There are mood-related signs you’re low on nutrients like vitamin D.
Here’s how to tell and what to do about it.
You’d be hard-pressed not to stumble on a social media #ad for vitamin packs. Trendy supplement brands like Ritual or Care/Of promise their products will help alleviate a series of vitamin deficiencies, which companies warn can cause health issues ― including problems with your mental health.
We know we need proper nutrients in order to function properly. But just how much of an impact do they really have on our minds?
“Optimal mental health requires adequate availability and absorption of vitamins, minerals and amino and fatty acids as essential building blocks for our brain cells and neurotransmitters,” said Dr. Jennifer Kraker, a New York-based psychiatrist who specializes in nutrition and mental health. “When our nutritional biochemistry is imbalanced, our mental health is affected.”
For most people, a healthy diet will take care of that. For others, a doctor may need to prescribe a vitamin supplement if the body doesn’t metabolize nutrients properly. (And they don’t have to come in an aesthetically pleasing glass bottle or Instagram-worthy capsule. Drug store brands will do just fine.)
“Because we’re all unique, one person may tolerate lower levels of a certain nutrient (such as vitamin D) very well, and another might not,” Kraker said. “Rinse and repeat for most all micronutrients.”
Nutritional deficiencies can tinker with your mental health on a sliding scale ― everything from mild to disruptive symptoms, depending on the person. Research has found certain deficiencies can contribute to anxiety and depression, as well as exacerbate symptoms in people with specific mental health disorders, such as obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder. A deficiency can also just slightly impact your emotional well-being.
“More commonly, nutrition-related issues are experienced as symptoms like reduced ability to manage stress, increased anxiety or edginess, lower mood, and poorer concentration or focus,” said Nicole Beurkens, licensed psychologist and board-certified nutrition specialist at Horizons Developmental Resource Center in Caledonia, Michigan.
Of course, mental health is complex and nutrients may be a minimal part of the puzzle (or sometimes they don’t influence it at all). That said, there are some cases where they play a role. There’s plenty that scientists are still working to discover and debunk about the food-mood connection and the impact that specific deficiencies can have on our mind, but here are some of the key nutritional players they’ve managed to suss out so far.
This fat-soluble vitamin influences the expression of over 1,000 genes that regulate mood, sleep, as well as the protection and synthesis of neurons (the cells in our brain and nervous system that run the show).
There are vitamin D receptors throughout the body and brain, some of which are located in regions that influence mood, alertness, motivation, memory and pleasure.
“Vitamin D also regulates genes that make the feel-good brain chemicals serotonin and oxytocin,” Kraker said.
Symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency can include depression, anxiety, irritability and fatigue.
Besides helping with the formation of those ever-important neurons mentioned above, vitamin B12 plays a role in regulating mood-boosting brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, as well as stress hormones like norepinephrine.
“It also functions on a molecular level to aid in the detoxification of homocysteine, a neurotoxin for the brain that’s associated with depression,” Kraker said.
Symptoms of a vitamin B12 deficiency can include fatigue, brain fog, numbness and tingling, shortness of breath and more.
“Vitamin B6 concentrations are roughly 100 times higher in the brain than the body as a whole, implying importance in mental health function,” Kraker said. It’s a co-factor in making the brain’s feel-good chemicals, including serotonin, dopamine, and GABA.
And, like B12, vitamin B6 helps the body keep homocysteine levels in check, which helps with mood issues, Kraker said. People with kidney disease or malabsorption problems are the ones who are most likely to be deficient in B6.
In mental health, magnesium helps to regulate the stress response and is considered to be one of nature’s mood stabilizers, Kraker said.
It’s pretty uncommon to be deficient in magnesium, but it does happen. Symptoms that might indicate you’re low can include fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite and mood changes.
Zinc is a trace mineral with many important roles in brain function, Kraker said. It also helps vitamin B6 do the best job possible of making feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine.
Most people naturally get enough zinc through their diets. A deficiency can occur in women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, vegetarians and people with gastrointestinal disease. Symptoms can include loss of appetite or taste, loss of temper, depression and learning difficulties.
Besides regulating oxygen delivery throughout the body and brain, iron helps to create and balance mood-regulating chemicals like serotonin and dopamine.
“Those most at risk for an iron deficiency are fertile women, the elderly, and vegans who aren’t particularly mindful about how to eat to prevent an iron deficiency,” Kraker said.
Symptoms of an iron deficiency can include fatigue, difficulty concentrating and dizziness.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3s contain components called DHA and EPA, both of which play an important role in brain function: “They ward off inflammation, maintain brain cell health, and improve communication between brain cells,” Kraker said. They can also help with mood.
Symptoms of an omega-3 deficiency can include mood issues, often accompanied by dry skin, fatigue, allergies and chronic thirst.
How To Figure Out If You Have A Deficiency — And What To Do About It
Before we go any further, one important note we want to reiterate: This all isn’t to say overhauling your diet or taking vitamin supplements on your own will completely cure any mood-related symptoms. Other interventions like talk therapy and medication are the best-known ways to improve mental health issues.
You should look at nutrition as “an important adjunctive treatment to maintain health and prevent relapse, or use lower doses of pharmaceutical interventions,” Kraker said.
There are several physical signs that can clue you into whether there’s a potential deficiency brewing, Beurkens said. These can include frequent headaches, GI symptoms (think: constipation, diarrhea, gas and bloating), weak nails, dry skin or eczema, hair loss and many others.
“High stress levels also often accompany … symptoms and can negatively impact nutrient levels,” Beurkens added.
Similarly, adjusting to a new set of life stressors can impact how you take care of yourself and deplete nutrient stores in the process ― say, a recent move has you eating differently, a new job has upended your go-to lunch habits, or a newly diagnosed autoimmune condition has you adjusting to a whole new way of functioning.
Getting a comprehensive workup of your nutritional status can be helpful in getting to the root cause of what’s going on.
“Physical and mental health are interconnected, so nutrition should always be a part of the discussion when mental health symptoms are raised as a concern,” Beurkens said. “Unfortunately, this rarely happens.”
Start by opening up to your physician or psychiatrist about your suspicions: Share with them the symptoms you’re experiencing, a highlight reel of what your eating habits are like, and anything else you feel might be relevant, such as relatives who have the same deficiency.
Ask your doctor to either order relevant bloodwork that’s consistent with your symptoms or refer you to someone who specializes in both mental health and nutrition. (The Institute for Functional Medicine, Integrative Medicine for Mental Health, and the Walsh Research Institute all list doctors trained in this manner.)
“You know your body and your life best, so if something feels off, it probably is,” Kraker said.
With the right treatment plan ― which can include input from your doctor along with a psychologist or psychiatrist ― you’ll hopefully find a solution that works best for you.
Magnesium May Improve Memory
Only 32% of Americans Get Recommended Daily Allowance of Magnesium, Researchers Say
Having trouble remembering where you left your keys? Forgot the name of an acquaintance?
A new study suggests that increasing your intake of magnesium, an essential mineral found in dark leafy vegetables and certain fruits, beans, and nuts, may help combat memory lapses associated with aging.
In the study, published Jan. 28 in Neuron, neuroscientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Tsinghua University in Beijing found that increasing brain magnesium using a newly developed compound, magnesium-L-threonate (MgT), improves learning abilities, working memory, and short- and-long-term memory in rats. The magnesium also helped older rats perform better on a battery of learning tests.
“This study not only highlights the importance of a diet with sufficient daily magnesium, but also suggests the usefulness of magnesium-based treatments for aging-associated memory decline,” one of the study’s authors, Susumu Tonegawa, says in a news release. Tonegawa works at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.
Although the experiments were conducted in rats, the results have implications for humans, the researchers say.
Half of the population of the industrialized world has a magnesium deficiency, researcher Guosong Liu says in the release. “If MgT is shown to be safe and effective in humans, these results may have a significant impact on public health.”
Liu and his colleagues at MIT developed MgT after discovering in 2004 that magnesium might enhance learning and memory. Liu is co-founder of Magceutics, a California-based company that develops drugs for the prevention and treatment of age-related memory decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
Magnesium for Better Memory
The researchers examined how MgT stimulates changes in synapses, the junctions between neurons that are important in transmitting nerve signals.
They found that in young and old rats, MgT increased plasticity, or strength, among synapses and promoted the density of synapses in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays important roles in spatial navigation and long-term memory.
Other experiments performed within the study found that MgT treatment boosted memory recall under partial information conditions in older rats but had no effect in young rats. Aging causes dramatic declines in the ability to recollect memories when incomplete information is provided, the authors write.
“Because [magnesium] is an essential ion for normal cellular functions and body health, many physiological functions are impaired with the reduction of body [magnesium],” they write. The researchers cite that only 32% of Americans get the recommended daily allowance of magnesium.
The researchers conclude that the study provides “evidence for a possible causal relationship between high [magnesium] intake and memory enhancements in aged rats.” They also call for further studies to investigate the relationship between dietary magnesium intake, body and brain magnesium levels, and cognitive skills.
The recommended dietary allowance for magnesium for adults 19-30 years old is 400 milligrams/day for men and 310 milligrams/day for non-pregnant women. For adults 31 and older, it is 420 milligrams/day for men and 320 milligrams/day for non-pregnant women.
Magnesium for Depression
A controlled study of magnesium shows clinically significant improvement.
Magnesium is one of the most important minerals in the body. Years ago, I wrote about the importance of magnesium for the brain; it remains my most read blog post to this day.
We get most of our magnesium from plants (almonds, black beans, cashews, pumpkin seeds, and dark chocolate are all good sources), but it’s the bacteria in the soils that enable plants to absorb magnesium, so all sorts of environmental influences can deplete magnesium in our food, from pesticides that kill off bacteria to potassium-based fertilizers (can be taken up by plants in lieu of magnesium and calcium). Food processing, antacids, diuretics, caffeine, and alcohol can also decrease magnesium absorption. For these reasons, the modern human tends to need more magnesium and get less, leaving a lot of people chronically depleted. Blood levels remain fairly stable, because without magnesium in a narrow range, the heart can stop beating…every ICU doctor checks magnesium levels on patients pretty much every day, and repletes magnesium levels by the bag full to keep up with a patients’ needs under such intense stress as a critical illness.
Increased stress increases magnesium loss (as described here), and the environment may not readily replace it. Since magnesium is such an important mineral to the brain as a part of almost every part of the stress response, recovery, and repair, it seems self-evident to study magnesium as how it relates to brain function and common stress-related ailments such as clinical depression. Small studies have been found to be helpful for folks with fibromyalgia and major depression and type II diabetes. However, most of the studies that have been done are, admittedly, terrible.
The major flaw in most studies is they used insufficient amounts of magnesium oxide. On the face of it, magnesium oxide is about 60% elemental magnesium, which sounds pretty good. However, it is also a very stable compound, so often doesn’t disassociate into the parent compounds and give you the free magnesium you need.
Therefore, out of a 250mg tablet, you might only absorb 6mg. Magnesium malate is only 6.5% magnesium, but almost all of that is available to be absorbed. Magnesium citrate is also highly absorbable and 16% bioavailable. However, it is more likely than the other formulations to cause diarrhea. For a recent and much improved clinical trial of magnesium for depression, the researchers decided to use magnesium chloride.
The full text of the paper is free online at PLOS One. First the flaws: it was not double blinded, placebo controlled. Folks knew whether they were taking magnesium or not. However, the researchers did employ a crossover design as a control. In the first weeks of the study, half the patients took magnesium chloride (12% elemental magnesium and pretty much 100% bioavailable), and then in the second phase of the study, the first half was switched off magnesium while the other half of the patients took the supplement. The study wasn’t huge, but it wasn’t small either, with 126 depressed participants. The scale used to measure depression is my personal favorite, the PHQ9, and the average score was just over 10, which corresponds to a moderate depression. Some patients were on meds, others in therapy, some in neither, but the main key is that other treatments for depression did not change in the course of the study…magnesium chloride was added.
Participants were given 2000mg (248mg of elemental magnesium) daily for 6 weeks on an immediate or delayed (until week 7, the crossover) schedule. Depression scores on average over the trial dropped by 6 points, which brought the mean from moderately depressed to mild or minimally depressed, a clinically important change. Anxiety scores also improved. Participants reported reduced muscle cramps, aches and pains, constipation, and decreased headaches during the magnesium trial (all of these are known already to improve with magnesium supplementation and are signs of magnesium depletion). When asked after the trial if they would continue magnesium, over 60% said yes. Those that didn’t complained that magnesium didn’t help or it caused diarrhea (n = 8).
The positive effect of magnesium supplementation was gone within 2 weeks of stopping the supplement, indicating a relatively quick clearance.
Although the association between magnesium and depression is well documented, the mechanism is unknown. However, magnesium plays a role in many of the pathways, enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters involved in mood regulation. It is a calcium antagonist and voltage-dependent blocker of the N-methyl-D-aspartate channel which regulates the flow of calcium into the neuron. In low magnesium states, high levels of calcium and glutamate may deregulate synaptic function, resulting in depression. Depression and magnesium are also both associated with systemic inflammation. The finding that those participants taking an SSRI experienced an even greater positive effect points toward magnesium’s possible role in augmenting the effect of antidepressants.
So…it would have been nice to have a blinded study. However, magnesium supplementation is both inexpensive and pretty safe. The amount of magnesium in this trial was below the recommended daily allowance of elemental magnesium, and as long as you have normal kidneys, it’s difficult to take too much (diarrhea tends to limit outrageous usage). Magnesium can interfere with some medications and vice-versa, so check my old post for that info. For depression and constipation or headaches or restless legs or fibromyalgia, it makes sense to at least try magnesium for a few weeks. Those who prefer not to supplement can be encouraged to add nuts, seeds, and dark chocolate (a palatable and healthy prescription).
In the meantime, keep an eye on PubMed, because the studies are (slowly) getting better!