5 Nutrient Deficiencies That Impact Mental Health

The brain is the most expensive real estate in the body. You wouldn’t feed a million-dollar racehorse junk food. You definitely wouldn’t pour junk gasoline in a million-dollar car. Your brain is far more valuable than a horse or a car, but how are you fueling your mind? Are you feeding your most valuable asset junk food? The nutrients you’re getting—or aren’t getting—play a critical role in your brain function and mental well-being. It’s time to learn about 5 key nutrients that can make or break your mental health.

The nutrients you’re getting—or aren’t getting—play a critical role in your brain function and mental health. Click To Tweet


Mental health is a state of well-being that allows a person to realize their own potential, cope with everyday stresses, contribute to their community, work productively, enjoy strong relationships, and feel fulfilled in life. Having a healthy brain is the key to mental strength.

To have a healthy brain, you need a healthy diet. The brain is the fattest, most energy-hungry organ in the body. It uses 25%-30% of all the calories you consume. And the gray matter contains 50% fatty acids that are polyunsaturated in nature and come from what we eat.

Food is medicine, or it’s poison. Without vitamins and essential nutrients, our cells—including our brain cells and enzymes—will not work optimally.

The Standard American Diet (SAD) with its reliance on processed fast foods has left a majority of Americans deficient in many nutrients, especially essential vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids.


Poor eating affects our brain function and structure. It also impacts the production of hormones and neurotransmitters. Deficiency in neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline, and GABA is associated with mental health problems.

The importance of a healthy diet is more critical now than ever before. That’s because cognitive health, behavioral health, and mental health issues are on the rise.


Research in Frontiers in Nutrition shows that nutritional deficiencies are factors contributing to mental disorders. In particular, here are 5 key nutrients that can impact mental health. The good news is that a growing body of evidence shows that nutritional and nutraceutical intervention has effective therapeutic benefits.

  1. Zinc

In the United States, approximately 12% of the population is at risk for zinc deficiency, according to research. That number is even higher among the elderly. It occurs primarily in people who do not absorb nutrients well due to digestive disorders or who have undergone gastrointestinal surgery.

The mineral zinc is very important for brain growth and development. It’s found throughout the body and plays a role in our immune system and metabolism. Research shows that zinc has antidepressant and anti-inflammatory properties, and it can improve physical and psychological symptoms in women who experience PMS.

Other scientific findings show that zinc, when combined with magnesium, may be beneficial for those with ADD/ADHD. If you have a digestive disorder or suspect a deficiency, consult with your physician about taking a zinc supplement.

Nutrient-dense foods to choose: Zinc is found in meat, poultry, legumes, dairy, and all whole grains.

  1. Magnesium

About half the U.S. population isn’t getting enough dietary magnesium, according to research. That’s bad news considering this important mineral is essential for every human life function in the body. Magnesium is required for our cells to make DNA, and it is well-known to calm the nervous system.

Magnesium intake has been shown to improve PMS symptoms and support the reduction of hyperactivity in children. Magnesium deficiency is linked to blood sugar challenges and mood problems.

Nutrient-dense foods to choose: Food options for magnesium include flax, chia, and raw pumpkin seeds,as well as avocado, almonds, Brazil nuts, lentils, beans, and dark leafy greens.

  1. Choline

This is neither a vitamin nor a mineral, but rather a powerful molecule. Choline is made in the body by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine plays a role in memory, learning, attention, and arousal. It’s essential for making and repairing DNA.

Choline is essential for making a substance required for removing cholesterol from the liver.  A deficiency may result in a buildup of fat and cholesterol in the liver. Your brain and nervous system need choline to regulate memory, mood, and muscle control.

Choline deficiency is common in people who binge drink alcohol, endurance athletes such as marathon runners, and postmenopausal women. Estrogen helps produce choline in the body, and due to a drop in estrogen levels, postmenopausal women may be at risk. Pregnant women may also be at risk for choline deficiency due to the unborn baby requiring choline for development.

The recommended daily intake of choline is 425mg for women and 550mg for men. For pregnant women the recommendation is 450mg per day, and for breastfeeding women it’s 550mg.

Nutrient-dense foods to choose: Plenty of foods contain choline, such as meat, eggs, poultry, fish, dairy products, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, beans, nuts, seeds, and organic gluten-free whole oats.

  1. Vitamin C

Vitamin C and other water-soluble vitamins play an important role in mental health. Deficiency may cause people to experience depressive episodes, chronic fatigue, stress, and anxiety. People who smoke cigarettes, vape, or binge drink are commonly at risk for vitamin C deficiency.

Nutrient-dense foods to choose: Citrus fruits, kiwi, and vegetables such as red peppers and broccoli contain vitamin C and may support mood and energy levels.

  1. Serotonin

Serotonin isn’t technically a vitamin or mineral. However, the nutrients we eat can impact production of this important neurotransmitter. Serotonin is critical for mood stability, sleep regulation, and appetite control. Having low levels of serotonin is associated with depression and anxiety.

Nutrient-dense foods to choose: Some foods that increase levels of this neurotransmitter include sweet potato, banana, blueberries, chickpeas, tangerine, figs, and grapes. One of the best foods for enhancing serotonin is saffron, a spice commonly used in Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine. It’s made from the dried petals of the flower, crocus sativus. Research shows that saffron has antidepressant effects and enhances the neurotransmitter serotonin. Increasing serotonin levels can lead to a decrease in depressive symptoms.


How can you tell if you’re missing out on these vital nutrients? Ask your healthcare professional to order key bloodwork tests, so you can detect any deficiencies. Then start to balance your numbers by going from “low” to “normal” then into the “optimal” range.

If you have any mental, behavioral, or cognitive health issues, talk with your healthcare physician about possibly using nutrition and nutritional supplements as a first step before turning to medication. In some cases, you may find that changing your diet can make a major improvement in your overall mental health symptoms.

Karen Mayo is an Amen Clinics Integrative Nutritionist, a board-certified integrative nutrition health and lifestyle coach, the author of three books including the international bestseller Mindful Eating, a natural foods chef, and a certified hypnotherapist.

Anxiety, depression, ADD/ADHD, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


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  9. I appreciate your technique at looking at a person’s nutrient levels. I was quite surprised to see meat on the list for some categories. Research proves that’s the healthiest diet for a body and our brains is a Whole Foods plant-based diet and that meat and dairy are not good for us. In fact, many people who feel like they have brain fog come out of it when they get off meat and dairy and boost their diets with more fruits and vegetables, nuts, and seeds. I hope you’ll look at the physicians committee for responsible medicine. They have a lot of research on this topic.

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  11. Great blog post!
    Can you share the recommended daily allowances for each of the five nutrients and the optimal daily allowances for brain health?
    Also can you rank these in order of necessity to?

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    Comment by MANUELA Miguens — December 1, 2023 @ 9:44 AM

  13. Thank you so much for breaking down aboutwhich vitamins, etc that can helpyo7with our health but mostly without brain. It was done in a language that the average person understands.

    Comment by MaryLang — December 1, 2023 @ 10:45 AM

  14. Thank you so much for breaking down aboutwhich vitamins, etc that can help you mostly with your brain. It was done in a language that the average person understands.

    Comment by MaryLang — December 1, 2023 @ 10:48 AM

  15. Thank you for this informative article. Nothing was mentioned about water. I’d like to know how important water is to our brain. Thank you!

    Comment by Ann G — December 3, 2023 @ 1:13 PM

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