By: David Gutierrez
The neurotransmitter serotonin may be one of the main mechanisms by which vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids help improve mental health, according to a paper authored by researchers from Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute and published in FASEB Journal.
“In this paper we explain how serotonin is a critical modulator of executive function, impulse control, sensory gating, and pro-social behavior,” researcher Rhonda Patrick said. “We link serotonin production and function to vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, suggesting one way these important micronutrients help the brain function and affect the way we behave.”
From depression to schizophrenia
Researchers continue to uncover the myriad ways that vitamin D and omega-3s benefit cognitive and emotional health. Both of these essential nutrients have been linked not only to preventing psychiatric disorders, but also to improving psychiatric symptoms, as well as behavior and cognitive function in patients with certain brain disorders.
For example, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in September 2014 found that vitamin D may help with the recycling of neurotransmitters a brain region responsible for memory and learning, thus helping stave off cognitive decline. Another 2014 study, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, found that vitamin D deficiency could double the risk of schizophrenia.
Various studies have also linked higher omega-3 levels with improved mood and lower rates of psychological disorders. A comprehensive research review published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2010 found that omega-3 supplements significantly improved depression symptoms in patients who also suffered from anxiety and had not responded to antidepressants.
The body naturally produces vitamin D upon exposure to sunlight, whereas omega-3s are found in a variety of foods, most notably fish oil.
The serotonin connection
Although evidence of the brain benefits of vitamin D and omega-3s continues to mount, the mechanism for these benefits have remained elusive. In a prior study, the Oakland researchers discovered that vitamin D helps regulate the synthesis of serotonin from the amino acid tryptophan. In another paper, they noted that this may suggest a connection between poor vitamin D status in children and the development of autism.
In the most recent paper, the authors discuss how serotonin has been shown to play a key role in a wide variety of cognitive processes including decision making, social behavior, impulses and mood. Low serotonin may play a role in brain-related conditions as diverse as mood disorders (depression and bipolar disorder), schizophrenia, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.