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.