Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States with an estimated 16.2 million adults having experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year. Though prevalent, it is a serious mood disorder that should not be taken lightly.
The symptoms of depression have the potential to affect all areas of one’s life including working, eating, sleeping and interpersonal relationships. According to the National Institute on Mental Health, research suggests that depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental and psychological factors.
Another often less talked about cause of depression are nutritional imbalances. Nutrition plays an expansive role in our body’s ability to regulate our psychological and emotional well-being. Deficiencies of key vitamins and minerals can wreak havoc on your brain function and increase levels of stress and anxiety.
Here are the 10 most common nutrient deficiencies that are linked to mood imbalances such as depression:
1- Vitamin D: As previously mentioned in our series about seasonal affective disorder--a type of depression, 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.
2- 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 to healthy brain cell function and the reduction of inflammation by working to prevent trans fats from entering your neural system.
Food sources high in Omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish such as salmon or mackerel, oysters, egg yolks, flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts.
3- Folate: While you’ve likely heard of folic acid, you might be less familiar with folate. Both are different forms of vitamin B9. Along with other B vitamins, folate helps to break down homocysteine--an amino acid found in the bloodstream and commonly associated with Alzheimer's disease and depression. Folate also works to increase serotonin production.
Beans, peas, lentils and leafy greens such as spinach, kale and arugula are great sources of folic acid.
4- 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.
Proteins such as fish, poultry, red meat, and eggs, as well as whole grains, legumes and bananas are rich in B vitamins.
5- 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.
Dietary sources of magnesium include whole grains, nuts, 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.
6- 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.
Common sources of zinc include meat, poultry, oysters, spinach, pumpkin seeds, raisins and dark chocolate.
7- Iron: Iron is critical to all bodily functions as it carries oxygen throughout the bloodstream. It is also the most prevalent nutritional deficiency in developed countries, and 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.
Iron-rich foods include shellfish eggs, beans, red meat, organ meats such as liver, spinach and broccoli.
8- 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.
Dietary sources of amino acids include eggs, lean meat, seeds, nuts and plant-based protein sources such as beans.
Additional nutritional deficiencies that may cause depression include iodine and selenium.
To best determine an effective method for the treatment of depression, it is important to understand the underlying causes. Though not all causes are treatable, such as genetics, nutritional deficiencies are one that can be managed.
Diet is a foundation of health and a priority in the treatment of mind health. Poor nutrition has not only been linked to depression but also anxiety, sleep disorders, fibromyalgia and inflammation-related conditions.
Beata Lewis, MD, founder of Brooklyn-based practice Mind Body Seven, specializes in nutritional testing and evaluations. Based on the results, she can make personalized supplement and dietary recommendations, which can often reduce or eliminate the need for other medications to treat psychological and physical symptoms. To schedule an appointment, call (646) 606-2663.