Nutrients Your Brain Needs Most For Good Mental Health

Nutritional psychiatry is a relatively new field. Many psychiatrists are now realizing that nutrition plays a bigger role in mental health than previously thought. There is growing evidence that nutrition affects brain health. You can improve your mental and emotional well-being by changing what you eat.

We now know, unlike previously thought, that you can grow brain cells (neurons). BDNF, short for brain-derived neurotrophic factor, is a protein produced in the brain that stimulates neurogenesis, assists in the survival of nerve cells, helps our synapses change and adapt, keeping them functioning and growing.  This is referred to as plasticity. Creating new neurons is called  neurogenesis. Some call it fertilizer for the brain. We want to increase this protein. The more we have, the better.

According to psychiatrist, Drew Ramsey, in his book Eat Complete, there are 21 essential nutrients for brain health, based on the latest science.

If you eat a large variety of healthy foods you will likely be getting all these nutrients without a need for supplementation. If you’re not sure,  have your levels checked by your doctor. If you are low you may need some initial supplementation to get the nutrients to normal levels.

According to Leslie Korn, PhD. in her book Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health,  a healthy diet is essential for good mental health, however, there are many illnesses that can’t be treated by diet alone. Conventional medicines and nutrition should then be used together.

Adequate nutrition may allow a reduction in the amount of medications necessary. Never go off your medications without your doctor’s approval.

Our brains consume 20% of everything we eat. What are the nutrients that affect our brains the most? Last time we touched on foods that harm the brain (link) this time, let’s see what helps.

What are you feeding your brain?

(note* suggested food sources are listed to let you know some of the best foods to find these nutrients in. You are not limited to just these, there are others you may enjoy as well)



  • Your brain is mainly fat, so brains need fat, mainly DHA
  • Omega 3 fatty acids promote the synthesis of BDNF
  • Provides energy and lubrication for the brain
  • Omega 3 are building blocks of cell membranes
  • Stimulate brain growth factors
  • Regulate inflammation
  • Supports brain function
  • Assists with absorption of fat soluble vitamins


IMG_2806 (1)

Low levels can show up as:

  • ADHD
  • Azlheimer’s
  • bipolar
  • Depression
  • Heart disease
  • Suicide
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Mood disordersIMG_6890

Suggested Food Sources:

  • Sardines, salmon, shrimp, oyster, clams, beef, bison, walnuts, flax, broccoli, kale, eggs, pasture-raised animals
  • fats/oils (click to learn more) should be high quality, cold pressed, virgin oils


ZINC– (8-11 grams/day)


  • Most concentrated metal in the brain
  • Helps the neurons communicate. This is important for you to be able to think quickly and efficiently.
  • Important for cognitive function and memory in older people
  • Important in early brain development
  • Anti-depressant benefits

Low levels have been associated with:

  • Low learning ability
  • Apathy
  • Mental lethargy
  • Schizophrenia
  • Parkinson’s
  • Pick’s (a type of dementia)

Suggested Food Sources

  • Oysters, steak, lamb, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, ground turkey, lentils


B-12– (2.4 mcg/day)


  • Helps in DNA production
  • Maintenance and myelination of nerve cells to protect the nerves
  • Exposed myelin sheath causes neuropathy and pain
  • Prevents a certain type of anemia
  • Can’t make brain cells without it
  • Slows brain shrinkage as you age
  • Brain levels of B-12 do not always match up with blood levels
  • The active form of B-12 is more useful (methyl-B12)




Low Levels associated with:

  • Common deficiency in adults
  • Vegetarians must supplements because B-12 is not found in plant foods
  • Aides in anxiety, psychosis, and fatigue
  • Low levels can damage the brain
  • Depression
  • Brain fog
  • Brain atrophy
  • Disorientation
  • Schizophrenia
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Dementia
  • OCD
  • Sleeplessness
  • Tingling in arms and legs
  • Anxiety
  • Memory loss

Suggested Food Sources

  • sardines, salmon, liver, eggs, tuna, cod, scallops, shrimp


MAGNESIUM (click to learn more)– (320-420 mg)stress


  • Stimulates brain growth
  • Helps with short term memory
  • Helps regulate mood, irritability and stress
  • Promotes relaxation
  • Improves sleep
  • Improves neural plasticity allowing nerves to adapt better
  • Helps convert sugar into energy
  • Affects every chemical reaction in your body
  • Effective in depression and rapid-cycling bipolar
  • Only L-theronate crosses the blood brain barrier
  • Stress depletes magnesium

Low Levels:

  • Deficiency is common
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Irritability

Suggested Food Sources

  • pumpkin seeds, spinach, chard, sunflower seeds, quinoa, cashews, black beans, molasses


B-9 (FOLATE) (400 mcg)


  • Makes myelin which insulates your neurons
  • Makes serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine
  • Makes neurotransmitters and DNA
  • Protects brain from inflammation
  • Protects DNA from damage
  • Improves mood, memory and cognition
  • Keeps homocysteine low (high homocystienes are linked to increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and damaged arteries)
  • Folic acid is the synthetic form of B-9. Folate is the natural form and is what comes from food. Folate is the better choice since some people have trouble converting synthetic folic acid (MTHFR gene). Folic acid can build up and cause central nervous system impairment/ faster cognitive decline in the elderly.
  • Methylfolate (the form found in most plant cells) appears to be the only form of B-9 that crosses the blood brain barrier. This is why the natural form from plants is better than the synthetic folic acid.

Low levels: IMG_3479

  • Deficiency is associated with poor behavior, cognition, mood and other neuromotor development
  • Tend to be unresponsive to anti-depressant therapy

Suggested Food Sources

  • Lentils, asparagus, chickpeas, Brussels sprouts, spinach, black-eyed peas, spinach, beets


PREBIOTICS (click for more) and PROBIOTICS (click for more)


  • The nutrients you absorb affect your mental health, but the health of your gut affects the nutrients you absorb
  • Gut health affects mood, clarity of thought and anxiety
  • Produce GABA and serotonin in your gut
  • Shown to reduce stress and anxiety
  • Supports neurotransmitter activity in brain health. Certain strains increase BDNF
  • Cooking/heat kills the bacteria

Suggested food sources

  • Sauerkraut, pickles (the kind in salt, not vinegar), kefir, yogurt, some cheeses, kimchi, pickled fruits and vegetables




PROTEIN– (46-56 gms)


  • Complete protein important to brain health
  • Your body breaks down protein into amino acids and then rebuilds its own protein
  • Tryptophan is used to make serotonin affecting mood
  • Helps stabilize mood and blood sugar

Low Levels:

  • Lack of focus
  • Emotional instability
  • Fatigue

Suggested Food Sources

  • Turkey, chicken, salmon, beef, lentils


VITAMIN E (15 mg)

Why: IMG_3488

Suggested Food Sources

  • Sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, chard, avocado, greens-turnip, beet, mustard


VITAMIN K– (90-120 mcg)


  • Ensures brain receives oxygen
  • K2 for nerve health of the brain
  • K1 for cognitive function in the elderly

Suggested Food Sources

  • Kale, spinach, collard greens, mustard greens, beets greens, chard, parsley, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, fermented foods, eggs, meats, bok choy, cabbage






VITAMIN A(700-900 mcg)


  • Prevent memory decline

Suggested Food Sources

  • Sweet potato, carrots, pumpkin, mustard greens, egg yolks, spinach, dairy, salmon






POLYPHENOLS (click for more)


  • DSC00375Protect neurons against injury from neurotoxins
  • Suppress neuroinflammation
  • Promote memory and cognitive function

Suggested Food Sources

  • Dark fruits and vegetables




  • Anti-depressant
  • Improves brain and nervous system function

Suggested Food Sources

  • oil- olive, almond, avocado, nut butters, cashews, hemp, flax




VITAMIN D (click for more) – 


  • Catalyst to turn on and off neurotransmitter production and nerve growth

Low Levels:

  • Accelerate brain aging
  • Worsens depression and MS
  • Low D levels in winter result in seasonal depression
  • Low levels linked to dementia and Parkinson’s
  • Increased risk of Schizophrenia

Suggested Food Sources

  • Fish- Salmon, trout, sardines, tuna


SELENIUM– (55 mcg)

  • Elevates mood
  • Reduces inflammation
  • High doses can be toxic

Suggested Food Sources

  • Tuna, shrimp, halibut, Brazil nuts, sardines, salmon, turkey


IRON(18 women, 8 mg men)


  • Used to form serotonin and dopamine
  • Used to make myelin which is responsible for signal conduction
  • Energy production
  • Brain development

Low Levels:IMG_6889

  • Deficiencies can show as autism, ADHD, fatigue, and developmental disorders

Suggested Food Sources

  • Pumpkin seeds, oysters, dark chocolate, sesame seeds, spinach, soybeans, lentils, turmeric


B-1 (THIAMINE)– (1.1-1.2 mg)


  • Boosts mood
  • Turns glucose into energy
  • Provides brain energyIMG_6886
  • Makes transmitters
  • Used in the creation of certain amino acids and enzymes

Suggested Food Sources

  • Pork, asparagus, Sunflower seeds, trout, peas, pecans, flaxseed, Romaine lettuce


CHOLINE– (425mg)


  • Regulates anxiety, learning and memory, inflammation

Suggested Food Sources

  • Eggs, beef, scallops, Brussels sprouts, shrimp


CALCIUM– (1000 mg)


  • Required for brain cell communication
  • Regulates circuitry in the brain and heart

Low Levels:DSC01947

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Slow thinking
  • Impaired memory

Suggested Food Sources

  • Leafy greens, dairy, sardines


POTASSIUM (4700 mg)

Low Levels:

  • Low potassium/high sodium causes high blood pressure which damagebananas the brain

Suggested Food Sources

  • Swiss chard, spinach, bananas, kale, beet greens, cantaloupe


IODINE– (150 mcg)


  • Regulates metabolism
  • Improves cognitive abilities
  • Proper brain development

Low Levels:

  • Show as mood disorders

Suggested Food Sources

  • Seaweed, scallops, cod, yogurt


VITAMIN C– ( 75-90 mg)


  • Antioxidant (click for more)
  • Highest concentrations found in the brain
  • Maintain cognitive performance as you age
  • Aides in the adsorption of iron
  • Used in neurotransmitter production
  • Improves blood flow to the brain

Suggested Food Sources

  • Papaya, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, strawberries



The most common nutrient deficiencies are

  • omega 3
  • B-12
  • magnesium
  • vitamin D
  • vitamin E
  • iron

Be sure to eat more of these foods.

What? How am I supposed to remember all that? How can I eat all that?

Each food has a unique nutritional value. While it is best to eat a variety of foods, for good mental health the core of your diet should be the most concentrated sources of the most important nutrients for your brain and add on from there.

Which foods are those? We’ll touch on those in another post.



B12 and the Brain

Korn, Leslie PhD. Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health.

Mateljan, George. World’s Healthiest Foods, 2nd Ed

Mental Health: Where Nutrition Meets Psychiatry

Nutritional medicine as mainstream in psychiatry

Nutritional Psychiatry: Where to Next?

Ramsey, Drew M.D. Eat Complete.

Ramsey, Drew M.D. Happiness Diet.

Zinc, the brain and behavior.

4 thoughts on “Nutrients Your Brain Needs Most For Good Mental Health

  1. OK – so yes how do I incorporate all this into my diet? It definitely seems overwhelming. Some of those foods you couldn’t pay me to eat – like liver – but many of them I feel I could do, but I need to know how to do that with a family – like meals to make, things to do. Definitely desire to do this though…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s the beauty of it being available in many foods. Next brain post will list 10 foods that contain MANY of these vitamins and minerals so you can get the biggest bang for your buck.


  3. If you’re eating healthy, you probably already get many of these nutrients. Eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables etc. Remember, taste buds can be trained. I have a post on how to do that. Even my pre-k class did an awesome job trying or retrying foods. Your son seems competitive, make it fun. I have charts with my class that they use. Science says it takes 10 tries to learn to like a strange taste. Let your kids feel involved, they will be more likely to eat it. Let them pick between two choices for vegetables, let them help prepare it, etc. Don’t forget to get rid of the stuff that is hurting your brain (that was the previous post) . Otherwise, eating good stuff will have minimal impact. Sit with your family and make a list of the foods they are willing to try. Make changes gradually.


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