Depression and Your Diet

Deficiencies in Certain Nutrients Can Play a Role in Depression

Mixed salad with roasted tofu, red cabbage, pomegranate seeds, blueberries and curcuma in lunch box
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If you have chronic depression, more than one factor may be causing your symptoms. One of these potential causes is a deficiency in one or more essential nutrients. This could be great news, because along with medication, therapy, and any other treatment your doctor prescribes, making simple changes to your diet may help you to feel better.

Keep in mind too that the body benefits most from vitamins and minerals that come from whole foods rather than pills. In fact, even if you aren't low in any particular nutrient, eating a balanced diet in general, one made up of fresh foods rather than processed ones, can help you feel better overall.

Only a medical professional can determine if you have a nutritional deficiency, so before you fill your fridge with new foods or stock up on supplements, get an official diagnosis.

B-Complex Vitamins

The B vitamins are essential for mental and emotional well-being. They're water-soluble, meaning they can't be stored in the body, so you need to get them through the foods you eat every day. B vitamins may be depleted by alcohol, refined sugars, nicotine, and caffeine. Excesses of any of these can play a part in a B-vitamin deficiency.

Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)

The brain uses vitamin B1 to help convert glucose, or blood sugar, into fuel. Without it, the brain rapidly runs out of energy. Thiamine deficiencies are rare but can accompany alcohol use disorders and can lead to a variety of psychiatric and neurologic symptoms.

Natural food sources of vitamin B1 include:

  • Beans and legumes
  • Dairy products (yogurt)
  • Eggs
  • Meat, poultry, and fish
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Whole grains
  • Acorn squash
  • Asparagus 
  • Beet greens
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Spinach

If you have low levels of vitamin B1, you may want to avoid clams, milled rice, mussels, and shrimp. These foods contain the enzyme thiaminases, which renders thiamine inactive.

Vitamin B3 (Niacin)

A niacin deficiency can cause pellagra, a disease that can cause psychosis and dementia. Because many commercial foods contain niacin, pellagra has virtually disappeared. However, deficiencies in vitamin B3 can produce agitation and anxiety, as well as mental and physical slowness.

Food sources of vitamin B3 include:

  • Dairy products
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Lean meats
  • Legumes
  • Nuts
  • Poultry

Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid)

Deficiencies of vitamin B6 are rare but may lead to fatigue, depression, insomnia, skin irritation, and numbness and tingling in the hands and feet.

Food sources of vitamin B5 include:

  • Yogurt
  • Chicken
  • Milk
  • Lentils
  • Eggs
  • Broccoli
  • Whole-wheat bread
  • Tuna
  • Cod

Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)

Vitamin B6 helps the body process amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins and some hormones. It is needed to make serotonin, melatonin, and dopamine. Vitamin B6 deficiencies, although very rare, cause impaired immunity, skin lesions, and mental confusion. A marginal deficiency sometimes occurs in alcoholics, people with kidney failure, and women using oral contraceptives.

An older class of antidepressants, the monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), has also been linked to deficiencies of vitamin B6, but these aren't prescribed much anymore.

Many nutritionally oriented doctors believe that most diets do not provide optimal amounts of this vitamin.

Food sources of vitamin B6 include:

  • Chickpeas
  • Beef liver
  • Fish (e.g., tuna, salmon)
  • Chicken
  • Potatoes
  • Non-citrus fruits (e.g., bananas)
  • Cottage cheese
  • Squash

Vitamin B12

Because vitamin B12 is important for red blood cell formation, a deficiency can lead to anemia as well as a variety of neurologic and psychiatric symptoms. Deficiencies take a long time to develop, since the body stores a three- to five-year supply in the liver. When shortages do occur, they are often due to a lack of intrinsic factor, an enzyme that allows vitamin B12 to be absorbed in the intestinal tract. This condition is known as pernicious anemia. Since intrinsic factor diminishes with age, older people are more prone to B12 deficiencies.

Food sources of vitamin B12 include:

  • Meat
  • Chicken
  • Fish (e.g., salmon, trout, white tuna)
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Yogurt

Vitamin B9 (Folate)

This B vitamin is needed for DNA synthesis. It is also necessary for the production of SAM (S-adenosyl methionine). A poor diet, illness, alcoholism, and certain drugs can contribute to folate deficiencies. Pregnant women are often advised to take this vitamin to prevent neural tube defects in the developing fetus.

Food sources of folate include:

  • Leafy green vegetables (e.g., spinach, kale, collards, endive)
  • Asparagus
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Beans (e.g., chickpeas, black-eyed peas)
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Peanuts

Vitamin C

When too little vitamin C plays a role in depression symptoms, supplements certainly can help, especially if you've had surgery or an inflammatory disease. Stress, pregnancy, and breastfeeding increase the body's need for vitamin C, while aspirin, tetracycline, and birth control pills can deplete the body's supply.

Food sources of vitamin C include:

  • Oranges
  • Grapefruits
  • Peppers
  • Strawberries
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Kiwi
  • Melon
  • Brussels sprout
  • Tomatoes
  • Potatoes

Minerals

Deficiencies in a number of minerals have been associated with depressive symptoms as well as physical problems.

Magnesium

The fourth most abundant mineral in the human body, magnesium is mostly stored in your bones. While not common, magnesium deficiency can occur if you don't consume enough magnesium-rich foods. Health problems, like diabetes and alcoholism, as well as certain medication that interferes with the absorption of magnesium in your small intestine, can also cause a deficiency.

Food sources of magnesium include:

  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Whole grains

Calcium

Calcium, which is the most abundant mineral in the body, is mostly stored in the bones and teeth where it helps with formation and strength. It also plays a role in muscle contraction, normal nervous system function, blood clotting, and hormonal secretion. Long-term calcium deficiency can lead to a loss of bone density (osteopenia) or brittle, weak bones (osteoporosis). Calcium deficiency can occur from a lack of calcium in your diet as well as an abundance of protein and sodium-rich foods, which are known to secrete calcium from the body.

A lack of vitamin D may also be a culprit; your body needs this sunshine vitamin to absorb calcium.

Food sources of calcium include:

  • Organic milk
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Fatty fish (e.g., salmon)
  • Fortified foods (e.g., non-dairy milk, juice, cereals)

Zinc

You need zinc for normal growth and a healthy immune system. The trace mineral is involved in protein production, DNA synthesis, and cell division. It also helps with your sense of smell and taste. Zinc deficiency, which is rare in children and young adults, may be due to diet as well as problems with absorption, which can be seen in people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Since zinc leaves the body quickly, you need to eat foods that contain zinc daily.

Food sources of zinc include:

  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Seafood (e.g., oysters, crab, lobster)
  • Beans (e.g., baked beans, chickpeas, kidney beans)
  • Nuts (cashews)
  • Seeds (pumpkin seeds)
  • Whole grains
  • Dairy products

Iron

Iron deficiency can impact anyone at any age. In fact, it's among the most common nutritional deficiencies in the world. Iron is essential for the production of hemoglobin, a protein that allows red blood cells to carry oxygen to every part of your body, as well as myoglobin, which is found in your muscle cells.

Food sources of iron include:

  • Beef, chicken, lamb, pork, and turkey
  • Shrimp, clams, and oysters
  • Tofu
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Beans (e.g., pinto beans, black beans, lentils, kidney beans)
  • Broccoli and bok choy
  • Green beans
  • Tomatoes
  • Dried fruit (e.g., apricots, prunes, raisins)
  • Nuts and seeds (raw pumpkin seeds)

Manganese

Although your body does not need much, this trace mineral is required for normal functioning of your brain, nervous system, and many of your body’s enzyme systems. A tiny amount (about 20mg) is stored in your bones, liver, pancreas, and kidneys, and you can also get it from food. People with manganese deficiency, which is extremely rare, often struggle with infertility, bone problems, altered carbohydrate and lipid metabolism, and seizures.

Food sources of manganese include:

  • Pineapple (including raw pineapple or pineapple juice)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Leafy, green vegetables (e.g., spinach, Swiss chard, collard greens, kale)
  • Raspberries and strawberries
  • Summer squash
  • Soybeans, tofu, tempeh
  • Beans (e.g., chickpeas, lima beans, navy beans, pinto beans)
  • Seafood (e.g., mussels, clams, crayfish)
  • Whole grains (e.g., quinoa, brown rice, oats, whole-wheat bread)
  • Spices (e.g., cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, turmeric)

Potassium

Your body requires potassium for optimum health, including proper kidney, heart, and brain function, muscle growth, and nerve transmission.

A deficiency in potassium can result from a low-carb diet and is also linked to certain conditions, including people with kidney disease, diabetes, and inflammatory bowel disease, and people who use laxatives or diuretics.

Getting potassium through your diet is preferred; talk to your health care provider before taking potassium supplements.

Food sources of potassium include:

  • Baked potatoes
  • White beans
  • Nonfat yogurt
  • Baked sweet potatoes
  • Halibut
  • Bananas
  • Prunes and prune juice
  • Clams
  • Tomato products
  • Dried apricots
  • Bok choy

A Word From Verywell

Nutrition is an important and often overlooked part of good mental health. Luckily, tweaking your diet to keep your body and mind healthy doesn't have to be complicated. A nutritionist or dietitian is a great first step to determine if you are low in any of these vitamins and minerals. If you are, you can work together to find easy ways to incorporate more of them into your diet.

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Article Sources

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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