9 Startling Nutrient Deficiencies That Cause Depression

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An unhealthy diet affects not just your physical but mental health as well. As an organ that accounts for 25% of our metabolic demands, the brain needs constant nourishment that can’t be met with junk food. So along with medication, consume specific nutrient-rich foods to get better results in reducing the risk of depression.

Working for mental health and addiction, I appreciate the impact of lifestyle choices (diet/nutrition, stress reduction and leisure) on mental health, including depression, seasonal effective disorder (SAD), anxiety, and even bipolar disease.

What we eat and drink directly affects the structure of the brain that, in turn, influences the brain’s function. This includes both the synthesis and function of neurotransmitters as well as the presence or absence of inflammation. Most psychiatrists fail to appreciate the role of nutrition in mental health. Medication alone cannot help you make up for a crappy diet.

No amount of Paxil, Celexa, Lexapro, or Viibryd will make up for an inadequate intake of iodine, B12, B3, folate or omega-3 fats, or other nutrients.

Now I’m not saying medication has no role in mental health. It’s just unreasonable to think that you can have optimal psychological and emotional health without addressing your underlying biology. So whether you’re using talk therapy, medication, or both to manage mental health, you will get better results if the physical health is addressed as well.

How Important Is Feeding Your Brain?

Serotonin, dopamine, and norepinepherine are the three neurotransmitters that concern mental health. The building blocks for these guys are amino acids derived from protein; a nutrient that most of us easily get in adequate amounts (except for homeless, elderly, and those with addiction, for example).

Improving your diet and using targeted supplements helps improve your mood, with a possibility of reducing or eliminating medication use.

Vitamins and minerals are critical in the synthesis and function of the neurotransmitters. For a steady neurotransmitter production and function, we need optimal amounts of nutrients on a daily basis. A lack of such a diet results in and aggravates mood disorders like depression.1

9 Nutrients Important For Mental Health

1. Omega-3 Fats

Food sources of omega-3 fats are fatty fish, omega-3 fortified eggs, and supplements.

The omega-3 fat DHA is critical for brain cell (neuron) structure. If your diet doesn’t have enough of it, other fats will take its place, such as trans fat, which spells trouble. Trans fat increases inflammation, which in turn increases the risk of depression.

The other main omega-3 fat EPA helps with neuron function and also reduces inflammation, which is why research supports the role of omega-3 fats in reducing the symptoms of depression (and other mood disorders).

2. Iodine

This can be thought of as the new vitamin D. Iodine is critical for a healthy thyroid, the master of metabolism (i.e., cellular fitness). Most of us don’t get enough of iodine as it has largely been removed from our food supply. The average iodine intake has reduced from about 800 mcg per day to 138–350 mcg per day.

  • Good food sources include seaweed, cod, and iodized salt.
  • Moderate food sources include milk, yogurt, and eggs.

While the average intake can stave off an overt deficiency, it likely won’t be enough for optimal functioning of physiological processes. If you go for supplements, opt a good-quality one that provides at least an RDA of 150 mcg.

3. Zinc

This is a tireless ally involved in over 250 separate biochemical pathways, or reactions, that support just about every function. It is critical for neurotransmitter production and function.

Good food sources include oysters, crab, beef, lamb, pork, dark meat, chicken, legumes, cashews, and a good-quality multivitamin with minerals.

Zinc is also needed for healthy digestion and a strong immune system, most of which is found in the digestive tract. A healthy digestive tract equals optimal mental health since 90% of serotonin and 50% of dopamine is produced in the small intestines.

4. Magnesium

Like zinc, magnesium is required for over 300 separate biochemical pathways, or reactions, needed for healthy bones and teeth, reduced anxiety, lower blood pressure, and reduced risk of diabetes to name a few. Most of us only get about half of the recommended magnesium amount.

Good food sources include nuts and seeds, dark green vegetables, whole grains, bran, and dark chocolate.

Magnesium helps activate the enzymes needed for serotonin, dopamine, and norepinepherine production. The supplements can help people meet their minimum daily requirement on a consistent basis, thus helping reduce depression by avoiding magnesium deficiency.

5. Vitamin D

Most people don’t get enough of this vitamin. The brain loves vitamin D and has loads of vitamin D receptors just waiting for their payload.

The few natural food sources available include oil/fatty fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, and trout and eggs to a lesser extent.

Vitamin D deficiency has not only been linked to depression but anxiety, SAD, and dementia as well. Supplementation is the only viable option to raise vitamin D levels enough to lower the risk of depression.

6. Selenium

Like iodine, selenium is needed for good thyroid function. Often, just increasing selenium intake can improve early symptoms of low thyroid function. A healthy thyroid supports mental health including reducing the risk for depression.

Good food sources include Brazil nuts, fish, ham, shrimp, liver, and chicken.

Selenium helps convert the inactive thyroid hormone T4 to the active form T3. It also helps make the master antioxidant and detoxifying compound glutathione. Increasing glutathione levels has been shown to reduce depression, likely because glutathione reduces inflammation in the brain.

7. Iron

Iron deficiency is more common in women than in men due to losses via menstruation. The most common form of anemia is iron deficiency and its symptoms are similar to depression: fatigue, irritability, apathy, brain fog, and lack of motivation and appetite. Such a broad range of symptoms can lead to a misdiagnosis and aggravate any existing legitimate depression symptoms.

Good food sources are beef, pork, lamb, dark meat chicken, eggs, liver, oysters, and white beans.

Eating foods rich in vitamin C along with iron-rich foods helps to increase the absorption of iron. For women, a multivitamin with minerals typically provides 8–12 mg of iron. Men should choose a multi that is iron-free.

8. B Complex

This typically includes about 11 B vitamins, all of which are involved in neurotransmitter production and function. Some, like B12, are needed to help maintain brain mass, a.k.a. prevent brain shrinkage—a cause of dementia. Depression is a classic B12 deficiency symptom.

Other B vitamins important for mental health include B1, B6, B3, and folate. Folate, along with B12 and B6, helps to lower the levels of homocysteine, a by-product of protein metabolism. Elevated levels of homocysteine increase the risk of depression.

B vitamins are found in whole grains, nuts and seeds, dark green vegetables, and meat.

For dietary folate to be effective, it needs to be converted to its active form 5-MTHR; however, about 66% of the population don’t do this effectively because they have a mutation in the gene [5-MTHF reductase] that metabolizes folate into 5-MTHF, putting them at a 180% increased risk of folate deficiency.

9. Vitamin C

Vitamin C deficiency usually causes conditions like scurvy and bleeding, swollen, and achy gums all of which resolve within a week after the initiation of vitamin C supplements. But one of the more common symptoms of vitamin C deficiency is depression.

Good food sources include citrus, kiwi, bell peppers, and strawberries.

Nearly 20% percentage of the population can be functionally vitamin C deficient not only because of their diet but also because they have a gene mutation that doesn’t allow them to absorb and metabolize the vitamin properly. This puts them at a 150% increased risk of vitamin C deficiency.

In a nutshell, food feeds the brain. Optimal mental health cannot be realized if the underlying biology of mood regulation and the structure and function of the brain isn’t addressed. Feeding your brain and enhancing an optimal sense of well-being is as close as your grocery store!

References   [ + ]

1. Du, Jing, Ming Zhu, Hongkun Bao, Bai Li, Yilong Dong, Chunjie Xiao, Grace Y. Zhang, Ioline Henter, Matthew Rudorfer, and Benedetto Vitiello. “The role of nutrients in protecting mitochondrial function and neurotransmitter signaling: implications for the treatment of depression, PTSD, and suicidal behaviors.” Critical reviews in food science and nutrition just-accepted (2014): 00-00.
Doug Cook

I am a Registered Dietitian & Integrative & Functional Nutritionist and former Certified Diabetes Educator with over 15 years of clinical nutrition experience. I practice a holistic and integrative approach providing science-based guidance on food and diet along with nutritional supplements where appropriate. My strength lies in my ability to explain complicated nutrition and scientific concepts in plain language which I then put into everyday practical dietary advice. I have a unique approach to nutrition counselling. I have the solid education & training of a dietitian but know that there are many points of views outside this model, and I incorporate them into my practice.

Doug Cook

I am a Registered Dietitian & Integrative & Functional Nutritionist and former Certified Diabetes Educator with over 15 years of clinical nutrition experience. I practice a holistic and integrative approach providing science-based guidance on food and diet along with nutritional supplements where appropriate. My strength lies in my ability to explain complicated nutrition and scientific concepts in plain language which I then put into everyday practical dietary advice. I have a unique approach to nutrition counselling. I have the solid education & training of a dietitian but know that there are many points of views outside this model, and I incorporate them into my practice.

Post a Comment
OmShankar 5pts

I understand Curejoy as a supporter of Ayurvedic lifestyle and vegetarian diet (since Ayurveda supports only vegetarian)

Now that you have a Western author writing this article, you could have, looking at your reputation, suggested vegetarian alternatives to all the 9 pointers above.

This was missing, otherwise the article is nice.

ukrainiansoul 5pts

In my experience, there was no end to extremely low energy, depression and brain fog until I quit eating wheat and any product with even the tiniest bit of wheat, along with sugar and its various forms---from corn sugar to honey.

After I did that, I also found that potatoes, corn and rice made me feel bad. Within two weeks, my symptoms cleared. I highly recommend reading The Primal Blueprint, anything by Gary Taubes, and Wheat Belly. Supplements are important, but not as important as withdrawing from the opiate mimicking effects of wheat on the body.

I take the above supplements, along with probiotics to mend the damage to my gut from years of eating grains I couldn't process.
I'd had celiac testing, which was negative. My MD said there are a large number of people who are sensitive to grains, but the celiac testing isn't nearly as sensitive to the people!

Ann Egan
Ann Egan 5pts

Are there vitamin supplements that can be taken to enhance the diet

momof8kids 5pts

As far as content is concerned, you're missinf several important neurotransmitters that play a role in mental health. So many focus on serotonin, and you expanded a bit from that, but you're missing glutamate, aspartate, D-serine, GABA (low levels can cause anxiety even in the presence of normal serotonin, so when doctors treat with an SSRI this can make matters worse), glycine, epinephrine, and histamine. Food is, of course, important, but it is also important to point out that people have different genetics and process nutrients differently, so testing is important.

RebeccaBlackBowden 5pts

I love the information, but please have it edited... The errors are obnoxious. I hate sharing things online that are poorly written.

LouFlanaganCesario 5pts

My Dr told me that they have not proven vitamins really work.

Also they only stay in your system for a few hours.

kinkinyoursteel 5pts

@LouFlanaganCesario @LouFlanaganCesario  Oh wow. That's got to be false and, I would think, is a commonly pushed idea by those high up in the medical field/big pharma since it might affect the sale of prescription medications. If that were to be true, wouldn't the same vitamins we intake from actual food-that have been scientifically proven to aid our bodies-end up out of our bodies within a few hours as well? I now want to do more research on this claim. Also, if it were true that it has yet to be proven, how can they claim they only have a brief stay in one's system? I get that it's plausible, but it just doesn't add up.

Kristen Perez
Kristen Perez 5pts

My post partum depression was caused by nutritional deficiency.

Anastasia Sideris
Anastasia Sideris 5pts

Unfortunately there are a lot of people out there who will just take the prescribed medication given to them by their doctor, BUT, need to help/heal their gut before even those drugs will be of any value to them....Great tips here.

Emily S Palmer
Emily S Palmer 5pts

I recommend a good book: The Way Up from Down by Dr. Priscilla Slagle. Really, really helped me. Published in 1987 but right on the mark for me.

Tracie Bivins
Tracie Bivins 5pts

In the last 30 years, depression rates have gone through the roof, yet the treatments for it have remained the same. Einstein said that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the very definition of insanity. Therefore, you cannot expect rates of depression in the world to fall or the problem to be addressed properly until we radically change the treatment methods for it. This is why natural treatments such as the http://destroydepression.com/info.html system should get more exposure, because it tackles the root causes of depression through natural methods, rather than just treating the symptoms with medication.

Martha Macias
Martha Macias 5pts


Karen Antcliff-Vale
Karen Antcliff-Vale 5pts

If you live in the Great Lakes area, Unless you are taking these supplements, most likely you are deficient...especially vitamin. D, magnesium and iodine.

JaniceRichards 5pts

So nice to see good advice instead of the usual "take this pill" rubbish the media spew out. Depression is a DAILY struggle; it takes hard work to overcome it but there are natural treatments which are very effective. For anyone suffering from depression, I recommend the http://destroydepression.com/info.html system. Written by James Gordon, a former depression & PTSD sufferer, it teaches 7 natural steps which he used to cure his own depression and has helped thousands.

Karen Antcliff-Vale
Karen Antcliff-Vale 5pts

Many ways...including some lines of work, like welding, lead water pipes, leaded gasoline, mercury in you fillings and fish that you eat,cadmium from smoking cigarettes, and many others.my husband and I had heavy metal testing...he was off-the-chart in mercury and I was in lead, mercury and cadmium. We did chelation for a couple of years to get them down. Also, trace mineral deficiencies, such as zinc can cause a wide range of mental disorders. A book by William J. Walsh, Nutrient Power is very informative.

Girish Venkatesh
Girish Venkatesh 5pts

You'll be missed viru, really I cried when yo u announced your retirement,.

Bindu Kemmu
Bindu Kemmu 5pts

Very useful and true information thanks A but many times we have to take supplements pl tell how long it can be taken.

Rachel Wolfe
Rachel Wolfe 5pts

Great and helpful information, thank you for sharing \U0001f600

Parveen Kamal
Parveen Kamal 5pts

Thanks for sharing Jordank Addiep...\U0001f60a

Jordank Addiep
Jordank Addiep 5pts

I know how it feels to be depressed, at one point I tried killing myself twice in one week :( If you are stressed I would highly recommend everybody learn how to meditate because ever since I have started I have never been happier. I have improved my life drastically. I have an overall sense of peace with myself and the world. My stress levels have gone to an all time low and It even helps me with my anxiety and panic attacks. If you want to learn how to meditate I suggest you read this story. http://anxiousreview.com/learnmeditation/