It may seem an unlikely link, but research published over the last few years increasingly points to a diet rich in high-fibre foods playing a role in a reduction in the symptoms of stress, anxiety and low mood.
In addition to this, deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals may also have an impact on our mental health – which we’ll explore later in the article.
In this article, we’ll discuss:
- What depression is
- Factors that can affect our mental health
- Alternatives to antidepressants
- The link between fibre and depression
- 8 vitamins for depression
- 6 natural supplements for depression
- Which vitamin deficiencies cause anxiety and depression
- The link between the gut and the brain
- How much fibre to eat a day
What is depression?
Feeling down is a common factor of life that we all go through, but it is not the same as depression.
This is when you feel low, but consistently over a period of a few weeks or even months.1
Depression is a serious illness, that has a range of different symptoms both physiological and physical. The most common symptoms include:2
- Continuous low mood or sadness
- Feeling hopeless and helpless
- Having low self-esteem
- Feeling tearful
- Feeling guilt-ridden
- Feeling irritable and intolerant of others
- Having no motivation or interest in things
- Finding it difficult to make decisions
- Not getting any enjoyment out of life
- Feeling anxious or worried
- Having suicidal thoughts or thoughts of harming yourself
- Moving or speaking more slowly than usual
- Changes in appetite or weight (usually decreased, but sometimes increased)
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Lack of energy
- Low sex drive (loss of libido)
- Changes to your menstrual cycle
- Disturbed sleep – for example, finding it difficult to fall asleep at night or waking up very early in the morning
Factors that affect mental health and depression
There are a number of different factors that can affect our mental health – and these tend to fluctuate throughout our life.
However everyone is different, and people do deal with these factors in their own ways. But some common factors that affect mental health to look out for are:3
- Self-esteem – if you have a low sense of self-worth or a negative self-image, this could be something that could negatively impact your mental health.
- Feeling loved – those who feel loved by their family, partner and friends are likely to have positive self esteem and the ability to communicate well and develop relationships with others.
- Confidence – another factor that feeds into both we’ve listed above is confidence. Specifically though, confidence is important for unapologetically developing a unique personality, making your own choices and taking risks.
- Family disruptions – whether through grieving the loss of a loved one or a family fall out, this can be very painful for those involved and can have a profound impact on our mental health.
- Physical illness – as well as taking a toll on our bodies, physical illness can also negatively affect our sense of self-worth, especially if it has impacted your life in a big way e.g., suddenly being unable to work.
- Abuse – it goes without saying that physical and emotional abuse can take a huge toll on our mental health.
Alternatives to antidepressants
While antidepressants are one way to treat depression, there are a variety of alternatives to antidepressants too. Some of these include:4
- Cognitive behavioural therapy
- Support groups
- Electric shock treatment
Link between fibre & depression
Fibre keeps your gut clear by encouraging regular bowel movements.
This rids your body of waste products including undigested food, minimising imbalances in gut flora caused by having unwanted microbes hanging around.
The ENS (your gut) will then ‘speak’ to the CNS (your brain) with the message that all is well. As a result, this will reduce your chances of feeling stress, low mood and anxiety.
Furthermore, a type of soluble fibre called resistant starch could hold the key to better mental wellness.
Resistant starch, found in green bananas, beans and lentils, ferments in the large intestine feeding the gut with ‘good’ bacteria and producing short-chain fatty acids which are beneficial to health.
A study at Oxford University published in 2014 found that giving volunteers doses of the resistant starch led to levels lower of ‘stress hormone’ cortisol and a lower stress response during tasks during than volunteers who had been given a placebo.5
8 vitamins for depression
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)
Studies on mice in 2017 showed that thiamine (vitamin B1) prevented negative changes in mood and emotionality, alongside preventing neuroinflammation and oxidative stress caused by stress.6
In addition to this, studies on the effects of thiamine on people with major depressive disorder showed that it helped to alleviate the symptoms of depression7 and even changes in mood due to work related stress levels.8
Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
Another type of B vitamin that is used for depression is vitamin B3 – or niacin.
One study published in 2018 looked into the long term effectiveness of using niacin as a form of treatment for bipolar disorder.
After being prescribed niacin as an add on to the conventional medicine (which was later terminated) the patient has for over 11 years been stable and in a good mental health condition without any psychiatric drugs.9
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid)
A deficiency of vitamin B5, as well as some of the other B vitamins, may lead to mental health issues such as depression, and sometimes fatigue.10
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)
Various studies have highlighted the link between low blood levels and intakes of vitamin B6 with depressive symptoms – especially in older adults11, as vitamin B6 plays a crucial role in mood regulation.
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)
As vitamin B12 deficiency has been linked with depression, one 2013 looked into using it as a supplement to help treat it.
The results found that vitamin B12 supplementation alongside the use of antidepressants significantly improved depressive symptoms.12
Vitamin B9 (Folate)
Studies have shown that people with depression tend to have lower folate levels and intake than those who don’t have it.
While further research on using it as a supplement to depression treatment is required, one study states that clinicians may wish to consider folate supplementation for patients with depression.13
Vitamin D for seasonal depression
The link between vitamin D and seasonal depression is something that has been studied for many years now, but can it be used as a supplement for treatment?
One 2020 study concluded that therapeutic benefits from vitamin D supplementation are best for clinical depression, rather than subsyndromal depression.14
Evidence suggests that there is also a link between vitamin C deficiency and low mood.15 Equally, one 2018 study noted that high vitamin C status may be associated with improved overall mood in young adult males.16
6 natural supplements for depression
St. John’s wort for seasonal depression
Commonly associated with anxiety and seasonal depression, St. John’s wort is a plant that has been used to treat these conditions over many years.
However, while scientific evidence is limited, a 2016 review of 35 different studies found that St John’s wort helped to:17
- Reduce the symptoms of mild to moderate depression more than the placebo
- Reduce the symptoms to a similar level as prescription antidepressants
- Had fewer side effects than antidepressants
As depression appears to be less common in places where more fish is consumed, this has led scientists to investigate whether there is any connection between the two.
Often examined as an add-on to antidepressants, omega-3 shows promising results as a natural supplement for depression.18
One 2010 study explored the link between magnesium and depression. It found that there was a lack of quality studies to recommend magnesium as treatment for major depression, however it did suggest that it would be effective as a universal prevention strategy.19
Current research indicates that zinc may help to reduce both depressive and psychotic symptoms.20 This is largely due to zinc’s ability to support several physiological functions and its immuno-modulation properties.21
A study in 2012 indicated that a diet low in calcium was related to depression in middle-aged women.22 Therefore taking calcium as a natural supplement for depression may be recommended.
Used as both a medicine and a spice in some cultures, one 2018 study indicated that saffron had results of increased mental wellness with a good short-term safety profile, making it an effective alternative treatment for depression.23
What vitamin deficiency causes anxiety and depression?
Being deficient in certain vitamins and minerals can affect your mental wellbeing. Whether it’s through decreased energy levels or low mood, here are some vitamin deficiencies that can cause anxiety and depression:24,25,26
- Vitamin B1 – for energy production
- Vitamin B6 – for mood hormones
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids – for memory and mood brain function
- Vitamin D – for healthy brain function
- Magnesium – for relaxation
- Vitamin B complex – serotonin levels
The link between the gut and the brain
Have you ever heard the gut being referred to as the ‘second brain’?
Scientists now know that the enteric nervous system (ENS) located in our gut does far more than just digest our food.
The ENS is capable of communicating with your central nervous system (CNS), which is comprised of your brain (that is, your actual brain!) and spinal cord.27
The ‘second brain’ label refers to a complex system of neurons that line our digestive system. These neurons send chemical messages directly to the brain via the brain stem and receive messages in response.
So, simply put, the gut and the brain ‘talk’ to each other in a way that does not happen with other organs of the body.
The mental health connection
So, what does this have to do with mental health?
Well, your microbiome (the trillions of microbes and bacteria that live in your gut) thrives on a healthy balance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria. Your microbiome knows whether your gut is in balance and communicates this information straight up to your brain via the vagus nerve.28
Scientists in Belgium published a study in 2014 which found that having the right balance of microbes in their microbiome correlated with a person’s quality of life and whether they experienced depression.29
95% of your body’s serotonin also lives in your gut. Serotonin – known as the ‘happy hormone’- is a neurotransmitter which sends chemical messages from cell to cell in your body. Normal levels of serotonin are associated with mood balance whereas low levels are linked with depression.30
Your gut is continually sending signals to your brain, this means if there's an imbalance of microbes or hormones, your gut will broadcast directly to your brain where it will manifest in low mood, anxiety or stress.
So, should I be eating more fibre to boost my mental health?
The short answer is most likely, yes.
How much fibre per day?
According to UK government guidelines, adults should be getting 30g fibre a day. Around 9 in 10 people in the UK are not meeting this with most adults eating an average of 18g a day.31
It is a good idea to eat a mixture of soluble fibre, found in oats, peas, beans, citrus fruits, carrots, barley and nuts, insoluble fibre, found in wheat bran, brown rice, cauliflower, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and nuts, and resistant starch.
When to seek help from your GP
The NHS recommends to speak to a GP about your symptoms if you have been experiencing them consistently for over two weeks. Especially if symptoms don’t feel like they’re improving, it’s affecting your daily life or you’re having thoughts of suicide or self harm.32
The final say
There are a variety of different factors that can affect our mental health, from our personal lives, physical health, our diet and more. And it is clear that there is a link between certain vitamins and minerals and depression.
But it must be stated that these supplements alone mustn’t be used to treat any depressive symptoms and it’s important to speak to your GP to get the right help at the right time.
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Last updated: 13 August 2021