Nutrition and Mental Health: The Relationship

The nervous system is a determinant of an individual’s mental capacity. The provision of adequate nutrients required for its development is vital in ensuring the optimal mental state of the newborn. 

As of the World Health Organization, mental health refers to the state of mental well-being that facilitates coping with life stresses, the realization of abilities, learning, working well and productivity in communities. Conditions of concern in mental health span from mental disorders to psychosocial disabilities to those beyond these abnormalities. Aspects of mental health have impacts on individuals’ nutrition status as well as vice versa.

Mental health is capacitated way before people are viable. This leaves the task of provision of adequate nutrition to the pregnant mother. During antenatal visits, pregnant mothers are provided with folate supplements. They are also encouraged to consume foods rich in folic acid. Foods rich in folic acid include green leafy vegetables (sukuma wiki, spinach, lettuce, amaranthus and cabbage), cereals (maize, millet, sorghum, maize) and fruits (oranges, lime, lemon and tangerine). Folate is an important nutrient in the development of the nervous system. The nervous system is a determinant of an individual’s mental capacity. The provision of adequate nutrients required for its development is vital in ensuring the optimal mental state of the newborn. 

Inadequacies in the consumption of folate-rich sources increase the risk of spina bifida and anencephaly. These are neural tube defects of the spinal cord and brain respectively. Unless dealt with urgently, such conditions compromise the mental abilities of the victims. Iron and Vitamin B12 are other micronutrients that several studies have considered important in the development of the nervous system. The macronutrients carbohydrates, proteins and fats/oils are also important in the optimal development of the nervous system. This is based on their role in structural development.

The role of oils can never be underestimated in the brain development and maintenance of the infants, school-going children and adolescents. Omega-3 fatty acids are very important in this role. These are mainly obtained from fishes such as tilapia, Nile perch and catfish predominant in Uganda today. Ensuring optimal consumption of these nutrients is important in elevated cognition.

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Despite the advocacy to for adequate dietary consumption, this never exists in a wide range of the homesteads of countrymen and women. Wherever nutritionists seek their niche, they should look forward to sensitization of the masses on the quality consumption of foods for their well-being. Many studies allude to the fact that the consumption of food in amounts and quality that meet the body’s nutritional needs is enough to maintain an optimal mental status.

Characteristic of many adolescents is their need for independence in all aspects of their lives. This calls them to consumption of foods in large portions without conscious consideration of the nutrient composition. This is the long run leads to growth out of all proportion, a condition referred to as obesity. The state of being obese increases the risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer and diabetes. Victims of such conditions the following self-induction into them do not leave their mental state as formally was. The individual faces a lifetime trauma as a result of erratic consumption of food.

The case is identical to victims of anorexia nervosa that induce thinning by reducing their dietary consumption. This is majorly to meet the occupational demands of athletes, fashionistas and media personalities. The effects of much of this are more long-term than immediate. The immune capacity of such individuals is compromised with time by becoming prone to a range of diseases. These, too, like the victims of bulimia nervosa suffer from self-judgement, an important aspect with regard to mental health.

There is no definition for optimal mental health as of the reality of all humanity because many factors are attributed to this subject. Among the multitude is nutrition, whose consideration is based on the day-to-day choices made by individuals. This calls us to re-master the choices made that have a significant effect on the mental health of us all, directly and indirectly, short and long-term.

Whole grains and complex carbohydrates

The brain is always “on” even during sleep, it takes care of our senses, thoughts, movements, our breath and heartbeat. This means the brain needs constant supply of fuel from the foods we eat, what is in the fuel makes all the difference and it affects the structure, function and ultimately the person’s mood. Eating high quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress (free radicles) produced when the body uses oxygen, this causes damage to cells. Diets high in refined sugars are harmful to the brain and several studies have found to worsen symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.


Foods rich in good bacteria highly influence the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain. About 95% of the serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract and amount produced is dependent on the health of the gastrointestinal cells. Foods rich in probiotics include yoghurt, fermented bushera, kombucha, aged cheese, butter milk, fermented vegetables and apple cider vinegar.


If an individual is having a mental health problem, they may not have the energy or motivation to drink lots of fluids. But if one becomes dehydrated, it becomes harder to concentrate and have a settled mind.


Vitamin B9, B6, and B12 are essential for DNA and protein synthesis and the are crucial for brain development and cognition. Several studies have shown that individuals with psychiatric disorders such-as schizophrenia have lower serum vitamin B6 and B9 levels than non-psychiatric individual.

Amino acids

A diet rich in amino acids is essential in providing neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline and gamma amino butyric acid (GABA) that are associated with depression. Tryptophan can induce sleep and tranquility by restoring serotonin levels leading to diminished depression.

The deficiency of nutrients like cobalamin, folate and zinc is known to be associated with symptoms of depression and dementia, cognitive decline and irritability. These should be provided through consumption of whole foods from different food groups.

Many studies have found that diets that are rich in refined sugars are toxic to brain functioning because high content of simple sugars stresses the pancreas and induces insulin resistance. The high sugar levels with compensatory insulin responses stimulate the counter-reactive surge of autonomic neurotransmitters like cortisol and glucagon, these are known to produce increased anxiety, hunger and irritability.

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Monoamine neurotransmitters are synthesized from amino acids in a process that is mediated by mineral-dependent cofactors. Both folate and vitamin B12 are essential for the methylation that occurs during these synthetic processes, also regulating the formation of homocysteine a metabolite that is strongly linked to cardiovascular risk and depression. Serotonin is another monoamine neurotransmitter that helps to control sleep and appetite, inhibit pain, and to regulate mood hence influencing the mental functioning of the body. Therefore adequate consumption of good quality proteins is essential in provision of these amino acids in the body.

Consumption of unsaturated fats in the diet is important in mental health and the brain is structurally composed of 60% fat, omega 3 fatty acids are used to treat a number of psychological disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, bipolar depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Diets rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids have a positive impact in alleviating mental illnesses

Evidence has continuously shown a positive correlation between good nutrition and a good state of mental well-being, however, the role of nutrition has been one of the under-recognized factors in the development of major trends in mental health. A multi-disciplinary approach using different health professionals like psychiatrists, doctors, nutritionists, dietitians and counsellors should be used in the effective management and prevention of mental illnesses.  

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