Depression and Your Diet

Deficiencies in Certain Nutrients Can Play a Role in Depression

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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 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

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 lead to a variety of disorders including irritability and symptoms of depression. One study found that thiamine supplements might help counteract the time lag of antidepressants for people with major depressive disorder.

Natural food sources of vitamin B1 include:

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

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 B5 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:

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

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

Vitamin B6 deficiencies, although very rare, cause impaired immunity, skin lesions, and mental confusion. A marginal deficiency sometimes occurs in people with moderate to severe alcohol use disorder, people with kidney failure, and women using oral contraceptives.

Food sources of vitamin B6 include:

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

Vitamin B12

A vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to a variety of neurologic and psychiatric symptoms. Because vitamin B12 is important for red blood cell formation, a deficiency can also cause anemia. 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:

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

Vitamin B9 (Folate)

Vitamin B9 is needed for DNA synthesis. It is also necessary for the production of SAM (S-adenosyl methionine). A poor diet, illness, heavy alcohol use, 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:

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

Vitamin C

When too little vitamin C plays a role in depression symptoms, supplements may help. While there are currently more animal than human studies showing the effects of vitamin C on depression, one small study of young male students linked higher levels with an improved overall mood and lower levels with increased depression, anger, and confusion.

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:

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

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is important to the body in many ways. Your body needs this key vitamin to absorb calcium. What's more, your bones need it to stay healthy and strong, your cells need it to grow, your nerves need it to carry messages between the brain and other body parts, and your immune system needs it to fend off viruses and bacteria.

The “sunshine vitamin” also plays a role in mental health.

More and more research has shed light on the link between a lack of vitamin D and depression.

One meta-analysis found that people with depression have low vitamin D levels and people with low vitamin D have a much greater risk of depression. While the best way to absorb vitamin D is through sun exposure, dietary supplements and certain foods are also viable sources. 

Food sources of vitamin D include:

  • Beef liver
  • Cheese
  • Egg yolks
  • Fatty fish (e.g., salmon, tuna, mackerel)
  • Fortified foods (e.g., milk, non-dairy milk, juice, yogurt, cereals)
  • Mushrooms

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 moderate to severe alcohol use disorder, as well as certain medication that interferes with the absorption of magnesium in your small intestine, can also cause a deficiency.

A deficiency of this essential mineral has been linked with personality changes, including apathy, depression, agitation, confusion, anxiety, and delirium.

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).

A diet low in calcium has also been shown to increase self-rated depression in middle-aged women.

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 impair calcium absorption.

Food sources of calcium include:

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

Selenium

Selenium is a trace mineral, which means that your body only needs a small amount. Selenium is essential for normal thyroid function, reproduction, and DNA synthesis. One study linked too high and too low levels of selenium in young people to an increased risk of symptoms of depression.

Selenium is often found in multivitamins as well as in the forms of selenomethionine, selenium-enriched yeast, or sodium selenite. It's still unknown how well the body absorbs selenium in supplement form.

Food sources of selenium include:

  • Breads, cereals, and other grain products
  • Dairy products
  • Eggs
  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Seafood

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:

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

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.

One study found that 72% of participants with depression had iron deficiency anemia (IDA) compared to 16% of non-depressed participants. Researchers also linked the severity of depression symptoms to an increase in IDA.

Food sources of iron include:

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

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.

Research has linked both manganese deficiency and an over-abundance of the trace mineral to the development of depressive disorders.

Food sources of manganese include:

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

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.

A recent study found that a diet low in potassium and high in sodium may predict future depression in adolescents.

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

Food sources of potassium include:

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

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.

If you or a loved one are struggling with depression, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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