The human brain is an exceptionally complicated organ with around 100 billion brain cells in the average adult. Every single emotion, thought and action relies on communication between these cells and it is the role of chemicals called neurotransmitters to trigger this communication. Research has shown that most mental disorders involve imbalanced levels of or an alteration in the functioning of these critical chemicals.

There are certain nutrients that are essential for the synthesis of neurotransmitters and adjusting the brain’s levels of these key nutrients can have a powerful impact on mental health.  Deficiencies in antioxidant nutrients can also have a major impact on mental health by drastically reducing the ability to protect the brain from toxic metals.

The important neurotransmitters for mental health include serotonin, dopamine, GABA, Norepinephrine (Noradrenalin), melatonin, histamine and phenylethylamine.

The following are some of the nutrients essential for the manufacturing of these neurotransmitters, and therefore essential for good mental health. If you are suffering from diagnosed depression or if you feel that you are in a depressed state, it would be a good idea to ask your Doctor to refer you for a blood test to check for the following nutrients.

Zinc Low levels of this essential trace mineral can contribute to many mental health issues, including poor temper control, depression, anxiety and learning problems. Zinc, amongst many other functions, is also essential for a healthy immune system, wound healing and proper balancing of hormones. Zinc is a co-factor in the production of serotonin, dopamine and GABA, meaning it is required, together with other nutrients, to produce these 3 important neurotransmitters. Low serotonin and dopamine levels can lead to depression and low levels of GABA can lead to anxiety attacks and insomnia.

B Vitamins … Essential for the production of all neurotransmitters, the B vitamins also help to increase energy levels, support the liver in detoxification, aid the nervous system and digestion, maintain healthy skin and protect the brain after stroke or injury, amongst many other important roles.

A deficiency in the B vitamins can lead to sleep disorders, depression, irritability, psychosis, short term memory problems and OCD (Obsessive compulsive disorder).

Vitamin C … An essential vitamin for the production of dopamine and GABA, a deficiency in Vitamin C can be associated with depression and an inability to cope with stress. Vitamin C is also important for healthy skin, teeth and gums, immune function, regulating cholesterol, maintaining reproductive health and wound healing amongst other important roles.

Iron … Another co-factor for the production of serotonin and dopamine, iron is also essential for the production of red blood cells and to transport oxygen to every part of the body. A deficiency in iron can lead to cognitive problems, headaches, hyperactivity, brain dysfunction and depression.

Magnesium … Essential for the production of serotonin, dopamine, GABA and phenylethylamine, magnesium also relaxes the muscles and is an extremely important mineral in the treatment of stress related disorders. A deficiency in magnesium can lead  to depression, agitation, anxiety, behavioural disturbances, fatigue, confusion, seizures. When magnesium deficiency exists, this can lead to a build up of calcium in the body, leading to stiffness, joint pain, arthritis and kidney and gall stones.

Calcium … Another essential mineral for the production of serotonin, calcium deficiency can lead to anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritability and muscular cramps, amongst other problems. Be careful if supplementing with Calcium, as excessive levels of Calcium could lead to calcification of coronary arteries. Calcium supplements that come from crushed coral should never be taken.

Vitamin D … Although some amounts of Vitamin D can be obtained from cod liver oil, egg yolk and sprouted seeds, most of our Vitamin D levels are synthesised in the body from sunlight. Low levels of Vitamin D have been linked with depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder that displays depressive like symptoms and occurs in countries that have winters with relatively little sunshine. Several studies have linked the lowering of Vitamin D levels with the disorder.

Depression and mental health problems are extremely complicated issues. If you are on anti depressants, do not go off them unless you seek advice from your doctor. This article is designed to allow people with depression and anxiety disorders to look at dietary issues that could be affecting their mental health. Supplementing with vitamins and minerals in excess can be detrimental to your health, so always seek the advice of a Naturopath.

By Andrea Southern, Naturopath, Clinical Nutritionist, Herbalist.