Depression and Your Diet

Deficiencies in Vitamin B and Other Nutrients Can Play a Role in Depression

Vitamin aisle in a store
Darren McCollester / Staff / Getty Images

If you have chronic depression, more than one factor may be causing your symptoms (low mood, lethargy, disinterest in things you typically enjoy doing, and so forth). One of these is a possible 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.

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.

Keep in mind too that the body benefits most from vitamins and minerals that come from food 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, will help you feel better overall.

B-Complex Vitamins

The B vitamins are essential to mental and emotional well-being. They're water-soluble, meaning they can't be stored in the body, so you need to get them in diet daily. 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. Here's how each of the B vitamins may 

Vitamin B1 (thiamine)

The brain uses this vitamin 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 lead to a variety of psychiatric and neurologic symptoms.

Food sources of vitamin B1 include:

  • beans and legumes
  • dairy products (yogurt)
  • eggs
  • meat, poultry, and fish
  • nuts and seeds
  • thiamine-enriched breakfast cereals
  • whole grains
  • acorn squash
  • asparagus 
  • beet greens
  • Brussels sprouts
  • spinach

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

Food sources of vitamin B5 include:

  • yogurt
  • chicken
  • milk
  • lentils
  • eggs
  • broccoli
  • whole-wheat bread
  • tuna
  • cod

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)

This vitamin 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 antidepressant, 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 (tuna, salmon)
  • chicken
  • fortified cereals
  • potatoes
  • non-citrus fruits (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 (salmon, trout, white tuna)
  • eggs
  • milk
  • yogurt
  • fortified cereals

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 folic acid 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 (spinach, kale, collards, endive)
  • asparagus
  • Brussels sprouts
  • beans (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, 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 (salmon)
  • fortified foods (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, maybe due to diet as well as problems with absorption; for example, in people with inflammatory bowel disease. Since zinc leaves the body quickly, you need to eat foods that contain zinc daily.

Food sources of zinc include:

  • meat
  • poultry
  • seafood (oysters, crab, lobster)
  • beans (baked beans, chickpeas, kidney beans)
  • nuts (cashews)
  • seeds (pumpkin seeds)
  • whole grains (oatmeal
  • dairy products (yogurt, milk)

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
  • green, leafy vegetables
  • beans (pinto beans, black beans, lentils, kidney beans)
  • broccoli and bok choy
  • green beans
  • tomatoes
  • dried fruit (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 20 mg) 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 (raw pineapple or pineapple juice)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Leafy, green vegetables (spinach, Swiss chard, collard greens, kale)
  • Raspberries, strawberries
  • Summer squash
  • Soybeans, tofu, tempeh
  • Beans (Garbanzo beans, lima beans, navy beans, pinto beans)
  • Seafood (mussels, clams, crayfish)
  • Grains (quinoa, brown rice, oats, whole-wheat bread)
  • Spices (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 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. And, if you are, you can work together to find easy ways to incorporate more of them in 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.
  • MedlinePlus. Manganese. U.S. National Library of Medicine. December 2018.

  • National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin B12. Updated July 2019.

  • National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin B6. Updated July 2019.

  • National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Zinc. Updated July 2019.