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Mood and Food. What's the Link Between Depression and Nutrition?

Few people are aware of the connection between nutrition and depression while they easily understand the connection between nutritional deficiencies and physical illness. Depression is more typically thought of as strictly biochemical-based or emotionally-rooted. On the contrary, nutrition can play a key role in the onset as well as severity and duration of depression. Many of the easily noticeable food patterns that precede depression are the same as those that occur during depression. These may include poor appetite, skipping meals, and a dominant desire for sweet foods.

Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in the United States. In 2017, an estimated 17.3 million adults experienced at least one major depressive episode, with the highest rates found among women and people of two or more races. Though prevalent, it is a serious mood disorder that should not be taken lightly.

The good news is that we can address the majority of common nutritional deficiencies by incorporating specific foods and supplements into our diets. It usually does not require medication and can be good first step in the treatment of depression. The best way to start is to have a comprehensive set of laboratory tests done to evaluate the nutritional status.


Vitamin D: vitamin D plays a significant role in serotonin activity, and serotonin is the key neurotransmitters involved with mood, sleep, appetite, and digestion. It is also necessary to ensure the proper absorption of phosphorus into your bloodstream, which helps facilitate cell repair and tissue growth in your brain and body.

  • Food: Fish like salmon, herring, and sardines have reasonable levels of Vitamin D as well as vegetarian sources like egg yolks and mushrooms. In general vitamin D may need to be take as a supplement though as it is hard to stay at sufficient levels with sun and food alone.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: There’s a good reason why you hear health and nutrient experts advocate for increased consumption of Omega-3 fatty acids. They are essential for healthy brain cell functioning and the reduction of inflammation, and work by preventing trans fats from entering your neural system.

  • Food: salmon, sardines, herring or mackerel, oysters, egg yolks, flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts. Algae is another option for vegetarians and vegans and can be found in supplement form. In general our bodies can use the animal sources of omega 3s more easily than the vegetarian sources.

Folate: Along with other B vitamins, folate helps to clear an amino acid --a byproduct found in the bloodstream and associated with cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's disease, depression and other conditions. Folate also works to support serotonin production.

  • Food: Beans, peas, lentils and leafy greens such as spinach, kale and arugula are great sources of folate.

B Vitamins: Lack of B vitamins can have a significant influence on your overall psychological wellbeing. Vitamins B6 and B12 have been proven to boost skin and nail health, reduce stroke risk and support mental health function. According to one study, more than a quarter of severely depressed women were found to be deficient in B12.

  • Food: Proteins such as fish, whole grains, legumes and bananas are rich in B vitamins. B12 can only be obtained from animal based sources, so vegetarians need to be particularly mindful of monitoring their B12 levels and supplementing B12.

Magnesium: Essential in over 600 metabolic functions, magnesium is one of the most important minerals in the body. It is vital to brain functions such as stress response, recovery and repair. It is only second to iron as the most common nutritional deficiency in developed countries.

  • Food: Dietary sources of magnesium include whole grains, nuts & seeds, leafy green vegetables and dark chocolate. However, much of our soil has been depleted of magnesium making it increasingly difficult to achieve a sufficient level through diet alone and supplements may be a way to guarantee adequate intake.

Zinc: Another mineral, zinc is essential to regulating the brain and body’s response to stress. With the highest concentration of zinc in our body’s found in the brain, it is central to healthy brain function. Not only is it is responsible for activating your central and peripheral nervous system, but it is also required for neurotransmitter, enzymatic and hormonal processes. In addition to depression, zinc deficiency has been linked to anxiety, schizophrenia and eating disorders.

  • Food: Common sources of zinc include meat, poultry, oysters, spinach, pumpkin seeds, raisins and dark chocolate.

Iron: Iron is critical to all bodily functions as it carries oxygen throughout the bloodstream. It is also the most prevalent nutritional deficiency is more common in women than men. Symptoms of iron deficiency can present as similar to those of depression, such as mental and physical fatigue, low mood and irritability. Low levels of iron may also trigger panic symptoms resulting in a panic attack.

  • Food: shellfish eggs, beans, red meat, organ meats such as liver, spinach and broccoli. If you have fatigue or emotional symptoms it is important to get your blood checked for blood counts, iron levels and ferritin level and if you are anemic, then to follow up the supplementation with another test to make sure that the anemia is resolving.

Amino Acids: Known as the building blocks of protein, amino acids are necessary to help your body build muscles. They are also necessary for healthy brain function. Amino acid deficiencies have been linked to depression, brain fog, lack of focus and general sluggishness. There are a total of nine amino acids that our bodies cannot produce and must be obtained through a healthy, balanced diet.

  • Food: eggs, lean meat, seeds, nuts and plant-based protein sources such as beans.

***Additional nutritional deficiencies that may cause depression include iodine and selenium, which can affect the function of the thyroid gland. Selenium can be obtained by eating two brazil nuts per day and iodine can be obtained by eating seaweed and seafood.


It is important to have your blood checked before you start taking new supplements or vitamins, as it is possible to have too much of certain vitamins and minerals. So first find out how your body is doing, and then add in what’s needed. If you can get the nutrients you need from foods, then do that first. If you are battling to eat enough of the right things that your body needs, as shown on blood tests, then top yourself off with good quality supplements, preferably under the guidance of a well-trained Functional Medicine professional!

While learning to manage our minds, processing our traumas and our pasts and learning to think about today and tomorrow in new ways are essential for improving our mental health, it’s not just all in your head. The health of your cells, your gut, your brain, and the balance of nutrients in your system plays a huge role in all of our mental health. Without mental health there is no physical health. Attend to your perfect human body with patience and love, and learn to manage your mind to reduce your experience of stress, anxiety and depression.


As a service to my readers, Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.


1. Bonny Beardsley. Depression and nutrition. Available from: 2. Murray CJL, Lopez AD. The global burden of disease. World Health Organization. 1996:270. [Google Scholar] 3. American psychiatric A: Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 4th ed. Washington DC: 2000. [Google Scholar] 4. Shaheen Lakhan SE, Vieira KF. Nutritional therapies for mental disorders. Nutr Jr. 2008;7:2. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 5. Available from: http:/ 6. Brown GL, Ebert MH, Gover PH, Jimerson DC, Klein WJ, Bunney WE, et al. Aggression, suicide and serotonin: Relationships to CSF amine metabolites. Am J Psychiatry. 1982;139:741–6. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]

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