It’s not breaking news that what you eat can affect how you feel. The food you introduce to your digestive tract has to provide your required nutrients. Meanwhile there are trillions of microorganisms in that digestive tract that interact with your food, liberate or produce nutrients and even provide signals to your immune system and brain. Specific nutrients are used to make neurotransmitters—the chemical signals that influence our mood (among other things), and when we aren’t providing the body with these specific compounds such as omega-3 fatty acids, B-vitamins, … it can really play with your emotions, or leave you feeling depressed.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3’s are a polyunsaturated fatty acid known for their anti-inflammatory actions and for their ability to support nerve function. They are found most concentrated in fish oils such as mackerel, sardines and anchovies, though there are plant sources that contain some omega-3’s such as algae. Two types of omega-3’s, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have been associated with improving cognition, protecting against nerve cell injury, and have been associated with decreased symptoms of depression.1 It’s not uncommon for patients with depression tend to have higher levels of inflammation, making omega-3 fatty acids a critical nutritional component.
Vitamins B6, B12, and Folic acid
The process of methylation is an important one in the body and for mental health. When compounds such as 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (folic acid), vitamin B6, methylcobalamin (vitamin B12), and s-adenosylmethionine (SAMe) transfer a methyl chemical group, tacking it onto DNA, proteins, and/or hormones, they can turn genes on and off, detoxify harmful chemicals, produce neurotransmitters that affect our mood such as dopamine and serotonin, and recycle and reduce a compound called homocysteine. In excess, homocysteine can cause DNA strands to break. High levels have also been studied with regards to depression.
How does homocysteine build up? Typically from deficiencies in vitamin B12 and folic acid. Studies have found links between having low levels of these B vitamins and/or high homocysteine levels, and depression. Having low folate status in general has been reported to predict poor response to antidepressants.1 However, consider that there may be genetic factors to this as well. For example, supplementing with these nutrients were able to better reduce depression symptoms in patients who also had a genetic polymorphism (a change or mutation) in the enzyme that turns dietary folic acid into the methylated version (5-methyltetrahydrofolate).1
Vitamin D may have a role in the regulation of neurotransmitters that affect mood and sleep, and low levels have been associated with an increased risk of developing depression and sleep disorders.2 Study results of supplementing with vitamin D in those with depression, however, are mixed. Some studies have shown that supplementing with vitamin D in those with low baseline levels can reduce depressive symptoms, while other studies, especially those in older adults, have shown no such effect. Although it doesn’t guarantee to resolve depression, it may be well worth investigating your vitamin D status if low mood, depression or sleep dysfunction are plaguing you.
Similar associations have been found with postpartum depression. In one systematic review, five of the nine studies analyzed found a significant link between vitamin D status and postpartum depression, and even more studies related low D status to antenatal depression.3
In addition to being a large component of bone tissue, magnesium is an essential mineral involved in over 300 enzymatic processes and is responsible for the proper function of nerve cells.4 Having insufficient magnesium levels has been associated with depression, anxiety, irritability, and insomnia.4 Magnesium supplementation has been shown beneficial in several studies of depression and postpartum depression, as well as improving mood in chronic fatigue syndrome.4
Although there may not be one single nutrient that can correct and treat all cases of low mood, anxiety or depression, there are multiple nutrients and vitamins that contribute to mood. Anyone looking for mood support would do well to have a full assessment to identify factors that can affect mood such as diet, sleep, stress and stress management, trauma, inflammation, and nutrient insufficiencies or deficiencies.
- Bremner JD, Moazzami K, Wittbrodt MT, et al. (2020). Diet, Stress and Mental Health. Nutrients. 12(8):2428
- Huiberts LM, Smolders KCHJ. (2021). Effects of vitamin D on mood and sleep in the healthy population: Interpretations from the serotonergic pathway. Sleep Med Rev. 55:101379
- Aghajafari F, Letourneau N, Mahinpey N, et al. (2018). Vitamin D Deficiency and Antenatal and Postpartum Depression: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 10(4):478
- Serefko A, Szopa A, Wlaź P, et al. (2013). Magnesium in depression. Pharmacol Rep. 65(3):547-54