These 7 nutritional deficiencies are linked to depression

Depression is a mental illness that ranges from mild to severe. It causes you to feel sad or down, and often to lose interest in doing things you used to enjoy. Severe depression can make it hard to concentrate and increase thoughts of harming yourself.

Anyone can have depression, so it’s important to talk to your doctor about symptoms. Treatments and medicines can help. It’s also wise to check your diet because these nutritional deficiencies can play a part in depression.

1. Omega-3 Fats

Omega-3 fats are essential fats, which means you have to get them in your diet — your body can’t make them. Your brain needs omega-3 fats to work well. People who get more omega-3 fats in their diet appear to have fewer depressive symptoms. But studies are ongoing to determine whether omega-3s affect or are affected by depression.

The best sources of omega-3s are oily, cold-water fish like:

  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Mackerel
  • Anchovies

If you don’t eat fish, add more walnuts, flaxseeds, and leafy green veggies to your diet. These also provide omega-3 fats.

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2. Folate

This vitamin, also known as folic acid or vitamin B9, helps your body make neurotransmitters. These chemical messengers send signals from your brain to the rest of your body. Some neurotransmitters (like serotonin and dopamine) help regulate your mood and emotions.

Studies show people with depression often have low levels of folate in their blood. That means people with low folate levels may be more likely to get depressed. But further research is needed to fully understand how that relationship works.

Leafy green vegetables and beans are among the best dietary sources of folate. Some small studies show that taking a methylated form of folic acid may help people when an antidepressant alone isn’t effective. But broad use of this practice is not currently supported.

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for folate is 400 mcg a day for adults. Pregnant women need 600 mcg, and those who are breastfeeding should get 500 mcg.

3. Vitamin B12

You also need healthy levels of vitamin B12 to make neurotransmitters, which may help keep inflammation in check. Low levels of this vitamin appear to be linked to depression, dementia, and poor brain function. The specific connection is still being investigated.

Vitamin B12 is plentiful in animal foods like:

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Dairy foods

Because plants don’t have this vitamin, a vegan diet probably doesn’t provide enough. Older adults and those with digestive conditions like celiac or Crohn’s disease may not absorb enough vitamin B12 from food. If you are in either of these groups, ask your doctor if you need a supplement.

Adults should get 2.4 mcg of vitamin B12 each day. Pregnant women need 2.6 mcg, and those who are breastfeeding should get 2.8 mcg.

4. Vitamin D

It’s known as the “sunshine vitamin” because your body makes vitamin D when you expose your skin to sunlight. Many people experience mild depression in the winter months, and lower vitamin D levels may play a part. Some studies have shown depressive symptoms may improve with vitamin D supplementation.

This vitamin isn’t widespread in most diets. It’s found mainly in:

  • Fatty fish like salmon, rainbow trout, and sardines
  • Fortified milk
  • Eggs
  • Mushrooms exposed to ultraviolet light

You might not get enough vitamin D if you don’t eat these foods regularly, or you live where it’s often cloudy. If that’s you, consider asking your doctor about taking a vitamin D supplement.

Children and adults under the age of 70 need 600 IU (15 mcg) of vitamin D each day. If you’re over age 70, you need 800 IU (20 mcg) daily. Vitamin D is stored in your body, so don’t take a higher dose unless your doctor recommends it.

5. Protein

A protein deficiency is uncommon, but you might not eat the right kinds of protein. Protein foods supply amino acids. Your body uses these to make neurotransmitters — some of which play a role in your feelings of happiness and well-being.

You need the amino acids tyrosine and tryptophan to make the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Without these neurotransmitters, you can experience a low mood and feelings of aggression.

You get plenty of these amino acids from animal proteins, quinoa, and soy.

If you don’t eat those, you can rely on other plant proteins, which contain these amino acids in lower amounts. But it’s crucial to eat a good amount — and variety — of plant proteins every day, including:

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Beans
  • Whole grains

6 & 7. Selenium and Iodine

Hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid, is an often-overlooked reason for mild to moderate depression. Your thyroid regulates the metabolic functions in your body. When it’s not working well, you can experience subtle symptoms, including feeling more tired and depressed.

Your thyroid needs enough selenium and iodine to make thyroid hormones. But getting too much of these trace minerals from supplements may be harmful. Instead, try to eat more fish and seafood — most types have both minerals along with healthy omega-3 fats.

The RDA for selenium is 55 mcg a day for adults and 60 mcg for pregnant women. If you’re breastfeeding, you need 70 mcg. The RDA for iodine is 150 mcg a day for adults and 220 mcg for pregnant women. Breastfeeding moms need 290 mcg daily.

No one nutrient is more important than the rest for depression. And there’s no magic bullet that can cure depression. However, nourishing your brain with a healthy and well-rounded diet can be useful in your journey to feel better.

For more information, call UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital at 1-877-624-4100 or 412-624-1000.

Nutrients. Longitudinal association between n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid intake and depressive symptoms: A population-based cohort study in Japan. LINK

BMC Psychiatry. The relationship between dietary patterns and depression mediated by serum levels of Folate and vitamin B12. LINK

Perspectives in Psychiatric Care. Enhancement of recovery from mental illness with l-methylfolate supplementation. LINK

Journal of Postgraduate Medicine. Efficacy of vitamin D supplementation in major depression: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. LINK

Indian Journal of Psychiatry. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. LINK

Institute of Medicine Food and Nutrition Board Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) Recommended Dietary Allowances and Adequate Intakes, Vitamins. LINK

Institute of Medicine Food and Nutrition Board Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) Recommended Dietary Allowances and Adequate Intakes, Elements. LINK

National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Selenium. LINK

National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements.. Iodine. LINK

National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Folate. LINK

National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin B12. LINK

National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin D. LINK

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.