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Emerging Research in Nutritional Psychiatry

Authored by Esha Shakthy, Nutrition Sciences '25

Art by Ashley Chopra, Human Biology, Health, and Society '24

One in five American adults suffer from mental health issues, anxiety and depression being the most common mental health conditions worldwide [1]. Currently, most treatments for mental health disorders focus on treating the symptoms with prescription drugs. However, in recent years, there has been emerging research in examining the role of nutrition in the development and treatment of mental health disorders. This growing field of Nutritional Psychiatry is very promising as it provides possible alternative interventions for improving mental health and treating psychiatric disorders. Some of the latest insights gained in the field of nutritional psychiatry include the identification of two main treatment targets–gut biome and nutrient deficiencies [2].

Food affects our mood and our mood affects our food choices. For example, serotonin, a neurotransmitter which helps mediate mood, plays a key role in staving off anxiety and depression. Serotonin, dubbed as the happiness hormone, connects the central nervous system with the enteric nervous system in the wall of the gut. Researchers estimate that 95% of serotonin is produced by our gut microbiome. [3]. The gut microbiome, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses found in the gastrointestinal tract, plays an important role in the integrity and functionality of the human digestive system. Studies have shown that alterations in the microbial composition of the gut disrupts the microbiota-gut-brain axis (MGBA), which connects the intestines with the central nervous system, leading to an increased risk of developing a psychiatric disorder [4]. Recent studies have shown that changes in diet, circadian rhythms, and feeding time, such as intermittent fasting, may also play a role in the gut microbiota profile, with potential consequences on mental health outcomes [5]. The International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research (ISNPR) recommends following traditional diets which promote an optimal gut biome composition such as Mediterranean, Scandinavian, or Japanese diets, consisting largely of high fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, along with probiotic supplementation as needed.

Along with improving the gut microbiome, the ISNPR also recommends adequate intake of micronutrients, including Vitamin B9, B6, B12, and Vitamin D. Vitamins B9 (folate), B6, and B12 are essential for DNA and protein synthesis, and therefore, vital for brain development and cognition. Several studies have shown a link between B vitamins and mental health including an investigation where lower serum vitamin B6 and B9 (folate) levels were found in individuals with schizophrenia as compared to non-psychiatric individuals [6]. Studies have also shown that supplementation of vitamins B6 and B12 are protective of depressive symptoms over time for older adults [7]. A deficiency in vitamin D has been shown to be highly prevalent in people with schizophrenia and dementia [8]. Vitamin D, along with its essential role in bone strength and the immune system, is considered a potent neurosteroid hormone critical to brain development and normal brain function. Vitamin D transcriptionally activates the enzyme tryptophan hydroxylase-2 to help synthesize serotonin from the amino acid tryptophan. Therefore, inadequate levels of vitamin D could lead to decreased brain serotonin synthesis, affecting mood and mental health. Studies have shown that severe vitamin D deficiency (< 10 ng/ml) is linked with a higher risk of dementia [8].

Emerging scientific evidence further corroborates the need for a better understanding of the relation between dietary factors and mental health disorders, and suggests that nutritional psychiatry has a big role to play in improving mental health in our community. The Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Uma Naidoo, counts nutritional psychiatry as an overlooked tool in our current repertoire for improving mental health. She states in an interview that nutritional psychiatry does not replace medication or other forms of therapy for mental health, but rather offers broader options by absorbing elements of good nutrition to help alongside the conventional treatments [9].

Works Cited

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, June 28). About mental health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved March 3, 2023, from

  2. Hanson-Baiden, J. (2022, February 10). What is nutritional psychiatry? News. Retrieved March 3, 2023, from

  3. MD, E. S. (2022, September 18). Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Harvard Health. Retrieved March 3, 2023, from

  4. Grosso, G. (2021). Nutritional Psychiatry: How Diet Affects Brain through Gut Microbiota. Nutrients, 13(4), 1282. MDPI AG. Retrieved from

  5. Zhao, E., Tait, C., Minacapelli, C. D., Catalano, C., & Rustgi, V. K. (2021, October 25). Circadian rhythms, the gut microbiome, and Metabolic Disorders. Gastro Hep Advances. Retrieved March 3, 2023, from

  6. Teasdale, S., Mörkl, S., & Müller-Stierlin, A. S. (2020). Nutritional psychiatry in the treatment of psychotic disorders: Current hypotheses and research challenges. Brain, behavior, & immunity - health, 5, 100070.

  7. Skarupski, K. A., Tangney, C., Li, H., Ouyang, B., Evans, D. A., & Morris, M. C. (2010). Longitudinal association of vitamin B-6, folate, and vitamin B-12 with depressive symptoms among older adults over time. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 92(2), 330–335.

  8. Chai, B., Gao, F., Wu, R., Dong, T., Gu, C., Lin, Q., & Zhang, Y. (2019). Vitamin D deficiency as a risk factor for dementia and Alzheimer's disease: an updated meta-analysis. BMC neurology, 19(1), 284.

  9. Good mood food: Is nutritional psychiatry the future of mental health? PSYCHOLOGY FOR ALL. (n.d.). Retrieved March 3, 2023, from

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