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nutrien deficiencies low mood: man sad in kitchen

4 Nutrient Deficiencies That Can Lead To Low Mood

Perhaps you’ve landed here because you’re concerned about your mental well-being. Or, perhaps you’re simply curious (hey, it’s always a good time to check in with yourself!). Either way, we’ll cut right to the chase: While mental health is complex, there is a very real link between nutrition and mood. In fact, research has linked a number of nutritional deficiencies (and even less severe insufficiencies) with changes in how you feel mentally and emotionally.

Case in point: A recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that women with iron deficiencies had higher scores for depressive symptoms than those who were getting enough of the vital mineral. Those depressive symptoms included not being able to experience joy, low self-esteem, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, fatigue, and appetite changes. Pretty significant stuff.

Here, registered dietitians break down how running low on a few key nutrients (yep, including iron) can leave you feeling blue. They also share their strategies for upping your intake.

  • ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Catherine Gervacio, R.D.N., is a registered dietitian and a nutrition writer at Living.Fit. Chrissy Arsenault, R.D.N., is a registered dietitian and a consulting nutritionist with Kori Krill Oil. 

1. Iron 

So, why does iron—which is found in foods like red meat, shellfish, and spinach—affect mood? Well, because iron is a key component of hemoglobin, which is the protein in our red blood cells that transports oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, says registered dietitian Catherine Gervacio, R.D.N., a nutrition writer at Living.Fit. 

“When iron levels are low, there is a reduced capacity to carry oxygen, leading to fatigue, weakness, and a general lack of energy,” Gervacio says. And, you guessed it, this physical exhaustion can contribute to feelings of irritability and moodiness. (You may even have trouble focusing or remembering things.)

The National Institutes of Health’s recommendations for iron intake vary on life stage, but, for reference, men ages 19 to 50 should aim for eight milligrams per day while women in the same age group need 18.

Iron is found in a number of foods, including meat, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, fortified cereals, and dark leafy greens, says dietitian Chrissy Arsenault, R.D.N., a consulting nutritionist with Kori Krill Oil. Foods high in vitamin C—such as bell peppers, berries, citrus fruits, and Brussels sprouts—help with iron absorption, so it’s a good idea to eat them alongside those iron sources, Arsenault says. If you’re coming up short on iron, try to limit foods that inhibit iron absorption, such as coffee, red wine, tea, chocolate, and parsley, she adds.

Iron can also be taken in supplement form to help a deficiency, but it’s worth consulting with a physician or registered dietitian before adding a new supplement to your routine, says Arsenault. 

2. Vitamin D 

Vitamin D deficiencies are pretty common. (More than one in three people in the United States have the deficiency, according to the Cleveland Clinic). We’re particularly susceptible during the shorter days of winter, because without the sun’s presence, our skin can’t produce vitamin D (which is the number-one way humans produce it). 

Since vitamin D plays a role in sleep by regulating melatonin and serotonin, you could experience less-than-stellar rest—and feel irritable as a result—when you’re low on it, says Arsenault. Some research has also suggested a link between low vitamin D levels and an increased risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD), says Gervacio. 

Read More: 5 Possible Reasons Why You’re Not Absorbing Enough Vitamin D

The NIH recommends adults aged 19 to 70 get 15 micrograms (600 IU) of vitamin D daily. Though the sun is our primary source, vitamin D is naturally present in some foods. Fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel are good sources of vitamin D, Arsenault says. Eggs and liver can also provide some, and some cereals, grains, and milk products are fortified with it. 

Think you might need more of the sunshine vitamin? A blood test can tell you whether you’re vitamin D deficient, in which case you might consider supplementing. Check in with a healthcare provider about how much to opt for based on your levels—and look for a product that specifically contains vitamin D3, which research shows is more effective because it is more bioavailable. (Quick tip: Since vitamin D is fat-soluble, you’ll get the most benefits while taking it with healthy fats like a breakfast with eggs and avocados.

3. Magnesium 

Magnesium is an essential mineral that helps carry out many functions in the human body, from helping your muscles contract and relax to building and maintaining strong bones, Arsenault says. “Magnesium also has a calming effect on the nervous system and may contribute to relaxation and enhanced sleep quality, in addition to improvements in mood,” she adds. 

Unsurprisingly, low magnesium levels have been linked to depression in adults. Furthermore, a study published in the journal PLoS ONE found that adults who supplemented with magnesium daily experienced mood-related benefits like reduced feelings of anxiety and an uptick in their sense of well-being.

Leafy green vegetables like spinach, plus legumes, nuts, and seeds, are great sources of magnesium, according to the NIH. The going recommended intake is 420 milligrams per day for men and 320 milligrams per day for non-pregnant women ages 31 to 50. 

Given the mineral’s links to mental and emotional wellness, magnesium supplements are incredibly popular. You can find everything from mag-containing gummies to tasty drink mixes rich in the mineral. Not sure which supplement is best for you? This guide can help you determine your magnesium match. (It’s worth noting that magnesium glycinate, specifically, is typically a go-to for stress and sleep support.)

4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids 

You’ve probably heard that fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and tuna are great for your health. The reason? They’re rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential nutrients that our bodies need for vital functions to support heart, brain, joint, immune, and skin health, says Arsenault. 

Read More: 10 Easy Steps To Busting A Bad Mood

From a mood standpoint, omega-3 fatty acids also support the body in managing levels of inflammation—and research suggests that unchecked inflammation plays a role in low mood and fatigue. Given that, it makes sense that research suggests omega-3 fatty acids can benefit those experiencing mood issues (and even help reduce the severity of premenstrual symptoms). 

The body doesn’t produce enough omega-3s for optimal health on its own, which means you need to get plenty from your diet or a supplement, Arsenault says. The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fatty fish (a serving is three ounces, cooked) every week. If you don’t love fish, no sweat; there are plenty of other ways to get more omega-3s into your diet. You can also up your omega-3 intake with a supplement (Arsenault loves Kori Pure Antarctic Krill Oil).

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