12 Essential Nutrients & Foods For Boosting Your Mental Health

Ok so we know from my recent podcast episodes that there is a connection between the food we eat affects how we fell, which manifests in our moods.

So I’m compelled to share with you the top nutrients for Mental Health and the foods that contain them.

These top nutrients and the food that contain them are based on the research that was conducted by Dr. Drew Ramsey and Laura LaChance. The aim of the research was to investigate which foods are the most nutrient dense sources of nutrients demonstrated by the scientific literature to play a role in the prevention and promotion of recovery from depressive disorders.

Their research was an evidence based nutrient profiling system for depression, so they looked specifically at antidepressant foods. Through a systematic literature review they derived a list of Antidepressant Nutrients from 34 nutrients known to be essential for humans. The research identified the most nutrient-dense individual nutrients to prevent and promote recovery from depressive disorders and symptoms.

The 12 Essential Nutrients are:

  1. Folate
  2. Iron
  3. Long-Chain Omega-3 (EPA & DHA)
  4. Magnesium
  5. Potassium
  6. Selenium
  7. Thiamine
  8. Vitamin A
  9. Vitamin B6
  10. Vitamin B12
  11. Vitamin C
  12. Zinc

The highest scoring foods were bivalves such as oysters and mussels, various seafoods, and organ meats for animal foods. The highest scoring plant foods were leafy greens, lettuces, peppers, and cruciferous vegetables.

In order to make it easier for you to include these nutrients in your daily diet, I have compiled a list of the top 10 food sources with the highest density of each of these 12 nutrients, and also some of my favourite by referring to myfooddata.com.

  1. Folate (Vitamin B6): Most popular nutrient that most pregnant women are familiar with, because it prevents birth deformities like spina bifida, and supports healthy fetal development. Folate has a role in the formation of hemoglobin and DNA synthesis, as an important methyl donor for methylation, which is a process critical for healthy bodily functioning. An important fact about Folate, is that there is a large population of people about 40{1e16acf445973e61fdbd53de1c132af7e84fd195cf15d57956db2b0426c8fa60} that may have a genetic predisposition of the MTHFR gene mutation, which may lead to high levels of homocysteine, which is a vascular marker of inflammation, in the blood (may indicate a deficiency & higher chance of developing certain diseases). And the gene mutation may lead to low levels of folate, influencing your body to produce neurotransmitters and a major mechanism in anxiety and depression. That is why it’s recommended to ensure that if you’re supplementing with Folate, to use the methylated form. Another important fact to note, is that Birth Control depletes this very important vitamin. Adequate levels of folate are required for the production of neurotransmitters like Serotonin (feeling of well-being and happiness, reduces anxiety & stress response), GABA (feel-good inhibitory compound, natural anti-anxiety effects) and stress-responding Dopamine (excitatory compound playing an important role in reward mechanism and motivation), Norepinephrine (increases arousal and alertness), and Epinephrine (hormone released in the bloodstream in response to physical & mental stress), which are key for Mental Health. Signs of deficiency are depression, forgetfulness, hostility, apathy and paranoia.

Top 10 High Folate Whole Foods

  1. Edamame (Green Soybeans)
  2. Lentils
  3. Asparagus
  4. Spinach
  5. Broccoli
  6. Avocados
  7. Mangos
  8. Lettuce
  9. Sweet Corn
  10. Oranges

2. Iron: Iron is an important master mineral used to transport oxygen in the body in the form of hemoglobin, boosting immunity and reducing fatigue.  Iron is stored in the body bound to the protein Ferritin in the liver (the site of iron storage), spleen (the site of recycling of red blood cells) and bone marrow (the site of production of red blood cells). A slight deficiency can causes anemia and associated with fatigue and weakness, and a chronic deficiency can lead to organ failure. But too much iron, can be toxic and lead to harmful free radicals, interfering with metabolism, causing damage to organs like the heart and liver.

Top 10 High Iron Whole Foods

  1. Beef (Skirt Steak)
  2. Shellfish (Oysters)
  3. Dried Fruits (Apricots)
  4. Large White Beans
  5. Spinach
  6. Baking Chocolate (Unsweetened)
  7. Quinoa
  8. White Button Mushrooms
  9. Squash & Pumpkin Seeds
  10. Dried Herbs (Thyme, Parsley, Spearmint, Black Pepper, Marjoram)

3. Omega-3: Omega-3s are essential polyunsaturated fatty acids (EFAs) that do not get stored as fat, and are an important part of the cell membrane increasing membrane fluidity – which is a great thing. Consumption of EFAs support learning ability and play an important role in brain development and growth. It’s now well-known that Omega-3s from fish oil (EPA & DHA) are effective for alleviating depression. The anti-inflammatory properties aid cognitive performance and memory, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and ADHD. Fats in general aid in neurological function, which supports the signalling of neurotransmitters, boosting nerve transmission, synaptic communication, and adrenals (reducing stress). Higher blood levels of fish oil are associated with increased brain volume as well.  

Top 10 High Omega-3 Whole Foods

  1. Flax Seeds
  2. Chia Seeds
  3. Fresh Water Salmon
  4. Walnuts
  5. Edamame
  6. Shellfish (Oysters)
  7. Navy (Haricot) Beans
  8. Brussels Sprouts
  9. Avocados
  10. Hemp Seeds

4. Magnesium: Magnesium, is by far one of my favourite essential minerals, because of its involvement in over 300 enzymatic pathways. It’s deemed the “original chill pill” as it directly works to supress cortisol, and a deficiency can increase anxiety and stimulation of cortisol, so it’s an excellent mood-stabilizing mineral. It functions as a natural relaxant by relaxing skeletal muscles as well as smooth muscles of blood vessels and GI tract. Diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and inflammation are all linked to Magnesium deficiency, and over 68{1e16acf445973e61fdbd53de1c132af7e84fd195cf15d57956db2b0426c8fa60} of Americans are estimated to be deficient. A diet high in unhealthy fats, meat, phosphorus (soda pop), alcohol, caffeine, sugar, diuretics and stress all decrease Magnesium absorption. Unfortunately, our soil is depleted of this powerhouse mineral, and due to its low risk for toxicity, this is one of the few minerals I recommend supplementing, even if you eat a diet rich in Magnesium. I highly recommend, evening Epson salt (magnesium sulfate) baths as well, because they are a simple way to absorb magnesium, relax muscles, reduce anxiety, and prepare for sleep. If you’re not a bath person, you can get the same benefits from a foot soak, preferably 1 hour before bed.

Top 10 High Magnesium Whole Foods

  1. Spinach
  2. Squash & Pumpkin Seeds
  3. Lima Beans
  4. Tuna
  5. Brown Rice
  6. Almonds
  7. Dark Chocolate (>85{1e16acf445973e61fdbd53de1c132af7e84fd195cf15d57956db2b0426c8fa60} Cocoa)
  8. Avocados
  9. Bananas
  10. Buckwheat

5. Potassium: Potassium is an essential nutrient used to maintain fluid and electrolyte balance in the body. Necessary for electrical conductivity of the brain and nerves. Delivers oxygen and transports Serotonin in the brain, improves cognitive function, ameliorates depression, insomnia, mental fatigue, anxiety, mood swings, nervous system disorders, and confusion. A diet high in alcohol, coffee, sugar and diuretic drugs cause potassium losses.

Top 10 High Potassium Whole Foods

  1. Beet Greens
  2. Fresh Water Salmon
  3. Large White Beans
  4. Avocados
  5. Sweet Potatoes
  6. Acorn Squash
  7. White Button Mushrooms
  8. Bananas
  9. Tomatoes (Cooked)
  10. Swiss Chard (Cooked)

6. Selenium: Selenium is an essential trace mineral, playing an important role in DNA synthesis, immune, reproduction system, and thyroid function support. It elevates mood, and prevents cognitive decline and brain aging. It’s an anti-aging, longevity nutrient due to its anti-oxidative powers and works closely together with Vitamin E and other antioxidants.  It’s also a building block used to make Glutathione, reducing oxidative stress in the body and brain. Selenium status has been inversely related to frequency and severity of anxiety, depression, and chronic fatigue.

Top 10 High Selenium Whole Foods

  1. Brazil Nuts
  2. Shellfish (Oysters)
  3. Sardines
  4. Halibut
  5. Mackerel
  6. Lean Chicken Breast
  7. Shrimp
  8. Mushrooms (Shiitake, Portobello, Cremini)  
  9. Asparagus
  10. Red Cabbage

7. Thiamine (Vitamin B1): Thiamine is an essential nutrient that has a key metabolic role in the cellular production of energy from glucose. When it comes to nerve function, it helps to synthesize important neurotransmitters like acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is known for its role in memory, concentration, and cognitive reasoning as it signals brain communication. Thiamine helps to prevent Alzheimer’s, regulates nervous system, assists with energy metabolism, boosts immunity, and is especially useful for people who are fatigued due to chronically low blood pressure.  

Top 10 High Thiamine Whole Foods

  1. Brazil Nuts
  2. Fresh Water Salmon
  3. Flax Seeds
  4. Navy Beans
  5. Green Peas  
  6. Brown Rice
  7. Acord Squash
  8. Asparagus
  9. Mussels
  10. Cassava

8. Vitamin A: Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, meaning that it requires fat to dissolve and be usable in the body. It supports normal cell reproduction, required for maintenance of good vision, immune system function and keeping skin healthy. It is also a powerful anti-oxidant protecting cell membranes and tissue linings from free-radical damage. Deficiency shows as inability to see well in the dark, also known as dark blindness.

Top 10 High Vitamin A Whole Foods

  1. Carrots
  2. Butternut Squash
  3. Sweet Potato
  4. Spinach
  5. Cantaloupe
  6. Lettuce
  7. Red Bell Peppers
  8. Pink Grapefruit
  9. Broccoli
  10. Eggs

9. Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine): Vitamin B6 is a water-soluble vitamin, which means that it’s easily dissolved in the body, and the kidneys remove excess amounts by excreting via your urine. It’s a cofactor necessary for activating amino acids into neurotransmitters that aid in mental stability, including Dopamine, Serotonin, GABA, and Melatonin.  B6 in ample amounts can reduce homocysteine, and support antioxidant levels which reduce inflammation and, combine with serine, to produce the powerhouse antioxidant Glutathione.

Interesting fun fact, your dreams and dream recall serve as a good indicator of your need for Vitamin B6. You should dream and remember your dreams most nights. If you don’t remember your dreams, or if you have disturbing stressful, or weird dreams or nightmares, you probably need more Vitamin B6.  Supplementing with Vitamin B6, will improve your dream recall and quality. Important to know that if you decided to supplement B6, ensure you take the activated form know as P5P (pyridoxyl-5-phosphate) to ensure better absorption and utilization. But it works best when taken with Magnesium, Zinc, B2 and other B vitamins, so I would recommend taking a B-Complex.

Top 10 High Vitamin B6 Whole Foods

  1. Wild Caught Salmon
  2. Lean Chicken / Turkey
  3. Sweet Potatoes
  4. Bananas
  5. Avocados
  6. Pistachio Nuts
  7. Baked Brussels Sprouts
  8. Spinach (Cooked)
  9. Potatoes (with Skin)
  10. Carrots

10. Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin): Vitamin B12 is a necessary water-soluble vitamin for making DNA and creating energy in our cell. It’s manufactured by the human intestinal bacteria and essential for the metabolism of the nerve tissues and the health of the whole nervous system. It is essential for mental health, for the maintenance of brain tissue and neurotransmitters. Is has the most significant research backing its role in reducing anxiety and supporting healthy neurological function. It has a vital role in the production of myelin, the protective coating of our nerves. Low stomach acid, as well as stress, the increase use of antacids and heartburn medications, and a poorly administered vegan diet put you at risk for B12 deficiency. Important that it you’re going to supplement, I recommend to supplement with the methylated version of B12, so look for methylcobalamin supplements.  

Top 10 High Vitamin B12 Whole Foods

  1. Clams
  2. King Crab
  3. Organ Meats
  4. Scallops
  5. Cod
  6. Eggs (Yolk)
  7. Sardines
  8. Beef (Skirt Steak) 
  9. Nutritional Yeast
  10. Grass Fed Dairy Products (Swiss Cheese)

11. Vitamin C: Vitamin C is a super popular water-soluble anti-inflammatory vitamin, required for the maintenance of skin, blood vessels, bones & cartilage, and wound healing. One of the least stable vitamins, so it’s easily destroyed by cooking and during storage. Used up in the body within four hours so frequent supplementation is recommended. It aids in the metabolism of the amino acid Tyrosine, which is used to make Dopamine. Vitamin C also aids the metabolism of Folate and Tryptophan, which is a building block for Serotonin synthesis. It supports and stimulates adrenal function, Cortisol and Epinephrine. It also improves iron absorption, and it reduces side effects of certain drugs and heavy metal toxicity.

Top 10 High Vitamin C Whole Foods

  1. Guavas
  2. Kiwifruit
  3. Bell Peppers
  4. Strawberries
  5. Oranges
  6. Papaya
  7. Broccoli
  8. Tomatoes
  9. Snow Peas
  10. Kale

12. Zinc: Zinc is my second favourite essential mineral forming a component of more than 300 enzymes including digestive enzymes, in the body. Zinc’s role in mental health is twofold, it aids in optimizing stomach acid, which in turn breaks down the amino acid Glutamate required for GABA synthesis. And Zinc also competes with copper for absorption, which has a connection to drive excitatory stress hormones during times of panic.  Zinc is another mood-stabilizing mineral along with Omega-3 and Magnesium that promote the expression of Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF), and thus influence neuroplasticity. It is depleted with stress and anxiety due to demand, and a deficiency is very common so it’s often another mineral that I recommend to supplement. However, I do like to test it first, using the Zinc taste test using liquid Zinc sulfate.

Top 10 High Zinc Whole Foods

  1. Oysters
  2. Grass-Fed Beef and Lamb
  3. Chicken Leg
  4. Hemp Seeds
  5. Lentils
  6. Oatmeal
  7. Pumpkin Seeds
  8. Shiitake Mushrooms
  9. Sesame Seeds
  10. Dark Chocolate

To summarize, I always recommend FOOD FIRST! But if you’re working with a certified health care practitioner and get tested, sometimes supplementation is needed. Worthy of mention that I did not include, processed foods such as fortified cereals, common allergens, and foods that are high in estrogen like Tofu.

So no more excuses, you now know what foods you should be eating for boosting your Mental Health. I have provided you a perfect grocery list, so next time you go to the grocery store, buy these ingredients and make some brain and mood friendly meals for you and your loved ones. Happy shopping and brain-healthy cooking 🙂


LaChance LR, Ramsey D. Antidepressant foods: An evidence-based nutrient profiling system for depression. World J Psychiatry 2018; 8(3): 97-104 [PMID: 30254980 DOI: 10.5498/wjp.v8.i3.97]


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