You’ve likely heard the old phrase You are what you eat. And when it comes to depression, that may be exactly right, as certain nutritional deficiencies can put you at a markedly high risk of depression.
So let’s look at those nutrients where inadequate intake may adversely affect your mental health, and make some strategies to ensure you get enough – for both your body and your mind!
In particular, we want to look at foods that affect your neurotransmitters; dopamine, norepinepherine, and serotonin in particular are key pieces of your mental health puzzle. Built of amino acids, it should be easy to ensure adequate neurotransmitter health with a balanced diet–but getting a balanced diet isn’t always so easy for everyone.
In particular, deficiencies in the following nutrients can cause real problems with your brain’s chemistry, and as a result, can lead to increased risk of depression.
B Complex Vitamins
B complex vitamins all vary, but in general, each can have profound effects on mental health. B12 deficiency, for instance, has been linked to brain shrinkage and dementia (as well as depression). Folate, B6, and B12, help maintain healthy protein metabolism, which decreases the risk of depression. B vitamins may best be found in dark leafy greens, though nuts, seeds, whole grains, and meats can also be good dietary sources.
Iron deficiency, also known as anemia, can result in apathy, brain fog, fatigue, irritability, decreased motivation, and loss of appetite. While more common in women, it can also occur in men, and is frequently misdiagnosed. It can also aggravate any existing depression or other mental health issues. Eating vitamin C rich foods helps increase the absorption of iron, which can best be added to your diet in beef, dark meat chicken, eggs, lamb, liver, oysters, pork, and white beans.
When it comes to keeping a healthy metabolism, thyroid function is key–and the thyroid doesn’t work at its best if you don’t get enough iodine. While iodized salt can be a good source of iodine, most Americans still don’t get enough: In comparison to the recommended 800 mcg, the average American gets between a quarter and half of that recommended intake. Fortunately, there are lots of great sources of iodine you can add to your diet, including the aforementioned iodized salt, cod, and seaweed. (Dairy products including milk, eggs, and yogurt can also be decent sources of iodine.)
While the average American gets less than half their daily recommended magnesium, the consequences couldn’t be more dire: Magnesium helps reduce anxiety and the risk of diabetes, lower blood pressure, and is required for more than 300 biochemical reactions. It also helps activate the reactions necessary for neurotransmitter production, so not getting enough magnesium can markedly increase your risk of depression as a result. Bran, dark green vegetables, dark chocolate, nuts and seeds, and whole grains are all good sources of magnesium in your diet.
While fatty fish are loaded with omega-3 fats (the good fats!), you can also get them in fortified eggs and in daily supplements (though your body best absorbs those fats and makes best use of them if taken as part of your regular diet). In addition to the part where omega-3 fats are great for neuron function and reducing inflammation (which itself can be a key factor in depression and other mood disorders), the key risk in not getting enough omega-3 fats is that you’ll likely simply replace those good fats in your diet with trans fats, which actually increase inflammation.
Selenium is similar to iodine in that it is necessary for healthy thyroid function, which can have major mental health consequences. The best food sources include Brazil nuts, chicken, fish, ham, liver, and shrimp. Additional benefits of getting enough selenium include it’s anti-inflammatory properties, which can also be helpful in combating depression and maintaining mental health.
While one of the best natural sources of vitamin D is adequate sunlight, that isn’t always an option. Unfortunately, not getting enough vitamin D can lead to increased risk of anxiety, dementia, depression, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The best natural food sources available are mostly fatty fish, such as herring, mackerel, salmon, and sardines, though for most people a supplement will be needed if they can’t get enough vitamin D from natural sunlight exposure.
Critical for the production and function of neurotransmitters, zinc is also (like magnesium) involved in more than 250 biochemical reactions necessary for good mental health, so not getting enough in your diet can have major ramifications. It also is important for digestive function and your immune system, both of which have mental health applications; as much as 50% of your dopamine and 90% of your serotonin supplies are produced by in small intestines. Fortunately, there are lots of good zinc food sources, including beef, cashews, chicken, crab, lamb, legumes, oysters, and pork.
At the end of the day, you really are what you eat–and there may be nowhere that this is more true than your brain. If you don’t feed your brain well, you can’t expect it to function at its best, and this is particularly true when it comes to depression. So check your diet closely–and eat up with the above list in mind!
*This content was inspired by an amazing article that can be found here: https://www.curejoy.com/content/nutrient-deficiencies-cause-depression/