8 Nutrient Deficiencies That Cause Depression and Anxiety
If you’re managing depression, anxiety, or both, you have been told that pharmaceuticals are the only way to manage your mood. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can be absolute life-savers in the short term. Long term, these drugs can have dangerous side effects. They can also be hell to get off of. Antidepressant drugs can also cover up the root cause of your mental health concerns. They can keep you from learning about what your body really needs to balance your mood and energy. No shade or shame or BS if antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills are working for you! Your body, your choices. If you’d like to learn about common factors that may be playing a part in your mental health concerns, read on my love!
Nutrients, vitamins and minerals are vital for maintaining your mental health. When these things are out of balance, symptoms like depression, anxiety and fatigue can rear their ugly little heads. If your mental health could use some support, it’s worth checking out if you are deficient in the following:
1. B Vitamins
Low levels of B vitamins are correlated with depression, fatigue, and irritability. Increasing your intake of B vitamin-rich foods can lead to improvements in mood and energy. Most important for mental health are vitamins B6, B12 and B9 (folate).
These vitamins play a vital role in producing chemicals, like serotonin, that affect mood and other brain functions. They’re also important for help us detoxify, and keep our hormones in balance. The methylation process and other detox processes in our bodies depend on having enough of the right kind of B vitamins.
My favorite food sources of B vitamins include:
- Beef liver: 1 ounce (20 micrograms)
- Sardines: 3 ounces (6.6 micrograms)
- Atlantic mackerel: 3 ounces (7.4 micrograms)
- Lamb: 3 ounces (2.7 micrograms)
- Wild-caught salmon: 3 ounces (2.6 micrograms)
- Nutritional yeast: 1 tablespoon (2.4 micrograms)
- Feta cheese: 0.5 cup (1.25 micrograms)
- Grass-fed beef: 3 ounces (1.2 micrograms)
- Cottage Cheese: 1 cup (0.97 micrograms)
- Eggs: 1 large (0.6 micrograms)
Iron helps your red blood cells carry oxygen to your brain, organs and every little corner of your body. The health of your brain and your nervous system depend on healthy iron levels. Low iron levels can result in less oxygen going to your cells. Iron deficiency can cause a range of symptoms including depression, fatigue, low energy, weakness and irritability.
Folks who menstruate monthly or are pregnant are at greater risk for iron deficiency. Low iron levels in humans who do not have a regular monthly bleed or who are not gestating a wee fetus can be a serious concern, and can indicate an occult, or hidden, source of blood loss. No need to freak out or worry. Just make sure you get some competent medical care, k?
Heme foods rich in iron:
- Oysters, mussels and clams
- Liver, beef or chicken
Non-heme iron sources:
- Pine nuts
- Sunflower seeds
- Cashews and white potatoes
- Legumes (especially lentils)
- Black strap molasses (1-2 Tbsp/day)
- Stinging nettle leaf tea steeped overnight to get the most iron out of it.
Consume vitamin C-rich foods paired with non-heme iron-rich plant foods. For example, spinach and lemon juice; lentils and tomatoes; kale and sweet potato.
I have a whole article all about iron deficiency, and you can read that baby right here.
Iodine is a key component in thyroid hormone, so a deficiency can cause a host of symptoms. You literally can’t make the hormones your body needs to fuel your metabolism without iodine. Thyroid health is a massively important part of your mental health. Your thyroid regulates so many important things in your body—your mood, energy, metabolism, growth, immune function, and brain performance—to name a few!
When you don’t have enough iodine and your thyroid isn’t performing at its best, you may have symptoms of depression. Full body depression. The overall blahs. Sluggishness. Slow digestion. It can be pretty rough!
Beyond hypothyroid symptoms, common iodine-deficiency symptoms include:
- Trouble producing saliva and properly digesting food
- Skin problems, generally dry skin
- Less than awesome concentration and focus
- Difficulty retaining information
- Muscle weakness, achiness or even pain
- Metabolic issues, leading to sugar-level imbalance and weight management difficulties
- Seaweed (in order from most to least iodine: Kelp, Kombu, Hijiki, Arame, Dukse, Wakame, Nori)
- Organic eggs
Want to learn more about hypothyroid? Check out Episode 10 of The Feminist Wellness Podcast – Hypothyroid is a Feminist Issue (an episode for humans of all genders!)
4. Vitamin D
When our bare skin is exposed to ultraviolet light from the sun, our bodies do the science of activating vitamin D in our cells.
Vitamin D deficiency is becoming more and more common. Makes sense: we’re indoors more than ever before. So many of us travel in a car or underground instead of walking everywhere, like our not-so-distant ancestors did. Most of us spend all day in a building, working. We get home after dark all winter. Our bodies are just not getting that Sunshine Time we SOOO desperately need to be both happy and healthy!
Research is showing links between vitamin D deficiency and depression, dementia and even autism. Low vitamin D can also leave you fatigued and irritable. Without sufficient Vitamin D, your immune system also tanks.
Supplements may be the only solution as it is difficult to get vitamin D from your food. So taking that walk out of the office at lunch time is not only important because movement is so vital for our wellness, but also because getting some sunshine on your skin and some vitamin D into your body is darn good medicine.
Selenium is a mineral with very potent antioxidant properties. It is so important for mental health, healthy metabolism and optimal thyroid function. It is important in the activation and conversion of thyroid hormone.
Low selenium levels have been linked to depression and low mood. It’s recommended to get 200 mcg of selenium per day from food, supplements or a combination thereof.
- Brazil nuts (the best source!)
- Seafood, especially oysters and tuna
- Sunflower seeds
- Liver (you knew I’d say liver!)
Magnesium is very important in mood regulation and has an impact on your nervous system. It is necessary for most functions in our bodies. However, up to half of the population is magnesium deficient. Our lifestyles may be one cause of low magnesium levels. Alcohol, white table salt and the sodium used in processed foods, coffee and sugar can all decrease our magnesium levels. And because our soil is so bereft of minerals, magnesium is not as available in our food the way it once was.
Magnesium deficiency has been linked to depression, anxiety, migraines and high blood pressure. Magnesium can be found in foods like spinach, dark chocolate (yum!), oily fish, bananas, and almonds.
7. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation. They are vital for brain function, especially memory and mood. If your diet is low in good quality fats, like omega-3s, then your body can only make low quality nerve cell membranes.
Oily fish like salmon and tuna are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids, as are fish like cod and cod liver oil. These healthy fats can also be found in flaxseeds and walnuts.
8. Gut Health
Leaky gut is when your intestinal walls are permeable to food particles, yeast, bacteria and other beasties that shouldn’t be leaking out into your systemic circulation — your blood stream. This can lead to a host of symptoms from irritable bowel to eczema to depression and anxiety.
When your gut lining isn’t strong and healthy, your body may not absorb food properly. This can lead to mineral and vitamin deficiencies and inflammation systemically. If you are having symptoms like excessive bloating, constipation, diarrhea or other irritable gut symptoms, your nutrient deficiency may be coming from your gut being unable to absorb your nutrients.
Leaky gut treatment tips:
You can help your GI system to be happier by eating foods high in probiotics like kefir, beet kvass, yogurts and sauerkraut if you can tolerate these foods. Also, learning what your triggers are that cause your gut to be affected and try to wean off them. The most common triggers of gut-inflammation and IBS/leaky gut symptoms are dairy, gluten, soy, eggs and corn.
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!
And remember: while learning to manage our minds, processing our traumas and our pasts and learning to think about today and tomorrow in new ways are VITAL 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, without physical health there is no mental 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.
- John E. Lewis, Eduard Tiozzo, Angelica B. Melillo, Susanna Leonard, Lawrence Chen, Armando Mendez, Judi M. Woolger, and Janet Konefal. (2013) The Effect of Methylated Vitamin B Complex on Depressive and Anxiety Symptoms and Quality of Life in Adults with Depression
- Hidese S, Saito K, Asano S, Kunugi H. (2018) Association between iron-deficiency anemia and depression: A web-based Japanese investigation.
- Mats B. Humble. (2010) Vitamin D, light and mental health.
- Tamlin S, Conner Aimee, C Richardson, Jody C Miller. (2015). Optimal Serum Selenium Concentrations Are Associated with Lower Depressive Symptoms and Negative Mood among Young Adults.
- Alan C Logan. (2004). Omega-3 fatty acids and major depression: A primer for the mental health professional
Victoria Albina, NP, MPH is a licensed and board certified Family Nurse Practitioner, herbalist and life coach, with 20 years experience in health and wellness. She trained at the University of California, San Francisco, and holds a Masters in Public Health from Boston University and a bachelors from Oberlin College. She comes to this work having been a patient herself, and having healed from a lifetime of IBS, GERD, SIBO, fatigue, depression and anxiety.
She is passionate about her work, and loves supporting patients in a truly holistic way - body, mind, heart and spirit. A native of Mar del Plata, Argentina, she grew up in the great state of Rhode Island, and lives in NYC with her partner. A brown dog named Frankie Bacon has her heart, and she lives for steak and a good dark chocolate.