Nutrition is an important yet widely under-tested component as to why so many individuals struggle with mental health challenges despite their best attempts at recovery through conventional and alternative therapies. Included is an overview of the roles that individual nutrients and dietary composition play in allowing us to feel our best.

The Role of Individual Nutrients

Amino Acids

Amino acids are the building blocks that make up the proteins in our bodies. Whereas most of us are familiar with the roles that proteins play in building and maintaining strong muscle, we may be unaware of the role they play in creating our neurotransmitters and other aspects of our neurological health.

Certain amino acids that play an important role in mental health include:

Tyrosine: This essential amino acid, along with phenylalanine, are precursors to catecholamines, which include DOPA, dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. The catecholamines are involved in basic nervous system functions that includes movement, memory, attention, problem solving, desire, motivation, and the “fight or flight” or sympathetic response.

Tryptophan: This essential amino acid is used as a precursor for serotonin. This neurotransmitter plays a role in a range of psychological and bodily functions that include mood, sexual desire and function, appetite, sleep and memory. Imbalances in serotonin have been implicated in neurological and psychological disorders, such as depression, migraine, bipolar disorder and anxiety.

Glycine and Serine: These amino acids play a role in the production of acetylcholine—an important neurotransmitter involved with memory function—and as a mediator of the “rest and digestive,” or parasympathetic response.

Glutamine and Glutamate: These act
as excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters.

Vitamins and Minerals

The standard American diet is unique in being calorically abundant, while nutritionally deficient. According to the USDA, over 94 percent of the population does not meet the most minimal guidelines necessary for optimal heath. This is problematic when we consider the role that vitamins and minerals can play in our mental health.

B Vitamins

The B vitamins play an important role in most cellular reactions in the body. Certain B vitamins—such as folate, B-6 and B-12—play a vital role for our neurological health; their deficiencies may contribute to irritability, depression and confusion.


Iron plays an important role in allowing our bodies to successfully transport oxygen and carry out metabolic reactions. One under-looked role of iron is its role in the creation of neurotransmitters, like dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Iron deficiencies can result in depressed mood, lethargy and problems with attention.


Magnesium is an important and widely deficient element in the American diet that plays an essential role in over 350 cellular reactions within the body. Inadequate levels of magnesium may damage the brain’s neurons and cause symptoms of depression.

Vitamin D

Current research appears to show a link between low vitamin D levels in the blood and the symptoms of depression. It turns out that our brains contain cellular receptors for vitamin D in regions linked to the development of depression. While scientists have yet to determine the exact role of vitamin D in the brain, it is speculated that it plays a role in determining the amount of neurotransmitters present and how
they operate.


Zinc plays a critical role in over 300 cellular reactions within the body. Current research has linked zinc deficiencies with neuropsychiatric disorders, including anxiety and depression.

Essential Fatty Acids

The dry weight of our brains is approximately 80 percent fat, which is more than any other organ in our body. Certain fats—known as EPA and DHA—make up 15 to 30 percent of this dry weight alone; EPA and DHA are called essential because they must be obtained in the diet. These fatty acids are also widely deficient in the American diet; this is problematic given their crucial role in allowing the neurons in our brain to function properly. It is interesting to note that the sharp reductions of EPA and DHA in the American diet in the past century strongly parallels to the rise in psychiatric illness during that time period.

Blood Sugar Regulation

A diet rich in processed sugars and refined starches can lead to eventual blood sugar irregularities. One consequence is a state known as hypoglycemia, which is marked by symptoms associated with mental illness such as fatigue, anxiety, irritability and confusion. Chronically elevated blood
sugar—even below the levels that would classify one as pre-diabetic—have also been shown to shrink parts of the brain associated with memory and emotional processing. This might explain the theorized link between dysregulated blood sugar and Alzheimer’s disease that have led some researchers to label Alzheimer’s disease as type III diabetes.

Food Sensitivities and Intolerances

These have become an increasing concern as more and more individuals complain of having problematic yet non-allergic reactions to commonly consumed foods. Gluten containing grains and the casein protein found in dairy tend to be challenging for individuals with mental illness. Elimination diets that temporarily restrict common food triggers can be helpful in identifying and removing foods that can cause some people to feel lousy.

Gut Health and Bacterial Balance

The bacteria in our guts might ultimately decide who gets anxiety and depression. It turns out that these microbes release neurotransmitters that can influence our mood. Consider that the Bacillus strain of bacteria can release dopamine and norepinephrine, Bifido-bacterium releases GABA, Enterococcus releases serotonin, Escherichia releases norepinephrine and serotonin, Lactobacillus releases Acetylcholine and GABA, and Streptococcus releases serotonin. This might explain the link that some
researchers have noticed between digestive wellness and mental health.

Other Considerations

Healthy Cholesterol Balance

While certain elevated cholesterol patterns have been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, having too little might contribute to mental illness. Researchers have long observed that total cholesterol levels are consistently lower in more severely depressed and violent patients. Cholesterol plays many important roles in the body, including the proper functioning of our cellular walls and serving as a major part of the coating for our nerve cells. Reduced cholesterol within the brain is thought to indirectly lower brain serotonin levels by preventing our nerve cells from properly supporting receptor sites for serotonin. It has been noted that the risk for severe depression and suicide increases when cholesterol levels begin to dip below 160mg/dl.

Managing Chronic Inflammation

Current research has associated clinical depression with a 30 percent increase of inflammation within the brain. While the public is well aware of the mostly visible short-term inflammation, few comprehend the effects of the largely unseen long-term or chronic inflammation and its role in many health complaints that plague modern societies. Unresolved inflammation can occur from a variety of factors that include infection, stress, nutritional imbalances and sedentary lifestyle. One consequence is the chronic release of pro-inflammatory cytokines, or chemical messengers that can produce a wide range of psychiatric and neurological symptoms that happen to mirror the characteristics of depression.



Jay Wolkoff, MS, is a clinical nutritionist specializing in integrative and functional medicine with a
focus on mental wellness. He has offices in New Haven and Hartford Counties, and runs and blogs on For more information on his practice.