Understanding the link between Mental Health & Nutrition

Given that today is R U OK? Day and it was World Suicide Prevention Day on Tuesday, we thought it would be imperative to discuss the link between our mental health and nutrition.

We spoke with Accredited Nutritionist and Health Coach, Jemma McEwan. Jemma works with women to help transform their physical and mental health through nutrition.

Here's what she had to say about the link between mental health and nutrition:

"Everyone easily understands the connection between nutritional deficiencies and physical illness - I hear people say all the time "oh I'm really tired, I must be low in iron." But few people talk about or even consider the connection between nutrition and depression. It seems to be thought of as strictly biochemical or emotionally rooted. It's so far from the truth! The correlation between nutritional status and mental illness has been proven. 

fruit on a plate on a wooden table with two glasses of juice

The conventional treatment for depression is generally SSRI's, which are focused on improving neurotransmitter function. Our body would normally maintain the perfect combination of neurotransmitters itself, but for those with depression, serotonin, dopamine and nor-epinephrine are often low. There are specific nutrients involved in the synthesis and absorption of these specific neurotransmitters - folate, essential fatty acids, B Vitamins, amino acids for example. 

If we aren't eating or absorbing these nutrients, how can we expect our body to produce these neurotransmitters?! 

If you're suffering from depression or you know someone who is, think about their typical diet - is it rich in wholefoods, low in processed foods and nutrient dense? 

Here's a few fun facts from relevant studies in case you don't yet consider nutrition to be an important factor in improving mental health: 

  • It has been observed that patients with depression have blood folate levels, which are, on an average, 25% lower than healthy controls.

  • Randomised, controlled trials that involve folate and vitamin B12 suggest that patients treated with 0.8 mg of folic acid/day or 0.4 mg of vitamin B12/day will exhibit decreased depression symptoms.

  • In addition, the results of several case studies where patients were treated with 125-300 mg of magnesium (as glycinate or taurinate) with each meal and at bedtime led to rapid recovery from major depression in < 7 days for most of the patients.

  • When consumed alone on an empty stomach, tryptophan, a precursor of serotonin, is usually converted to serotonin. Hence, the amino acid tryptophan can induce sleep and tranquillity.

Often blood tests come back as "normal" for vitamins and minerals; keep in mind that when you're under increased physical or mental stress, your nutrient requirements increase. Just like when you do a big workout, your calorie requirements increase. In cases of depression, therapeutic dosages of nutrients are required in the form of supplementation for optimal results. 

This does not mean there is no room in this world for anti-depressants, there is. Although, we still need to consider nutrition as a first line treatment or have it compliment conventional anti-depressants. This way, our body is given the opportunity to do what it's designed to and we get to feel our best mentally and physically!"

You can check out more of Jemma's work here and follower her on Instagram.

young nutritionist (Jemma McEwan) sitting at table with a bowl of fruit and coffee
Jemma McEwan - Accredited Nutritionist and Health Coach 

Relevant Studies: 

NCBI - Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses 

NCBI - Nutritional Interventions in Depression and Perinatal Depression

This information in no way is intended to diagnose or treat a medical illness. If you feel like you may be suffering from depression or a mental health disorder please contact your medical professional. Beyond Blue is a non-profit service you can call on 1300 22 4636


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