Updated on 2/9/2023

Have you ever wondered about a link between nutrition and mental health? Wonder no more, thanks to nutritional neuroscience — an emerging discipline opening doors and shedding light on how nutrition relates to human cognition, behavior and emotions. This may sound complex, but hear us out. Changes in brain signal transmission at the level of chemical synapse are essential in the development of mental disorders. When there is an imbalance at any point in this process, our emotions, moods, thoughts and behaviors can change.

Our mental health is impacted when factors interact, causing a malfunction of certain brain chemicals and neurotransmitters. In fact, this is what leads some people to develop mental illness. Specifically, deficiencies in neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline and gamma amino butyric acid (GABA) are often associated with depression.

Nutrient Deficiencies and Mental Health Status

Below are some of the most common nutrient deficiencies that are associated with mental health conditions:

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble compound that is important for brain development and bone development. Data suggests low maternal levels of vitamin D are implicated in schizophrenia risk, and deficiency is linked to increased depressive symptoms. Spending just 15 minutes outside a day can help increase your vitamin D levels.

Foods that include vitamin D include:

  • Salmon
  • Tuna
  • Orange juice
  • Dairy and plant milks fortified with vitamin D
  • Sardines


Omega-3 fatty acids play a vital role and can be beneficial for helping depression, bipolar depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Polyunsaturated fats (in particular omega-3 fatty acids) play a vital role in maintaining proper neuronal structure and function, as well as in modulating critical aspects of the inflammatory pathway in the body.

Foods that contain omega-3 include:

  • Oily fish such as sardines, salmon (especially King salmon), anchovies, mackerel and oysters
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

Vitamin B and Folate (B9)

Folate (B9) deficiency has been reported in depressed populations. Folate and other B vitamins help in many cellular and metabolic processes, making them critical in producing brain chemicals.

Foods that contain vitamin B include:

  • Leafy greens
  • Legumes
  • Whole grains
  • Unprocessed meats
  • Eggs
  • Cheese
  • Dairy
  • Nuts

Amino Acids

Studies show that amino acids are helpful for bipolar depression, schizophrenia, trichotillomania and other compulsive and addictive behaviors. Another nutrient that is amino acid based is known as S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe) and has antidepressant qualities.

Foods that contain amino acids include:

  • Protein, most notably in meats
  • Seafood
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Legumes


Zinc has a relationship with serotonin receptors and low concentrations of both zinc and serotonin metabolites have been shown to be associated with the development of depression. It also helps in protein synthesis and structure and regulation of gene expression in addition it serves in neurons and glial cells. Deficiency in zinc been linked to increased depressive symptoms.

Foods that contain zinc include:

  • Lean meats
  • Oysters
  • Whole grains
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Nuts
  • Carbohydrates


Iron is involved in many neurological activities and deficiency is associated with anxiety and depressive symptoms as well as developmental problems. This is, in part, due to its role in transporting oxygen to the brain. Iron deficiency is usually associated with a low level of serotonin. Previous studies have shown that serotonin deficiency may cause a relapse of depression, making iron a helpful tool in preventing it.

Foods that contain iron include:

  • Red meat, pork and poultry
  • Seafood
  • Beans
  • Dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach
  • Dried fruit, such as raisins and apricots
  • Iron-fortified cereals, breads and pastas
  • Peas

Now that we’ve shared some key nutrients with you and explored their role in the link between nutrition and mental health, we encourage you to ensure that you are getting these key nutrients in your daily diet.

If you are concerned that you, or someone you care about, may be experiencing mental health symptoms that have become uncontrollable or problematic, we encourage you to seek professional help. Our Discovery Mood & Anxiety Program clinicians are skilled in supporting and treating individuals living with mental health conditions and we help people thrive in recovery every day.

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