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Supplements surrounded by whole foods.

The most effective approach for building and maintaining good health is sticking close to what nature intended. And when it comes to mental health, the most natural way to balance brain chemistry is to start with diet.

The brain gets the raw ingredients it needs to function optimally from what we consume, and Mother Nature has perfectly packaged those ingredients into whole foods.

But let’s face it, none of us eats healthfully all the time. And even when we try, it’s still possible to fall behind for one of these reasons:

  • Our food may lack essential nutrients because of soil depletion or processing.
  • We might not be eating our food when it’s at its freshest and most nutritious.
  • Poor digestion and absorption may reduce our intake of healthy nutrients.
  • The chemicals that affect our mood may be depleted because of our stressful lives, or because we are genetically prone to some sort of imbalance.

So even when we make wise food choices, there are times when we might need an extra boost.

Life Support

Supplements can be beneficial when we’re experiencing prolonged stress, for instance, or recovering from a bout of depression or insomnia. They are not, however, an excuse to eat poorly.

They are also not meant to be taken forever: When you start feeling balanced again, chances are you no longer need them and can taper off.

These are the basic supplements I recom­mend for brain health. They all can be taken with meals and are safe to be used occasionally, seasonally, or indefinitely. (To learn more about the following supplements and others, visit “Supplements”.)

Multivitamin or B Complex

B vitamins build neurotransmitters, produce cellular energy, and soften the effects of stress. Look for products containing “activated” (i.e., methylated) B vitamins. And if you aren’t eating loads of fresh vegetables and fruits, consider a high-quality multivitamin that also offers key minerals. Either way, choose a brand that provides at least 10 mg of B6, 200 mcg of folate, and 250 mcg of B12.

Omega-3s

Omega-3 fats reduce inflammation and improve the function of brain-cell membranes. Fish oil is the most efficient source, but be sure it is distilled (to avoid toxins) and includes both EPA and DHA. Good vegetarian sources of omega-3s include walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and pumpkinseeds.

Vitamin D3

Unless you get 15 to 20 minutes of sun daily — and many of us don’t — you may need to supplement to get enough vitamin D. This supports hundreds of biological functions, including mood. I recommend 5,000 IU daily from October through April.

Magnesium

Magnesium threonate (a brain-friendly form) has been especially helpful for some of my patients. It supports serotonin production and calms brain activity, so I recommend it for anxiety, insomnia, or muscle tension. A good dose range is 400 to 600 mg daily. Magnesium can work as a mild laxative; if your stools become loose, simply reduce the dose.

Probiotics

Yogurt, kefir, and other foods with live cultures are rich sources of probiotics. If you have recently taken antibiotics, suffer from gut issues, or simply are not recovering from mood or anxiety problems, I recommend adding a good-quality probiotic supplement that is either refrigerated or shelf-stable. (For more on finding quality probiotics, visit “Everything You Need to Know About Probiotics”.)

Though we are more than our brain chemistry, we are partly our brain chemistry. With that in mind, let’s do what we can to nurture and restore ourselves in all our elegant complexity, focusing first on whole foods and then supplements, when necessary.

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Experience LifeLife Time’s whole-life health and fitness magazine.

Henry
Henry Emmons, MD

Henry Emmons, MD is an integrative psychiatrist and the author of The Chemistry of Joy, The Chemistry of Calm, and Staying Sharp. He is the cofounder of NaturalMentalHealth.com.

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