How Nutritional Interventions Can Help Improve Mental Illnesses

Not all patients respond to pharmacological treatments for psychiatric disorders, and a portion of those who do experience troublesome side effects. While the search for new and better medications continues, there is a frequently overlooked, powerful tool that is relatively safe, effective and that everyone already consumes anyway: food.

“Nutrients form the building blocks of brain chemistry, and are vital in the both the structure and function of the brain,” Jerome Sarris, PhD, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne in Australia, told Psychiatry Advisor. “Dietary quality may affect mental health by impacting the creation and function of brain chemicals and key enzymes, modifying the level of inflammation, in addition to have effects on altering key gene expression.”

Nutritional interventions — specially dietary changes but also nutritional supplements for those with certain deficiencies — are generally not considered primary treatment options, despite this direct and crucial link between food and brain functioning. 

“The body produces the cornucopia of mood-regulating brain chemicals — such as glutamate, GABA and serotonin — by synthesizing various nutrients we take in,” explained John Arden, PhD, director of training for Kaiser Permanente Medical Centers in the Northern California region, and author of books like The Brain Bible and Rewire Your Brain. “Neurotransmitters are derived from the diet,” he told Psychiatry Advisor. Serotonin, for example, is made from the intake of foods containing the amino acid tryptophan, which the body converts to the neurotransmitter.

If there is insufficient tryptophan in the diet, there will be insufficient serotonin production and resulting mood deficits. This is also relevant to people taking antidepressants that work by affecting neurotransmitter levels, such as the effects of fluoxetine (Prozac) on serotonin, said Dr Arden. The drugs don’t actually make the neurotransmitters, they just influence the activity of one’s existing supply, which depends largely on diet quality. The same goes for the other neurotransmitters that influence mood.