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Want to know what the last 80 years of nutritional research have to say about the link between food and mood?
Maybe it’s just us nerds that like doing this. And I have to admit, I really do like learning about this kind of stuff from those doing the research themselves. So I want to give Laura LaChance (University of Toronto) and Drew Ramey (Columbia University) a huge shoutout for their recent study.1
Their hard work, slogging through nearly eighty years of nutritional data, help to identify the top twelve nutrients that help treat and prevent depression.
We talked about the first six last week and will cover the final six this week. Both of these posts are part of my summer series, Food and Mood.
I’ve created a DOWNLOADABLE, one page reference for all twelve nutrients that you can get from last week’s post (clicking on the image will take you there):
Vitamin B1 (Thiamin)
Vitamin B1 (also called Thiamin) is essential for normal growth and function of all cells in the body.2
Too little thiamine contributes to oxidative stress, inflammation, and plaque formation in the brain. It slows down communication between brain cells and can eventually kill them off.3
Too little thiamin is linked to emotional disturbances, memory problems, depression, and later in life, cognitive decline.
Some of these changes are linked to Alzheimer’s disease.4 Research shows that getting enough thiamin helps protect against Alzheimer’s.5
Supplementing with thiamin also improves symptoms of depression.3
The recommended daily allowance for adult men is 1.2 mg, for adult women, it’s 1.1 mg. For pregnant and breastfeeding women, it’s 1.4 mg.2,6
Best sources include lean meats and fish like salmon, flax seeds, beans (like navy and black beans), tofu, and brown rice.7,8 Some great vegetable sources are green peas, acorn squash, and asparagus.
Cutting back on alcohol will also help us get enough thiamin, since alcohol blocks its absorption from the digestive system.9
We often associate vitamin A with healthy eyesight. But it’s also found in brain areas important for fighting stress, depression, and anxiety.10,11 Taking vitamin A supplements has been shown to reduce stress hormone levels and improve emotional health.12
Vitamin A Requirements
We get vitamin A from our food in two forms: preformed vitamin A (also called retinol) and carotenoids. Carotenoids (the main one being beta-carotene) are converted by the body into an active form of vitamin A.
Daily requirements for vitamin A are measured in retinol activity equivalents (RAE). The RAE for adult men is 900 mcg RAE; for adult women, 700; for pregnant women, 770; and for breastfeeding women, 1300.13
Massive amounts of preformed vitamin A can be toxic, but this doesn’t seem to be true of carotenoids. Our daily intake of preformed vitamin A or retinol should be 3,000 micrograms or less.15
Vitamin A Sources
Preformed vitamin A sources include meat, fish, and dairy foods. Carotenoid-rich foods include sweet potatoes, carrots, winter squashes, and dark leafy greens. 16, 17
Vitamin B6 keeps blood homocysteine levels in check. This is important because homocysteine damages blood vessels, which can eventually block blood flow to the brain and kill off our brain cells. B6 is also needed to make brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, and a few others.18,19
Of all the vitamins, B6 is the most implicated in depression.3 Deficiencies causes blood homocysteine levels to rise, leading to seizures, migraines, and depressive symptoms. Depressed individuals have low levels of B6;20 on the other hand, B6 supplements improve depressive symptoms.21
Vitamin B6 Requirements
The Recommended daily allowance for Vitamin B6 is 1.7 milligrams for adult men and women.22 Pregnant women need 1.9 mg, and breastfeeding women need 2.0 mg.
Vitamin B6 Sources
B6 sources include fish and lean meats like chicken. The best vegetarian sources include tofu, chickpeas, sweet potatoes, and avocadoes.13, 23
Too little Vitamin B12 can cause agitation and confusion, poor memory, and depression.24,25
Low B12 levels are linked to higher blood homocytsteine, which is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.24,26 Low B12 levels are also linked not only to depression but also bipolar disorder.3 On the other hand, B12 supplements improve depressive symptoms.3,27
Vitamin B12 Requirements
The Recommended daily allowance for adult men and women is 2.4 micrograms; for pregnant women, 2.6 mcg; for breastfeeding women, 2.8 mcg.6
Vitamin B12 Sources
B12 is found naturally bound to the proteins in animal products: fish, meat, eggs, and milk. Strict vegetarians can get B12 from dairy products, fortified tofu and cereals, and nutritional yeast.6,28
The brain has the highest concentration of vitamin C in the whole body,31 where it’s needed to make brain chemicals and help brain cells survive and thrive.32,33
Too little vitamin C has been linked to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression.33 On the flip side, vitamin C supplementation effectively decreases depressive symptoms.34
Vitamin C Requirements
The Recommended daily allowance for adult men is 90 milligrams; for adult women it’s 75 mg; for pregnant women, 85 mg; for breastfeeding women, 120 mg.6
Vitamin C Sources
The best sources are guavas, kiwifruit, bell peppers, strawberries, papaya, pineapple, and oranges. Other good sources include broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, tomatoes, and kale, although some vitamin C will be destroyed when these foods are cooked.13,36
Zinc regulates chemical signals in brain areas involved in depression and anxiety.39 It also regulates the release of stress hormones and protects the brain against oxidative damage and inflammation. 39
Zinc levels are lower in depressed individuals.40 Zinc supplements improve depressive symptoms.41
The Recommended daily allowance for adult men is 11 milligrams; for adult women it’s 8 milligrams; for pregnant women, 11 mg; for breastfeeding women, 12 mg.15
Oysters are the most zinc-rich food. But there are plenty vegetarian choices, including tofu, fortified cereals, wheat germ, beans like chickpeas and lentils, hemp seeds, and oatmeal. 15,42
If you haven’t already, try getting at least one of these super Anti-Depressant Foods onto your plate every single day.
And don’t forget to download the one-page reference sheet on all twelve, available from last week’s post.
1LaChance, L. R., & Ramsey, D. (2018). Antidepressant foods: An evidence-based nutrient profiling system for depression. World journal of psychiatry, 8(3), 97.
3 Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Prakash, M., & Apostolopoulos, V. (2017). The effects of vitamin B on the immune/cytokine network and their involvement in depression. Maturitas, 96, 58-71.
4 Gibson, G. E., Hirsch, J. A., Cirio, R. T., Jordan, B. D., Fonzetti, P., & Elder, J. (2013). Abnormal thiamine-dependent processes in Alzheimer’s Disease. Lessons from diabetes. Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience, 55, 17-25.
5 Wang, C., Fei, G., Pan, X., Sang, S., Wang, L., Zhong, C., & Jin, L. (2018). High thiamine diphosphate level as a protective factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Neurological research, 1-8.
6 Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes: Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin B12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin, and Choline. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 1998.
7 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. (2014). USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 27. Nutrient Data Laboratory home page
9 Bemeur, C., & Butterworth, R.F. (2014). Thiamin. In: Ross AC, Caballero B, Cousins RJ, Tucker KL, Ziegler TR, eds. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease. 11th ed. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. pp.317-24.
11 Craft, N. E., Haitema, T. B., Garnett, K. M., Fitch, K. A., & Dorey, C. K. (2004). Carotenoid, tocopherol, and retinol concentrations in elderly human brain. Exp. Anim, 21, 22.
12 Stringham, N. T., Holmes, P. V., & Stringham, J. M. (2018). Supplementation with macular carotenoids reduces psychological stress, serum cortisol, and sub-optimal symptoms of physical and emotional health in young adults. Nutritional neuroscience, 21(4), 286-296.
13 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. (2011.) USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 24. Nutrient Data Laboratory Home Page.
14 Grune, T., Lietz, G., Palou, A., Ross, A. C., Stahl, W., Tang, G., … & Biesalski, H. K. (2010). β-carotene is an important vitamin a source for humans–3. The Journal of nutrition, 140(12), 2268S-2285S.
15 Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. (2001). Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
17 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. (2016). USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 28. Nutrient Data Laboratory Home Page.
19 Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., & Apostolopoulos, V. (2016). The effects of vitamin B in depression. Current medicinal chemistry, 23(38), 4317-4337.
20 Hvas, A. M., Juul, S., Bech, P., & Nexø, E. (2004). Vitamin B6 level is associated with symptoms of depression. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics, 73(6), 340-343.
21 Holsboer, F., Benkert, O., Meier, L., & Kreuz-Kersting, A. (1985). Combined estradiol and vitamin B₆ treatment in women with major depression. The American journal of psychiatry.
22 U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2016). Food Labeling: Revision of the Nutrition and Supplement Facts Labels. 2016.
25 Bottiglieri, T. (1996). Folate, vitamin B12, and neuropsychiatric disorders. Nutrition reviews, 54(12), 382-390.
26 Clarke, R. (2008). B-vitamins and prevention of dementia: Plenary Lecture. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 67(1), 75-81.
27 Syed, E. U., Wasay, M., & Awan, S. (2013). Vitamin B12 supplementation in treating major depressive disorder: a randomized controlled trial. The open neurology journal, 7, 44.
30 Jacob, R. A., & Sotoudeh, G. (2002). Vitamin C function and status in chronic disease. Nutrition in clinical care, 5(2), 66-74.
31 Pullar, J., Carr, A., Bozonet, S., & Vissers, M. (2018). High Vitamin C Status Is Associated with Elevated Mood in Male Tertiary Students. Antioxidants, 7(7), 91.
32 Englard, S., & Seifter, S. (1986). The biochemical functions of ascorbic acid. Annual review of nutrition, 6(1), 365-406.
33 Moretti, M., Fraga, D. B., & Rodrigues, A. L. S. (2017). Ascorbic acid to manage psychiatric disorders. CNS drugs, 31(7), 571-583.
34 Aburawi, S. M., Ghambirlou, F. A., Attumi, A. A., Altubuly, R. A., & Kara, A. A. (2014). Effect of ascorbic acid on mental depression drug therapy: Clinical study. Journal of Psychology & Psychotherapy, 4(1), 1.
35 Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Selenium, and Carotenoids. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000.
37 Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. (2000). Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Selenium, and Carotenoids Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
39 Wang, J., Um, P., Dickerman, B., & Liu, J. (2018). Zinc, magnesium, selenium and depression: A review of the evidence, potential mechanisms and implications. Nutrients, 10(5), 584.
40 Swardfager, W., Herrmann, N., Mazereeuw, G., Goldberger, K., Harimoto, T., & Lanctôt, K. L. (2013). Zinc in depression: a meta-analysis. Biological psychiatry, 74(12), 872-878.
41 Lai, J., Moxey, A., Nowak, G., Vashum, K., Bailey, K., & McEvoy, M. (2012). The efficacy of zinc supplementation in depression: systematic review of randomised controlled trials. Journal of affective disorders, 136(1-2), e31-e39.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.