Nutritionist Dr Rob Hobson recommends the supplements we need to support our mental health in trying times
Our minds have a lot to deal with; be it busy day to day lives, the need to succeed running us into the ground both physically and mentally or the rise of burnout in the workplace – and that’s before we get into the uncertainty we’re living in at the moment. According to research by the Health Survey for England approximately one in four of us in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, so it’s important to explore how we can look after our minds and mental health with dietary support.
“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 Meg Arroll, a chartered psychologist working with vitamin and supplement brand Healthspan. “There are many strategies we can use to help build psychological immunity including developing adaptive copings mechanisms such as problem and emotion-focused support (i.e. 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.”
Can supplements help with mental health?
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 low mood and poor mental health can take its toll on the food choices you make, and this may leave gaps in the diet which can be bridged with the sensible use of supplements.
The supplements to take for mental health
B vitamin complex – the energiser
B group vitamins have many functions which include supporting the nervous system, mental performance and psychological health. They are essential for energy production in cells, including brain cells, for making the brain’s communication chemicals (neurotransmitters) as well as for nerve conduction so that messages are passed on. As a result, they help to reduce tiredness and fatigue, aid memory and clarity of thought (cognition).
B vitamins are more rapidly depleted when someone is suffering with stress and anxiety so additional intake is important to maintain healthy levels. Lack of B vitamins can lead to anxiety and irritability, making symptoms of stress worse.
Researchers have also found that 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. 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.
Try: Healthspan High Strength Vitamin B Complex, £8.95 for 120 tablets
Magnesium – the sleep mineral
Among its many roles, magnesium is essential for energy metabolism, reducing tiredness and fatigue and is also vital for normal functioning of the nervous system and psychological health. It is also involved in the production of melatonin which is the hormone that controls our sleep cycle and a good night’s sleep goes a long way to promoting good mental health and mood during the day.
Magnesium is more rapidly depleted during times of stress and anxiety while low levels of magnesium also exacerbate these feelings which can leave some people in a vicious loop. During times of stress and anxiety a magnesium supplement may be useful to balance mood and mental wellbeing.
Magnesium may also play a key role in women’s health. In women with PMS, magnesium levels appear to be significantly lower. A study involving 38 women found that taking magnesium supplements every day for two months significantly improved symptoms associated with pain and bloating. Other research has shown how supplementing with magnesium may also help to relieve premenstrual mood changes.
Probiotics – smart bugs
Probiotics are live bacteria which have beneficial effects on digestive health and general immunity. New research suggests they may also influence our psychological health. The most commonly used probiotic organisms are strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
Although research is in its early stages, it is increasingly believed that gut health plays an important role in psychological health. Probiotic bacteria are now believed to have indirect effects on our brain by regulating the production of serotonin within the gut wall where it regulates gut movement and the way that brain usually ignores signals relating to bowel contraction.
Within the brain, serotonin helps to lift mood and improve anxiety and depression. As much as 95% of our serotonin is actually made within the lining of our digestive tract, however, where it helps to regulate bowel movements and the way in which the brain usually ignores the sensations caused by normal gut contractions. It’s possible that this serotonin can travel to the brain to have beneficial effects on mood.
Try: Symprove, prices vary
5-HTP – the sleepy amino acid
5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is an amino acid that is found naturally in the body and which can be converted into serotonin that regulates mood and melatonin, which helps to regulate the sleep cycle.
5-HTP appears to improve the structure of 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.
5-HTP has also been associated with low mood and depression in studies involving supplementation.
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, compared the effects of 5-HTP against 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.
Omega 3s and vitamin D – perfect mood partners
Omega-3 fish oils and vitamin D work together to regulate serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is synthesised in the brain from an amino acid, called tryptophan, and the enzyme that carries out this 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 get received by increasing 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 neuropsychiatric 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. The threshold for a beneficial anti-depressive effect appears to be 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.
Supplements do have a role to play in the 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 SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor, SSRI are antidepressants) or medication and look for supplements that are made to GMP (good manufacturing practice) like those made by Healthspan which means they are made to high pharmaceutical standards so simply put, what is says is on the packet is actually in the product you are taking .