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).