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Depression: Can Nutrition Play a Role?

The relationship between these health-related risk factors of poor mental health are complex, dynamic and certainly need to be better understood.

Unfortunately, in recent times depression has become a common subject of discussion. A 10-year study looking at mental health in adolescents came to its conclusion in 2019 (Patalay & Gage, 2019). The researchers discovered that depressive symptoms in 14-year-olds had increased from 9% in 2005 to 14.8% in 2015. Incidents of self-harming behaviour had also increased from 11.8% to 14.4% respectively. The researchers also looked at potential risk factors associated with negatively affecting mental health. They discovered that overall risk factors had declined or remained unchanged; smoking, alcohol consumption and overall anti-social behaviours had all declined. Some risk factors had increased from 2005 to 2015, these included less time sleeping, prevalence of obesity and a greater proportion of teenagers perceiving themselves to be obese. It should be noted that this research is reporting on observations and correlations and do not conclusively prove cause; this research provides insight. The relationship between these health-related risk factors of poor mental health are complex, dynamic and certainly need to be better understood. As a nutritionist, I began to consider the role of diet and food and its potential role in depression. 

Currently, medicinal treatments for depression are linked with potential side effects and often can take weeks to become fully effective. Therefore, there is a real need for safer alternatives that can have a faster impact on larger numbers of individuals. So, the question is, can nutrition play a role? We know that nutrition has a drastic effect on the normal function of the brain, including memory, concentration, focus and mood to name a few examples. Nutrition impacts every metabolic process that occurs in the human body. Understanding which nutrients are needed for the optimal function of the targeted processes provides us with some possible nutritional interventions. These dietary changes may help alleviate some of the negative consequences that are linked with depression. 

Research suggests that the B vitamins may play an important role. Specifically, vitamins B6, B9 and B12 are essential for neurotransmitter production. These neurotransmitters include serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, which are also known as the ‘happy chemicals’. Research has shown that deficiencies in these B vitamins are associated with the low production of these chemicals. A study conducted in 2019 found that lower levels of vitamin B6 were associated with an increased risk of depression. The authors concluded that increasing the vitamin B6 content of the diet may be a contributing factor in reducing depression. Deficiencies in both B9 and B12 have been linked with patients with depression, with one study showing that a vitamin B12 deficiency can be diagnosed in up to one third of patients with depression. Some research hints that supplementing the B vitamins may be advantageous, but the most crucial goal is to avoid deficiencies. 

Here is a list of foods high in vitamin B6:

The recommended daily intake for vitamin B6 in the UK for males and females is 1.3mg daily (age 14-50).

  • 128g chickpeas = 1.1mg
  • 1 chicken breast = 1.0mg
  • 1 banana = 0.4mg
  • 130g potatoes = 0.4mg

Here is a list of foods high in vitamin B9:

The recommended daily intake for vitamin B9 in the UK for males is 400mcg (age 14-50) and for women is 800mcg (age 14-50).

  • 200g lentils = 360mcg
  • 90g asparagus = 134mcg
  • 4 eggs = 88mcg
  • 2 beetroots = 296mcg

Here is a list of foods high in vitamin B12:

The recommended daily intake for vitamin B12 in the UK for males and females is 2.4mcg (age 14-50).

  • 100g minced beef = 5.9mcg
  • 100g uncooked tuna = 10.9mcg
  • 1 salmon fillet = 4.8mcg
  • 250ml whole milk = 1.1mcg

There are many factors nutritionally that can have an impact on symptoms of depression. We have just looked at the B vitamins and their role, however there is more. According to the research, other nutritional avenues need to be addressed alongside B vitamin deficiencies such as food quality (increasing fruit and vegetable intake and reducing highly processed food consumption), fatty acid imbalance (omega-3 and omega-6), magnesium/zinc deficiency and caffeine intake. Depression is complex in its nature that’s for certain, but we are understanding the relationship between food and mental health more and more. Hopefully, through changes in one’s diet, we can alleviate some of the symptoms of depression and create a real impact on people’s lives.

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