Approximately 19 million Americans suffer from depression every year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. While it can affect anyone, it’s more common in adults over age 35, and women are more likely to experience it than men.
Depression is more than feeling down, sad, or under the weather. It’s a crippling mental illness that affects your ability to do everything from going to work and maintaining relationships to enjoying the things you love. Although anti-depressants benefit some people with mild to moderate depression, side effects are common, and some people get little or no benefit from prescription anti-depressants. For that reason, there’s a focus on natural approaches to treating depression, including diet and exercise.
The Link Between Diet and Mental Health
The connection between nutrition and mental health is becoming more widely accepted. These nutrients are essential for normal brain function, so it is not surprising that they play an important role in maintaining healthy moods.
While a single vitamin or mineral is unlikely to cure depression or eliminate stress. There is evidence that certain nutrients from food sources, including magnesium, vitamin D, and omega-3s may reduce depressive symptoms and help with stress management. There’s also evidence that B vitamins play a role in stress management and depression. Three types of B vitamins hold some promise for improving the symptoms of depression. Let’s look at each one.
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)
B-6, also know. as pyridoxine, aids your body in converting food into energy but it may also be helpful for mood problems. Studies have found that people who don’t get enough B-6 are more likely to have symptoms of depression than those who do get enough of this vitamin.
Why might low vitamin B-6 affect mood and the ability to manage stress? Pyridoxine plays a role in synthesizing serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in appetite and mood, and GABA, a calming brain chemical. Some studies link sub-optimal vitamin B-6 with symptoms of depression. Other research finds that vitamin B6 may also help with anxiety.
It’s best to get vitamin B-6 from whole food sources, rather than taking a supplement unless your doctor recommends it. It’s possible to get too much vitamin B6. Supplements containing more than 200 milligrams of it per day can damage nerves. It’s hard to get too much vitamin B6 from food sources alone.
Best Food Sources:
Fish, chicken, turkey, and pork are excellent sources. Fruits and vegetables such as avocado, bananas, Brussels sprouts, papaya, broccoli, and spinach are other sources of vitamin B6. Finally, whole grains and foods fortified with vitamin B6, such as some cereals, bread, and rice, can help you meet your vitamin B6 requirements.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
Niacin (vitamin B3) is involved in numerous functions in your body, including turning the food you eat into energy, digestive health, nerve function, and maintaining proper skin health. Niacin is also an essential cofactor for several key enzymes involved in various metabolic processes. For mood, it plays an essential role in converting tryptophan, an amino acid, to serotonin.
Research links niacin deficiency with a higher risk of depression, although it’s unclear whether consuming more niacin in the absence of a deficiency improves the symptoms of depression. At the very least, ensure you’re getting enough niacin from dietary sources to support mental health.
Some signs of niacin deficiency include depression, diarrhea, brain fog, headache, and skin problems. Research also shows that niacin may protect brain cells against damage and reduce inflammation in the nervous system that contributes to depression.
Best Food Sources:
Poultry, fish, pork, brown rice nuts, peanuts
Depression and brain fog are common symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency. If you have a low vitamin B12 level, you might also experience numbness and tingling in your hands or legs, and extreme fatigue or balance issues. Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to permanent nerve damage and even death.
Some studies show that up to a third of people with clinical depression have a low or low-normal vitamin B12 level. Since it plays a key role in brain and nervous system health, you need adequate quantities of it for mental and physical health.
Vitamin B12 deficiency doesn’t necessarily come from eating too few foods that contain vitamin B12. Some people, especially older folks, have problems absorbing vitamin B12 and can develop a deficiency from lack of absorption. Vegans are also at higher risk since vitamin B12 is only in meat and dairy foods. To avoid a vitamin B12 deficiency, vegans should take a vitamin B12 supplement.
Best Food Sources:
Natural sources of B12 include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and milk. Vegetables, fruits, grains, and nuts do not contain vitamin B12 naturally. Some packaged foods like cereal, plant-based milk, and yogurt.
The Bottom Line
“You are what you eat” is not just a catchy phrase. It’s true! A healthy diet can help you feel better and more energetic, while an unhealthy diet can make you feel tired, sluggish, and depressed. Depression is a complex health problem, and it would oversimplify things to say that any one food or nutrient can correct this common mental health issue.
Although not a cure, eating a nutrient-rich diet can benefit your mood by affecting your energy level and Ensure you get enough of these B vitamins if you have depression. If you eat a diet that falls short, talk to your physician about the possibility of taking a B-vitamin supplement.
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- Serotonin is created by an amino acid called tryptophan. Niacin is part of the metabolizing process of forming serotonin from tryptophan
- National Institutes of Health. “Vitamin B6”
- “Vitamin B-12 and depression: Are they related? – Mayo Clinic.” 01 Jun. 2018, mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/expert-answers/vitamin-b12-and-depression/faq-20058077.