Feed Your Brain: Supplemental Nutrients
- A high-quality, high-potency, highly bioavailable broad-spectrum multivitamin that contains all the basic essential vitamins and minerals. Specifically, for brain function and mood stability, minerals like zinc and selenium are very important. More than a third of the world’s population is zinc-deficient, and low zinc levels have been linked to depression. Zinc is used by more enzymes than any other mineral, including the enzyme that makes the happy hormone dopamine from noradrenaline, which is, perhaps, one of the primary reasons zinc deficiency is associated with depression. Selenium is key because it functions in a number of critical systems in the body that control proper mood and brain function. (For more
on multivitamins, see Not All Supplements Are Created Equal, below.)
- Calcium and magnesium. Magnesium, especially, is a stress antidote, a secret weapon against anxiety and the most powerful relaxation mineral that exists. Anything that is tight, irritable, crampy, stiff whether it’s a body part or a mood is a sign of magnesium deficiency. You should consider taking additional calcium and magnesium supplements beyond what is in your multivitamin.
- Vitamin D: D as in depression and dementia. Vitamin-D deficiency is a major epidemic that flies under the radar of most doctors and public-health officials. In one study of elderly patients, those with the lowest vitamin-D levels were most likely to suffer from depression. We also know that vitamin-D levels drop precipitously in winter, contributing to seasonal affective disorder; taking vitamin D can prevent this. Supplementation beyond your multivitamin is essential unless you are spending all your time at the beach, eating 30 ounces of wild salmon a day or downing 10 tablespoons of cod liver oil a day!
- Omega-3 fatty acids in capsule or liquid form. Even if you are eating lots of fish and nuts in your diet, it’s probably still a good idea to supplement.
- Folate, B6 and B12. These nutrients are all methylation factors necessary for brain health. You should consider taking additional folate, B6 and B12 supplements beyond what is in your multivitamin.
Probiotics, or beneficial bacteria. These improve our digestion, reduce food allergies and reduce gut inflammation that can lead to mental-function and mood problems.
Of course, nutrient deficiency is only one area where brain and mood problems are created. We have to look at how our genes, diet and environment all interact to affect our brain chemistry and influence function and balance of our body and mind. But one thing is sure: What you eat is a major contributor to your mental and emotional health.
Determining what nutrients you are lacking and reestablishing nutritional balance with a mood-calming eating plan is an important step on your path to optimal vitality, or what I call UltraWellness. As I always say, the most powerful tool you have to transform your health and improve your mood is your fork!
Mark Hyman, MD, is the medical director and founder of The UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Mass. This article was adapted from his recent book, The UltraMind Solution: Fix Your Broken Brain by Healing Your Body First (Scribner, 2009). Dr. Hyman also is editor of the peer-reviewed journal Alternative Therapies and a leading expert in functional medicine. For more information, see www.ultrawellness.com/blog. Learn more about the fundamentals of functional medicine from Dr. Hyman by reading our six-part series on the topic, beginning with the June 2008 issue in our archives at experiencelifemag.com.
Not All Supplements Are Created Equal
In a perfect world, no one would need supplements. But given the stress of our modern life, the poor quality of our food supply, and the high load of toxins in our brains and bodies, we clearly need a basic daily supply of the raw materials for all our enzymes and biochemistry to run as designed.
Through my research and my treatment of thousands of patients over the last 15 years, I have learned much about how to find safe, high-quality and effective nutritional-supplement products. Finding the best products to support health has always been the most difficult part of my job. The lack of adequate government regulations, the dizzying array of products on the market, and the large variations in quality all create a minefield of obstacles for anyone trying to find the right supplement, vitamin or herb.
Be aware that not all brands are created equal. Manufacturers, rather than government regulators, oversee the quality of these products. Certain companies are more careful about quality, sourcing of raw materials, consistency of dose from batch to batch, the use of active forms of nutrients, and not using fillers, additives, colorings, etc.
When choosing supplements, look for:
- Manufacturers who use GMP (good manufacturing practices) for drug or supplement standards from an outside certifying body.
- Products that use independent, third-party organizations to verify active ingredients and contaminants.
- Products that have been tested in clinical trials or have a long history of use and safety.
- Products that are free of preservatives, fillers, binders, excipients, flow agents, shellacs, coloring agents, gluten, yeast lactose and other allergens.
Each person must be cautious and evaluate companies and products for themselves. If possible, try to work with a trained dietitian, nutritionist, or nutritionally oriented physical therapist or healthcare practitioner to select the best products.