Yep, you read that right. A little know fact about vitamin C is that it's a major mood booster. "Many people have heard about how vitamin C can help protect us during cold and flu season. But vitamin C can also protect against poor mental health," says Uma Naidoo, MD, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and professional chef. It's a connection she touches on in her new book, This Is Your Brain On Food. Here, Dr. Naidoo explains the connection between vitamin C and mood, including how to make sure you're getting enough to support your mental health.
How vitamin C and mood are connected
Dr. Naidoo explains that the major reason why vitamin C is a mood-booster is that it's essential for the production of neurotransmitters in the brain. Even if you haven't gone completely down the rabbit hole researching how mood is regulated, there's a good chance you've heard of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is a "happy" brain chemical linked to making us feel energized and plays a vital role in the brain's pleasure and reward systems. Dr. Naidoo explains that not getting enough vitamin C can cause dopamine levels to drop. Scientific studies also show that vitamin C helps convert dopamine into another neurotransmitter called norepinephrine. When norepinephrine levels are low, it can lead to feeling depressed or anxious.
"These neurotransmitters govern things like mood and cognition as well as protecting the brain from inflammation," Dr. Naidoo says. She explains that this is important because a lot of mental health conditions are connected to having underlying inflammation. This is exactly why more psychiatrists are starting to prescribe anti-inflammatory foods to their patients. "One of the keys to managing mental health is by focusing on the gut," Dr. Naidoo says. "The mind-gut connection is strong, so it's important to protect the gut from inflammation, and vitamin C can help with that."
Dr. Naidoo says that another way vitamin C is connected to mood is because it affects our energy levels. "When the body is inflamed, this puts stress on the body; it requires energy to protect and fight inflammation," she explains. "So when inflammation is reduced, you can expect your energy to improve as well." If you've ever experienced a bad bout of digestive distress, you know how energy depleted it can make you feel. Same goes for when your body is fighting off a nasty cold. So even though vitamin C doesn't have calories, it makes sense that it still affects energy levels.
How to get enough vitamin C to benefit your mental health
Of course there are a lot of factors that play into one's mood; vitamin C is just one. So how do you know if that's the issue you need to focus on in order to better your mental health? Dr. Naidoo says that if you are consistently feeling depressed or anxious, it's important to talk to both a doctor and a therapist. A therapist can help see what factors outside of health may be influencing mood. A doctor, Dr. Naidoo says, can do a clinical assessment to see if you are low in vitamin C (and other nutrients) to find out if that could be playing a role. For example, being deficient in vitamin D can also affect someone's mood.
If your doctor does tell you that you need to up your vitamin C, the good news is that it's relatively easy to do so. The key is knowing what foods are the best sources. Dr. Naidoo says that in general, you want to aim to get between 65 milligrams and 90 milligrams of vitamin C a day. "There are so many foods that can help you reach this," she says. Some she often recommends to patients are citrus fruits, red bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli.
One orange alone has 82 milligrams of vitamin C—an entire day's worth. One bell pepper has 342 milligrams, a serving of Brussels sprouts has 85 milligrams, and a serving of broccoli has 89 milligrams. See how easy it is to get enough?
Again, vitamin C isn't the only factor that affects mood. Heck, it isn't even the only nutrient that affects mood. But if you're not getting enough vitamin C, it certainly can lead to a dip in both mood and energy. That means it's something to make sure you're getting enough of always, not just when you're sick. When you eat foods high in vitamin C, your whole body will benefit—brain included!
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