Good nutrition is vital for building up mental resilience in trying times. These are the mood-boosting vitamins and minerals to have in your mental first aid kit, says nutritionist Rob Hobson
Our minds have a lot to deal with; be it overscheduled lives, the need to succeed running us into the ground, or the rise of burnout in the workplace. That's even before we get into the uncertainty of the Covid-19 health crisis. According to research by the Health Survey for England approximately one in four of us in the UK will experience a mental health problem in any given year and even more so in the current climate – a survey in August 2020 from the Office of National Statistics found that almost one in five adults were likely to be experiencing some form of depression, anxiety and loneliness, compared with one in ten before the pandemic.
There's a lot we can do to look after our mental health and nutrition is one of the frontline ways we can support ourselves, to help build-up not just physical immunity but what psychologist Dr Meg Arrol calls 'psychological immunity'.
“A strong mind is just the same as a strong immune system in that it means being able to cope well with life’s demands and with the current landscape shifting so greatly and quickly it’s beneficial to build up what I call ‘psychological immunity’," says Dr Arroll, a chartered psychologist working with supplement brand Healthspan.
"There are many strategies we can use to help build psychological immunity," she says, "including only checking reputable sourcing of information and talking about our feelings and taking good care of our physical health. Taking supplements that have been shown to support the mind is also a good way to help boost psychological immunity as chronic stress and traumatic experiences can deplete important vitamins and minerals."
The links between diet and mood are well documented and there are many key nutrients that play a role in maintaining energy levels and reducing the risk of depression, but it's not always easy to eat well. Low mood and poor mental health can take their toll on the food choices you make, and this can leave gaps in the diet. This is where the sensible use of supplements can be really helpful.
Which supplements to take for mental health?
1. B vitamins: the clear-headed energiser
B vitamins support the nervous system and are a key 'strong mind' ally. They can help you feel less tired, help memory and altogether make you feel like you have more clarity. They are essential for energy production in cells, including brain cells, where they help make neurotransmitters (the brain’s communication chemicals). They also help with nerve conduction - meaning that they help make sure messages are passed on.
When you're stressed and anxious, your B vitamins can become rapidly depleted, which can even make your stress symptoms worse. Lack of B vitamins can lead to anxiety and irritability. All the more reason to keep your levels healthy.
What the research says: Women with low levels of vitamin B1 (thiamin) are less likely to feel composed and confident and more likely to be depressed than those with higher levels, according to researchers. When they increased their intake of vitamin B1, however, they reported a marked improvement in mood and self-confidence as their thiamin levels increased. Other studies show that correcting low levels of vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) and vitamin B12 has beneficial effects on well-being, self-confidence and mood.
2. Magnesium: the sleep mineral
A good night’s sleep goes a long way to promoting good mental health and mood during the day. Magnesium is involved in the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls our sleep cycle. It's a mineral that's essential for energy metabolism, reducing tiredness and fatigue and is also vital for the normal functioning of the nervous system and psychological health.
Like B vitamins, magnesium is more rapidly depleted during times of stress and anxiety creating a vicious cycle - low levels of magnesium also exacerbate these feelings. During times of stress and anxiety, a magnesium supplement may be useful to balance mood and mental wellbeing.
If you suffer from PMS, magnesium is your friend. Magnesium levels appear to be significantly lower. Taking magnesium supplements every day for two months significantly improved symptoms associated with pain and bloating, one study found. Other research has shown how supplementing with magnesium may also help to relieve premenstrual mood changes.
3. Probiotics: bugs that lift your moods
You probably know that probiotics are live bacteria that have beneficial effects on digestive health and general immunity. More recent research suggests they may also influence our psychological health, the gut-brain axis.
Although research is in its early stages, probiotic bacteria are now believed to have indirect effects on our brain by regulating the production of serotonin within the gut wall. Serotonin helps to lift mood and improve anxiety and depression. As much as 95 per cent of our serotonin is made within the lining of our digestive tract.
Try: Symprove Liquid probiotic , £75 for 4 bottles
4. 5-HTP: the sleepy mood enhancer
5-Hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP, is an amino acid that is found naturally in the body and which can be converted into serotonin that regulates mood as well as melatonin, which helps to regulate the sleep cycle.
5-HTP appears to improve the structure of your sleep by extending the amount of time you spend in REM sleep in which your brain processes memories. Getting sufficient REM sleep is essential for feeling rejuvenated during the day which will inevitably impact on your mental state and ability to perform your daily tasks.
Several studies show that 5-HTP supplements have a positive effect on low mood and are better than placebo in treating depression, with benefits usually occurring within two weeks
One study, involving 60 people with a first episode of depression, showed that is was almost as good as prescription antidepressants. It compared the effects of 5-HTP with the prescribed antidepressant drug, fluoxetine, for eight weeks. Both groups showed a significant and nearly equal improvement in depression, starting from the second week of treatment and increasing over the eight weeks. By the end of the study, 73 per cent of those taking 5-HTP and 80 per cent taking fluoxetine felt significantly better.
Try: 5-HTP, £13.95 for 60 tablets or Montgomery and Evelyn Happy Me , £14.80 for 60 capsules. Montgomery and Evelyn was founded by psychologist Evelyn Montgomery, formerly of Grayshott Health Spa in Hampshire. A big believer in supplementation for mental as well as physical health, she created her range of vegan supplements to tackle anxiety, depression, low energy and insomnia after trialling them in her psychotherapy practice to impressive results.
5&6: Omega 3s and vitamin D: the mood-boosting power couple
I've tackled these together because omega-3 fish oils and vitamin D work hand in hand to optimise serotonin (good mood hormone) levels in the brain. You don't need to know the science but if you're interested...
Serotonin needs an amino acid, called tryptophan (see 5HTP above) to convert it to a usable form in the brain. That conversion is activated by vitamin D.
Once serotonin is made, EPA (one of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils) helps brain cells release it into their communication gaps (synapses) to stimulate surrounding brain cells. Once serotonin arrives at a new brain cell, the presence of another long-chain omega-3 fish oil, DHA, helps the serotonin message to be received by increasing the fluidity of the cell membrane fluidity. Good levels of vitamin D and both omega-3s are therefore needed for optimum brain function.
Researchers have suggested that lack of vitamin D, EPA or DHA contributes to a number of psychiatric disorders and depression. Clinical trials suggest that omega-3 fish oils can improve depression, prolong periods of remission from depressive episodes and improve the short-term course of the illness in those affected.
How much omega 3 do you need to take to get a beneficial anti-depressive effect? Look for 650mg total DHA and EPA per day. Adding fish oils (2g per day) to usual drug treatment for depression has also been shown to significantly improve symptoms within two weeks, compared with placebo.
Try: Healthspan High Strength Omega 3 , £11.95 for 360 capsules, Bare Biology Lion Heart Pure Omega 3 , £28.50 and Healthspan Super Strength Vitamin D3 , £8.95 for 120 capsules, D-Lux 3000 Vitamin D Spray £7.99
NB: Supplements do have a role to play in maintaining overall health and especially people who do not manage to eat a well-balanced diet. Exploring the use of supplements to complement your mood and overall health regime may be a good option but do check if you are on any SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor, SSRI are antidepressants) or medication and look for supplements that are made to GMP (good manufacturing practice) such as those made by Healthspan which means they are made to high pharmaceutical standards so simply put, what it says is on the packet is actually in the product you are taking. Rob Hobson is a Registered Nutritionist and Head of Nutrition for Healthspan.