation with methylfolate (labeled as 5 L-MTHF or 6(S)-L-MTHF) is often recommended along with vitamin B-12 (in the form of SL methylcobalamin or hydroxycobalamin).

However, there are cases in which supplementation can cause serious side effects, especially when high doses are introduced at the beginning.

This is often the case when the individual has other genetic mutations that interact with MTHFR or especially toxic build up that can cause severe detox reactions that one’s liver cannot cope with in methylating out these toxins.

Hence the “Brain Fog” experienced.

Consultation with an experienced Health Care Practitioner with good knowledge of MTHFR Gene Mutation is recommended.  At Natural Healing Centre we have Dr Nerida James N.D.  and Ashleigh Mythen who both have good knowledge of MTHFR.


How to get tested for MTHFR

A blood test referral from your Natural Health Care Practitioner or your G.P.  can be obtained for a Specialist Laboratory.   Children can also be affected and should be tested also.


Article sourced from Mommypotamous