10 Nutritional Deficiencies That Link to Depression

If you're feeling down or depressed, it could be what you're eating - or not eating. Vitamin deficiencies affect mood by altering the synthesis of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters that allow communication between nerve cells. If you're sad, lack energy, or are dealing with sleep problems, you could need more of one of these groups of vitamins.

1.     Omega-3 Fatty Acids

These essential minerals reduce inflammation and play a critical role in brain function, especially memory and mood. The body can’t make them, so you need to either eat them or take supplements.

  • Eat more: Oily fish such as trout, salmon, mackerel and sardines. Flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts are also good sources.

2.     Vitamin B Complex

The B vitamins are closely involved in energy metabolism, and deficiencies of B vitamins especially thiamin, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 can impact your mental health and relate to symptoms of depression. It's not necessarily an issue of bad diet either. You can eat a healthy diet and still be deficient in B vitamins if you don't absorb them properly.

Older people and vegetarians are more likely to have low levels of vitamin B12, each for different reasons. Vitamin B12 is most common in meat and dairy products, which vegetarians don't eat - and older people don't absorb B12 as well because they have lower levels of hydrochloric acid in their stomach.

Thiamin and vitamin B6 deficiency aren't very common, but older people and anyone with an eating disorder who eats a poor diet is at risk. The best sources of vitamin B6 are poultry, seafood, bananas, and leafy green vegetables. Alcoholics are also at a greater risk of a deficiency in B vitamins, because they eat a nutritionally poor diet - and because they can't absorb them as well.

  • Eat more: Legumes, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegies, eggs, chicken, red meat.

  • Eat less: Refined grains and processed foods.

3.     Vitamin D 

Vitamin D deficiency is surprisingly common, especially among the older population. Most of our levels drop off during the fall and winter months, since sunlight is the richest source. There are very few food sources of vitamin D (salmon, sardines, tuna, eggs, shiitake mushrooms). In fact, it is impossible for adults to get sufficient vitamin D from diet alone, no matter how good their nutrition. The best way to ensure that you are getting sufficient vitamin D is by taking a supplement. The type of vitamin D you should purchase is vitamin D3 (also called cholecalciferol). 

According to a study published on Medscape.com, the risk of depression is 2 to 3 times greater in people with low vitamin D levels, especially among older people. No one knows exactly how vitamin D raises the risk of depression, but some researchers speculate it's related to higher levels of parathyroid hormone in vitamin D deficient people. Higher parathyroid levels have been linked with depression.

4.     Iron

The most common form of anemia — an insufficient number of red blood cells — is caused by iron deficiency. Its symptoms are similar to depression: fatigue, irritability, brain fog. Good sources of iron include red meat, fish, and poultry. If you really want to get more red blood cells, eat liver. 

5.     Magnesium

Chances are good that you are magnesium-deficient. Years ago, most people got plenty of magnesium from eating plant foods, but in recent years, the soil has become depleted of magnesium. This depletion, as well as the tendency to reach for processed foods over fresh natural foods has caused many people to become deficient. Our lifestyles decrease our levels: excess alcohol, salt, coffee, sugar, phosphoric acid (in soda), chronic stress, antibiotics, and diuretics (water pills). Magnesium is sometimes referred to as the stress antidote and is found in seaweed, greens, and beans. 

6.     Amino Acids

Amino acids — the building blocks of protein — help your brain properly function. A deficiency in amino acids may cause you to feel sluggish, foggy, unfocused, and depressed. Good sources of amino acids include beef, eggs, fish, beans, seeds, and nuts.

7.     Zinc

Zinc is used by more enzymes (and we have over 300) than any other mineral. It is crucial to many of our systems. It activates our digestive enzymes so that we can break down our food, and works to prevent food allergies (which, in turn, averts depression in some people, since some of our mood disruptions are triggered by food allergies). It also helps our DNA to repair and produce proteins. Finally, zinc helps control inflammation and boosts our immune system. Good sources of zinc include beef, lamb, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, lentils, garbanzo beans, cashews, turkey, quinoa, and shrimp.

8.     Iodine

Iodine deficiency can be a big problem because iodine is critical for the thyroid to work as it should, and the thyroid affects more than you think: your energy, metabolism, body temperature, growth, immune function, and brain performance (concentration, memory, and more). When it’s not functioning properly, you can feel very depressed, among other things. You can get iodine by using an iodine-enriched salt, or by eating dried seaweed, shrimp, or cod.

9.     Selenium

Like iodine, selenium is important for good thyroid function. It assists the conversion of inactive thyroid hormone T4 to the active thyroid hormone, T3. It also helps one of our important antioxidants (glutathione peroxidase) keep polyunsaturated acids in our cell membranes from getting oxidized (rancid). The best food source of selenium is Brazil nuts, which contains about 544 mcg of selenium per ounce.

10.     Folate

Folate is one of the B vitamins (also known as B9), which is well known to be crucial to emotional and mental well-being. It is linked to the production of some of the "feel good" chemicals in the brain and play a role in the production of neurotransmitters such as: serotonin, dompamine and norepinephrine. Folate deficiencies are especially frequent in patients who don’t respond to conventional antidepressants. Some studies also indicate that folic acid may be a very helpful add-on to other prescription antidepressants. Folate is found in foods such as spinach, broccoli, lettuce, asparagus, bananas, melons, lemons, beans, peas, nuts, and other foods. Such foods can help keep you healthy for many reasons, and a healthy mind goes with a healthy body.

Symptoms of Depression and Vitamin Deficiency: The Bottom Line?

If you're depressed, it's a good idea to have your naturopathic doctor check levels of B vitamins and vitamin D in your blood, especially if you're over the age of fifty, drink lots of alcohol or eat a vegetarian or non-nutritionally balanced diet.

Depression can be a sign of a medical condition. It's also important to check for iron-deficiency anemia, thyroid problems and diabetes if you're depressed. Consult your medical professional and obtain a physical to rule out medical causes of depression that require specific intervention. If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide related to your depression, get help immediately.

Providing the body with the nutrition it needs is a positive step individuals can take toward combating their condition. With adequate nutrition, we are all better prepared to face the challenges of the day.

Are you curious to know if you are getting all the nutrients your body requires? Do you know what your nutritional needs are and what you should be eating for your biochemical individuality? Take the Kickstarter On-Line Nutritional Assessment here and learn more.


Medscape.com. "Association of Vitamin D Levels With Incident Depression"
Medscape.com: "Nutrition and Depression: The Role of Folate"
Mayo Clinic. "Vitamin B12 and Depression: Are They Related?"