In this post, learn about 3 common nutritional deficiencies and how to ensure that you're nourished for optimal mental health.
Hello! My name is Emma Donovan. If you’re not familiar with me, I’m a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) in Missouri, and a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) in Illinois. I am also trained to be a Certified Integrative Mental Health Provider (CIMHP). As a CIMHP, I have received training to offer nutritional education to support mental health. I would like to take the opportunity to discuss how to support your mental health with nutrition.
The Bidirectional Relationship Between the Body and Mind
Humans are not dissimilar from plants. If plants get the appropriate amount of nutrient-rich soil, fertilizer, water, sunlight, and growing space for their species, they thrive. If they do not get these things, or if they are burdened with pests or disease, they sicken.
I ascribe to an approach that honors the body’s “inner healing intelligence.” I believe that, just like plants, when our needs are met, we flourish. When some of our needs are not met, we sicken. This happens on a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual level. As a therapist, most of my work with clients centers on the mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the self. However, the physical is also a vital part of mental health.
This is because all of our body systems are interconnected, like an ecosystem. An issue in one part or system of the body can manifest in another. For example, nutritional deficits can lead to fatigue, depression, or anxiety. Alternatively, relational problems can lead to back pain and digestive upset. It’s important to treat the root of the issue, not the symptom.
It is not common for therapists to study nutrition. But I have taken it upon myself to learn more about how to support mental and emotional health through nutrition by becoming a CIMHP. This is because I know that mental health issues can have physiological roots. Mental health therapy does a wonderful job of teaching coping skills, improving stress resilience, enhancing self-care, improving communication, improving boundaries, healing trauma, teaching emotional intelligence, etcetera. These are critically important. However, if one of the roots of your issue is nutritional, no amount of coping skills or trauma healing will make the nutritional deficit go away! Therefore, it is important to consider your nutritional health.
The SAD State of the Modern American Diet and Farming Practices
Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet (aptly named SAD for short) does not give us the nutrients our bodies need. According to the USDA, the average American falls short of recommended fruit and vegetable consumption, consuming only 0.9 cups of fruit and 1.4 cups of vegetables a day. This is a far cry from the recommended amount, which ranges from the 2 cups of fruit and 3 cups of vegetables. It is an even farther cry from the Institute of Functional Medicine’s recommendation to eat 9 to 12 servings (4.5 to 6 cups) of vegetables per day!
Additionally, modern farming practices have eroded our topsoil significantly and unsustainably, leading to less nutrient-dense foods. Therefore, nutritional deficiencies are surprisingly common, even in health-conscious individuals.
Common Deficiencies That Relate To Anxiety and Depression
I will now share some information on common nutritional deficiencies that relate to mental health. This is by no means exhaustive, and does not necessarily indicate that you, yourself, have these deficiencies. However, this information may prompt you to consider getting these nutrient levels tested, speak with your doctor, and take inventory of whether you’re getting adequate consumption of each of them.
According to Dr. Leslie Korn in her book Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health, “low levels of magnesium are a marker for anxiety” (p. 103). Additionally, low levels of Omega 3s, vitamin D, and vitamin B complex are associated with increased anxiety. (Korn, 103).
Additionally, depression often results from chronic stress and inflammation. ADHD has been linked to chronic stress and inflammation as well. Deficits in Omega 3 fatty acids can contribute to mood disorders (Parker et al., 2006). People who are depressed are often deficient in B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc. Vitamin D and magnesium are very important to consider, as they are important factors in depression. Low vitamin D levels and low sun exposure in the winter can contribute to Seasonal Affective Disorder (Korn, 102).
3 Key Nutrients
While many nutrients support mental health, I will now outline 3 in particular: Vitamin D, Magnesium, and Omega 3 Fatty Acids.
Vitamin D, which we most often get from sunlight exposure and supplementation, was found in a study to be deficient in 41.6% of US adults. According to the same study, there is a staggering deficiency of 82.1% in blacks and 69.2% in hispanics! Vitamin D levels also tend to drop among all populations in the wintertime. As cited above, low vitamin D levels can contribute to anxiety, depression, and Seasonal Affective Disorder. The good news is that supplementing with vitamin D3 can raise your vitamin D levels. The Mayo Clinic recommends getting at least 600 IU of vitamin D per day, with up to 2,000 IU a day considered as safe. If you are curious about your vitamin D levels, you can ask your doctor to check them via bloodwork.
Magnesium: According to one study, magnesium deficiency is a “public health crisis,” linked to poor health outcomes. Another study revealed that 61% of US adults fall short of the recommended average requirement. This same source reveals that green leafy vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts contain high amounts of magnesium. Brazil nuts, in particular, contain high amounts of magnesium. View magnesium breakdowns in various nuts here. Some people choose to supplement magnesium. Magnesium l-threonate is designed to cross the blood-brain barrier, and supplementing with magnesium before bed has been shown to improve sleep and reduce anxiety.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids: Omega 3s are vitally important for overall health, specifically brain health. As stated previously, low Omega 3 levels can contribute to anxiety, depression, and ADHD. It is recommended to get between 250 and 500 mg of combined DHA and EPA from Omega 3s per day, but the average American gets only 90. This makes insufficiency unfortunately common. Those on low-fat or vegan diets are even more at risk of insufficiency. Fatty fish and shellfish are high in Omega 3s. The FDA recommends getting 2 4-oz servings of fatty fish (such as wild caught salmon) per week to help you get enough Omega 3s. Many people choose to supplement with krill oil, fish oil, cod liver oil, and algal oil as well. A meta-analysis showed that Omega 3s, specifically EPA, are beneficial for depression. Shockingly, 1000 mg of EPA has been shown to be as effective as anti-depressants without the side effects, according to Dr. Andrew Huberman. This academic article states that "the Omega-3 Fatty Acid Subcommittee assembled by the Committee on Research on Psychiatric Treatments of the APA advises that 'Patients with mood, impulse-control, or psychotic disorders should consume 1 g EPA + DHA per day. A supplement may be useful in patients with mood disorders." One doctor in particular recommends getting 1-2 grams of fish oil per day to treat Major Depressive Disorder. However, he advises caution when using Omega 3s for bipolar disorder.
I am only highlighting 3 key nutrients in this blog post. There are many, many more that are important for mental health! Hopefully, this blog post taught you something new. Perhaps it helps remind you that a healthy, nutrient-dense diet is important not only for physical, but also mental health. A great way to get more of the nutrients you need is to eat a healthy, nutrient-dense, varied, whole food diet. If you’re ready to take the next step, challenge yourself to “eat the rainbow,” learn more about different foods, cook more, and reduce processed foods. Make sure to treat your body with kindness and compassion every step of the way.
If you’re curious about your personal levels, I recommend getting routine labs done regularly. You can also specifically ask your doctor to test vitamin D, magnesium, and Omega 3s if needed. If you are concerned about cost, Laboratory Assist offers affordable bloodwork (we are talking $7 for a CMP and CBC!) for people paying out-of-pocket. And if you don’t have a doctor, you can meet with one of their doctors for $40.
In conclusion, our bodies thrive when they have what they need. They sicken when they don’t. With the American population increasingly suffering from mental and physical illness, it might be time to ask ourselves: are we giving ourselves what we need to survive, no less thrive? If your favorite plant started to wilt, you'd consider giving it more water or sunlight. Shouldn’t we start to treat our bodies the same way?
**Disclaimer: The information contained within this blog post is for informational purposes only. It was written by a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and Certified Integrative Mental Health Provider (CIMHP) and not a Registered Dietician (RD) or Medical Doctor (MD). It is designed to alert you about key research and findings that can support mental health. It is not designed to diagnose, treat, or cure disease. It is not “medical nutrition therapy” or medical advice. Side effects from supplements and food are mild or rare in many cases. However, always speak with a physician before making changes to your health routine, including diet, exercise, and supplementation. If you do not speak with a physician before making changes, you run the risk of side effects. There may be contraindications or risk of drug-nutrient interactions. If you do not speak to a physician, at the very least, please check drug-nutrient interactions and side effects of various supplements before taking them. Use supplements only as directed. Ensure you are purchasing quality supplements. Do not delay or stop treatment from an MD or RD as a result of what you have read in this blog post. I do not receive any financial compensation or kick-backs from any links in this post.