What Nutritional Deficiencies are Associated with Depression? |

What Nutritional Deficiencies are Associated with Depression?

Rustina June 11, 2023

By Rustina

Feeling lost and outside of this world is a lonely feeling. Especially when you don’t know why you feel this way. Sometimes, there are events like losing loved ones or traumatic events that bring us to the brink of sorrow and depression. Sometimes, it is ongoing or out of the blue. 

If you are on the brink of a mental crisis, you may need to reach out to your health care provider, and that’s ok also. Do what you feel is best, don’t let judgment from others stop you from getting the help you need.

Deficiencies Associated With Depression

What many people do not realize is that proper nutrition affects their mental health too! If your diet isn’t optimal or you’re experiencing nutritional deficiencies, you can’t be the best possible version of yourself, meaning mental health may also be impacted. 

To function well, our bodies need certain materials whether it is creating “happy hormones” or cleaning up cellular waste (antioxidants) to reduce damage to our body. While every part of our nutrition intake is important, some have a bigger effect on certain things than others. 

When it comes to depression, these missing links and deficiencies may very well be what is holding us back from breaking out of the depressive cycle that creeps in. Like all things, don’t let the overwhelming thoughts hold you down and be stressed. While there is a lot of information here, you’ll notice that many of the food sources have a lot in common. Real, whole foods have what we need. Baby steps in the right direction can make all the difference!

#1 Amino Acids

Getting a strong supply of amino acids is crucial for our bodies and mental health. Amino acids are linked together to create hormones and brain-signaling neurotransmitters (among many other functions throughout the body). While some only need 3 amino acids, others need up to 200 amino acid residues! 

Deficiencies in amino acids have been researched and found to be associated strongly with depression (1,2), such as:

  • l-Tryptophan (may present as sleeping troubles)
  • l-Isoleucine (may present as energy, blood sugar, and endurance issues)
  • l-Leucine (may present as weakened bones, skin, and loss of muscle growth)
  • l-Histidine (may present as allergies and eczema)

We find amino acids in protein. Protein is a macronutrient essential to much more than just building muscle mass! It is very important for healthy hormone levels. Proteins are composed of smaller units (amino acids), which are attached in long chains. Up to 20 different types of amino acids can be combined to make a protein. Nine of these are considered essential to our bodies. When you hear that protein is a necessity for a healthy diet, amino acids are one of the big reasons why! 

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is almost a gram of protein for every 2 lbs of body weight. If you are exceeding the RDA for protein and still having troubles, then digestive bitters may help the body break down and utilize proteins, amino acids, and other nutrients more effectively. (3

If you struggle to get enough variety of protein in your diet, here are some great foods that contain all 9 essential amino acids:

  • Chicken 
  • Bone Broth 
  • Eggs 
  • Beef 
  • Kelp (Greens)
  • Quinoa
  • Greek Yogurt
  • Pumpkin, Hemp, Chia Seeds 
  • Oysters ( Oyster-Min capsules)
  • Buckwheat
  • Spirulina
  • Rice and beans
  • Tahini hummus  

You can read more about the connection of amino acids and depression in these studies: 

You can read more about protein and other ways to balance your hormones in 7 Ways to Naturally Balance Your Hormones.

#2 Vitamin B

While there are several B vitamins, 3 are major influences on depression and our mental health.

Pyridoxine – Vitamin B6

B6 is important for serotonin (a “happy hormone”) and tryptophan to be used (4). Both of those directly affect depression onset.

Food sources of B6:

  • Beef (especially the liver)
  • Seafood (clams, salmon, tuna, trout, oyster,, etc)
  • Potatoes
  • Eggs
  • Avocadoes
  • Pineapples
  • Grapes
  • Squash

You can read more about B6 and depression here: 

Folate – Vitamin B9

Folate is needed for serotonin and dopamine to function properly (5). Our bodies sometimes struggle with processing the folic acid added to so many foods. This is usually from a MTHFR gene issue, you can read more about that here.

Food sources of B9:

  • Beef (especially the liver)
  • Seafood (clams, salmon, tuna, trout, oysters, etc)
  • Eggs
  • Dark, leafy greens
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Beans
  • Chicken
  • Tofu

You can read more about B9 and depression here: 

Cyanocobalamin – Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is essential to form red blood cells and DNA. Vitamin B12 binds to the protein in the foods we consume and play a fundamental role in the functionality and development of brain and nerve cells (6).

Naturally occurring vitamin B12 is almost solely found in animal products. It can be found in some plants though also, like chlorella, spirulina, seaweed, and cremini mushrooms. 

Unfortunately, the natural, unfortified options are not a reliable source of vitamin B12. With that said, plant-based individuals usually need to supplement this vitamin. Sarena uses MaryRuth’s Organic Methyl B12 Liquid Spray. Methylated cobalamin (methylcobalamin) is naturally occurring instead of synthetic and has great bioavailability (7).

Foods that are high in B12:

  • Beef (especially the liver)
  • Seafood (clams, salmon, tuna, trout, oysters, etc)
  • Eggs
  • Milk, yogurt, and cheese
  • Tempeh
  • Chicken 
  • Pork
  • Seaweed
  • Fortified yeasts and grains

You can read more about B12 and depression here: 

#3 Iodine

Iodine is an essential mineral naturally found in seawater and certain soils. Low urinary levels of iodine have been associated with depression and anxiety (8). This is because low iodine levels lead to low thyroid hormone levels (the thyroid binds this to amino acids for thyroid hormones) (9). Low thyroid hormones are a direct cause of low serotonin and dopamine – 2 hormones that influence our moods and mental health (10). 

Low iodine even affects neurotransmitters like GABA, acetylcholine, and norepinephrine levels. greatly affects moods, anxiety, depression, and energy (11,12,13). Neurotransmitters control the calming (downregulation) and excitatory (upregulation) effects of our moods.

The richest sources of iodine are from the sea. Seaweed is another option for iodine. Here are some food sources of iodine:

  • Fish and Seafood – especially bottom dwellers like oysters, shrimp, etc
  • Seaweed such as kelp
  • Whole grains
  • Beans
  • Courgettes/zucchini 
  • Kale
  • Spring greens
  • Watercress
  • Strawberries
  • Potatoes with skin
  • Small amounts in most fruits and vegetables

Supplementing with iodine is helpful, especially if you have dietary restrictions or taste preferences. Our two favorites are Oyster-Min capsule and MaryRuth’s Nascent Iodine.

You can read more about the effects of iodine on depression here:

#4 Iron

Iron is an essential mineral. It is most known for transporting oxygen and part of our hemoglobin (14). However, it is also very important for serotonin too. Serotonin is one of our “happy hormones” that stabilizes our mood, aids in cognitive functions, and emotional behaviors (15). Iron is used in the brain for many functions such as a neurotransmitter, mitochondrial respiration, DNA synthesis, and metabolism – all things that affect our mental health as well (16). Iron deficiency has been found to be common in psychiatric cases (17).

Iron deficiencies, common especially in vegans and vegetarians, can usually be identified by feeling cold all the time, brittle nails, restless legs/muscle twitches, and hair thinning or loss.

Sources of iron:

  • Meat (Beef, Chicken, Pork, etc)
  • Eggs
  • Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
  • Nuts (almonds, cashews, pine nuts, macadamia nuts)
  • Seeds (pumpkin, sesame, hemp, flaxseeds)
  • Leafy greens (spinach, kale, swiss chard)
  • Potatoes with skin
  • Oyster mushrooms
  • Yellow Dock
  • Dandelions
  • Nettles
  • Alfalfa

You can read more about the correlation between iron and depression here:

#5 Magnesium

Magnesium is an essential mineral. It is the second most abundant mineral in our body after potassium. Magnesium is involved in over 600 enzymatic reactions! Back in the iodine section, we talked about neurotransmitters affecting our mental health. Magnesium actually helps build the neurons and nerve cells that the neurotransmitters need to use to send signals (18). Without enough magnesium, there are gaps and a general slowdown of the chemical messengers. 

There are other things like caffeine that disrupt neurotransmitters also (19). 

Unfortunately, many of us are deficient in magnesium, and our overall health may be paying the price (even if we don’t realize it).

Whole food sources of magnesium include:

  • Nuts (especially walnut and almonds)
  • Fish
  • Whole milk and yogurt
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Dark chocolate 
  • Avocados
  • Legumes/black beans 
  • Tofu
  • Seeds/pumpkin seeds
  • Whole grains/buckwheat
  • Bananas 
  • Leafy greens/spinach
  • Oregano 
  • Nettle
  • Rose hips
  • Tarragon 

You can read more about the connections between magnesium and depression here:

#6 Potassium

Potassium regulates transportation in and out of cells, including water balance and nerve impulses. Our brains use water to carry nutrients and move brain cells along the nerves also (20). If we are low on potassium, hydration will not make it to where it is needed – including the brain. 

Some symptoms of potassium deficiency:

  • Poor muscular control
  • poor digestion
  • liver problems
  • slow healing of sores
  • fatigue
  • nausea, weakness, vomiting

One way to improve the absorption of potassium is to consume plenty of magnesium. Some things block potassium such as prescribed diuretics, OTC antacids, and OTC laxatives.

Conditions that can cause potassium deficiencies:

  • kidney disease or congestion
  • overuse of diuretics
  • excessive sweating, diarrhea, and vomiting
  • magnesium deficiency
  • use of antibiotics, such as penicillin

Good food of potassium:

  • Fruits, such as apricots, bananas, kiwi, oranges, elderberries, and pineapples
  • Vegetables, such as leafy greens, carrots, squash, broccoli, and potatoes
  • Meats
  • Whole grains
  • Beans and nuts
  • Fish
  • Seeds

You can read more about potassium and depression in these studies:

#7 Zinc

Zinc is very important when it comes to depression. At over 300 enzymes using zinc, it affects everything from DNA synthesis to protein creation (we talked about how important proteins are earlier). If there is not enough zinc in our body, then it cannot make a healthy amount of neurons. Without enough neurons to deliver messages throughout our body, we are more susceptible to depression, anxiety, and even poor social behavior (21). Without adequate zinc for nerve synapse, then the body alters how it transmits. Instead of using GABA, it will use N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors. Studies have found that using NMDA antagonists (something that suppresses, in this case the NMDA) helped improve depression symptoms (S).

Zinc food sources:

  • Meat (especially organ meats)
  • Shellfish like oysters
  • Seeds (hemp, pumpkin, chia, flax)
  • Mushrooms (shiitake, white button)
  • Beans (black, lima)
  • Lentils
  • Whole grains (like quinoa, oatmeal, rice)
  • Spinach
  • Avocados
  • Mushrooms
  • Kale
  • Asparagus 
  • Beet greens
  • Herbs: chamomile, burdock root, dandelion, mullein, rose hips, milk thistle, rosemary, turmeric, fenugreek, cloves, cinnamon. 

*Just a note that the zinc found in animal products is a form easier for our body to absorb than the zinc in plants due to phytate (an anti-nutrient). This is one of the reasons why soaking nuts and grains can be so helpful to reduce the phytates before eating (23).

You can read more about zinc and depression here:

#8  Vitamin D

Vitamin D is also known as the sunshine vitamin. It is considered a pro-hormone and required for the regulation of calcium found in the body. Under magnesium, I mentioned that calcium is very important for neuron activities. 

Sources of Vitamin D

We can get vitamin D in several ways; sunshine, food, or supplementation. When our skin and eyes are exposed to the sun, our bodies create vitamin D. Generally, people receive their daily needed amount through sunlight. As our skin absorbs the sunlight, the process of converting cholesterol to vitamin D begins (24). 

During winter time or any time we are not in the sun with bare skin revealed for a while, we need to consume or absorb it another way. Because vitamin D is fat-soluble, it is stored in fat cells for use as needed. This also means absorbing it into the skin is an effective way to utilize it well. 

Foods that are high in vitamin D include:

  • Cod liver oil
  • Fish (catfish, tuna, sardines, mackerel, salmon)
  • Eggs
  • Beef or calf liver
  • Shiitake mushrooms
  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Oatmeal
  • Cheese
  • Lichen (like this this supplement)

In order for the body to properly digest and use vitamin D, the gut needs to be healthy as well as the kidneys and liver. You will learn more about supporting your kidneys and liver in the next section! 

If you have a compromised system in any way (leaky gut, inflamed liver, etc.) it may be advised to supplement until you have healed. In that case, a topical application like Earthley’s Vitamin D Cream is one of the best options. It is made with cod liver oil – all the vitamin A and D without the fishy taste! 

You can read more about vitamin D and depression here:

#9 Sodium

I know we hear – low salt all the time, but we do need about 200-500 milligrams of sodium a day for normal body functions (25). When your blood has too much sodium, your body shifts more fluid into the bloodstream to dilute it. This increases blood volume and, in turn, increases blood pressure (26). High blood pressure increases your risk of depression, heart disease, and stroke (27). It is believed, consuming the average processed foods diet, Americans consume over 3,000 mg of sodium a day (28).

Sodium works with potassium to balance fluid and blood volumes. Sodium is needed for muscle and nerve actions as well (29). 

Like all things, there can be too much sodium as well. That is why it is best to get it from the many healthy food sources and reduce the “added processed salt” type of foods.

Good sources of healthy sodium:

  • Seeds
  • Strawberry
  • Melon
  • Sea asparagus
  • Fish (Cod liver oil)
  • Natural extracted salts
  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Celery
  • Spinach

Note: Table salt is sodium chloride (about 40% sodium and 60% chloride).

Read more about sodium and depression here:

You can read our blog, Everything You Need to Know About Salt for more info.

#10 Vitamin C

Vitamin C is also a needed factor for collagen synthesis. Collagen is one of the main protein constituents of skin and hair cells (as well as bones, muscles, blood vessels, etc) (30). It is also a major cofactor in the creation of neurotransmitters and collagen. Collagen makes and repairs your muscles, tendons, bones, ligaments, skin cells, blood vessel walls, and helps wounds. It’s affecting all tissues – everything from your skeleton to wrinkles! Vitamin C is a major antioxidant and that can decrease the risk of depression as well (31). When our cellular waste is cleaned up better, then our cells function better too (sort of like how a Mama is happy when there is less clutter all over the place!). 

The typical vitamin C supplements at stores are isolated ascorbic acid. Ascorbic Acid is derived from fermented GMO corn or metabolically engineered yeast strains (32). This is not ideal for overall health and a healthy immune system! 

How to add whole vitamin C to your diet:

Earthley offers a whole foods vitamin C capsule called Immune Aid that has the 2 foods with the highest natural amount of vitamin C: organic Camu Camu, organic Acerola Berries, and organic Orange Peel. It is also available as a loose powder with a touch of dried stevia.

The RDA for an adult ages 19+ are (33):

  • Female (not pregnant or lactating): 75mg
  • Male: 90mg

Read more about vitamin C and depression here:

Honorable Mention: Selenium

Selenium is a trace mineral. That means it is essential but not a lot is needed. It is used for 20+ selenoproteins used in metabolism, thyroid function, DNA synthesis, glutathione production (super antioxidant), and infection prevention (34). Selenium is also used for biosynthesis of testosterone (35). Testosterone and thyroid hormones all are important to mental health. 

There are 2 basic forms of selenium (those can be broken down based on what binds with it). Organic selenium comes from plant and animal sources. Inorganic selenium (like selenite and selenate are found in the soils. Then it is consumed by a plant or animal and converted into organic forms. The way our bodies convert these forms differs and is not fully researched yet (36).

Good sources of selenium:

  • Nuts, legumes, and seeds (especially brazil nuts)
  • Shellfish (especially Oyster and tuna)
  • Chicken, Ham, Beef
  • Eggs
  • Shiitake Mushrooms
  • Spinach
  • Carrots
  • Peaches

The RDA for an adult ages 19+ are (37):

  • Female (not pregnant or lactating): 55mcg
  • Male: 55mcg

Honorable Mention: Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Fats are essential to the brain. Our brains are about 60% fat (38)! Not all fats are the same, but one important fat is the polyunsaturated fat omega 3 fatty acid. This is used in the cell membrane of all tissues (39). While alone, it is debatable on the matter of “causing” depression, it is an important part of the puzzle. Increased omega 3’s increases dopamine, serotonin, sleep, and the body’s D2 receptors (40,41). All of those have direct links to depression. 

How to add Omega 3 to your diet:

  • Fish – Salmon, Tuna, Oyster, Cod, and Cod Liver Oil 
  • Algae – Seaweeds like Kelp
  • Nuts and Seeds – like Flax and chia seeds
  • Eggs
  • Hemp
  • Avocado
  • Beef

While one or all of these may not be a cure-all to depression, every little step towards better nutrition can add up to better health and a happier life! Eating a whole, real food diet is so important. Everything in our bodies is so interconnected. With so many less than stellar food choices out there (even forgetting the horrible food toxins), it is no wonder that people are struggling with so many illnesses and hardships in life. It isn’t just food either,  we have to worry about what is in our air and water too! Toxins that draw out, use up, or distract our bodies from using the nutrition we do consume are all around us. We can keep it at bay though. We can choose to eat healthy food, support our bodies with herbs, and make sure our gut is ready for it all!

Looking for some simple ways to reduce stress? Check out Earthley’s Calming Products!

Disclaimer: This post is not intended as medical advice. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA, and nothing in this post is intended to diagnose, treat, or cure anything.  If you have questions, please do your own research or seek advice from a health professional.

Have you considered nutritional deficiencies to help alleviate depression and its symptoms?

This is the writings of:

Rustina started studying herbs and natural living after allopathic medicine was unable to provide answers or support when she needed it. She is continually working on learning more and improving her and her family’s health, diving in and researching any topic. A love of learning led her to homeschool and begin working from home. She now spends each day with her husband and four sons as they travel on their home education journey together. She is thankful for the opportunity to write about these interests and passions for Earthley Wellness and Modern Alternative Mama.

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Hi, I’m Kate.  I love medical freedom, sharing natural remedies, developing real food recipes, and gentle parenting. My goal is to teach you how to live your life free from Big Pharma, Big Food, and Big Government by learning about herbs, cooking, and sustainable practices.

I’m the author of Natural Remedies for Kids and the owner and lead herbalist at EarthleyI hope you’ll join me on the journey to a free and healthy life!

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