To maintain a positive and stable mood, learn about the most important vitamins for depression, the best food sources, and recommended supplement dosages.
Vitamin deficiency might not be the first thing you think of when considering the underlying causes of depression.
Doctors and psychiatrists rarely recommend vitamins for depression either.
But clearly your brain can’t operate at its peak when essential nutrients are missing.
A healthy brain is the first line of defense against depression and other mood disorders.
Some vitamins are necessary for the formation of mood-boosting neurotransmitters, while others provide energy to brain cells or protect them from damage.
Here’s a look at the most important vitamins for depression, where to find them in food, and recommended dosages if you decide to supplement.
Vitamin B Complex — The Anti-Stress Vitamins
Vitamin B complex is a group of 8 vitamins sometimes called the “anti-stress vitamins” since they’re essential for combating the effects of stress.
B vitamins are used to create the feel-good neurotransmitters responsible for maintaining a positive mood.
The B vitamins can help banish depression, ward off brain aging, and slow mental decline. (1)
While you need all of the B vitamins, here are the three most important for depression.
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine) — A Serotonin Cofactor
Serotonin is the main brain chemical responsible for making you feel happy, relaxed, and self-confident.
It also plays an important role in sleep, sex drive, and digestive health.
The most prevalent theory of depression is that it’s caused by a lack of serotonin.
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This is why the most commonly prescribed antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) which work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. (4)
Normally, serotonin is created in the brain and body from tryptophan, an amino acid commonly found in meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products.
Tryptophan provides the basic building blocks used to synthesize serotonin, but certain cofactors — vitamin B6, folic acid, vitamin C, iron (fe), magnesium (mg), calcium (ca), and zinc (zn) — must be present for this reaction to take place.
You’ll notice vitamin B6 is used twice in this two-step process. (5)
Vitamin B6 is also needed to make dopamine, another neurotransmitter associated with depression. (6)
Additionally, low levels of vitamin B6 contribute to chronic inflammation, an underlying cause of many health conditions including mood disorders and neurological diseases. (9)
Vitamin B6 Food Sources and Supplement Dosages
The top sources of vitamin B6 are meat, poultry, fish, potatoes, sweet potatoes, chickpeas, avocados, spinach, and bananas. (13)
The recommended RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) for vitamin B6 is 1.3 mg for most adults.
Pregnant women need more (1.9 mg) as do seniors (1.5 mg for women, 1.7 mg for men). (14)
If you take supplements like 5-HTP or tryptophan for depression, look for one that includes B6 in the supplement’s formulation.
Without this vitamin, these ingredients can’t do their intended job of increasing serotonin.
5-HTP Benefits for Anxiety, Depression, Sleep
Vitamin B9 (Folate) — Enhances Antidepressants
Vitamin B9 is usually called folate or folic acid.
People with major depression consistently have low blood levels of folate. (15)
Folic acid acts as an antidepressant by affecting serotonin receptors in the brain. (16)
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The potential benefits of taking folic acid for depression are so great that one study concluded that all patients with depression should be treated with folic acid. (19)
Also, folate protects the brain from environmental neurotoxins and from the buildup of the toxic brain plaques that are a factor in Alzheimer’s. (20)
Vitamin B9 Food Sources and Supplement Dosages
The primary food sources of folate are legumes (especially lentils, chickpeas, navy beans, kidney beans, and black beans), green leafy vegetables, broccoli, beets, and asparagus. (21)
You’ll find the terms folate and folic acid used interchangeably.
What’s the difference?
Folate occurs naturally in foods while folic acid is a synthetic form found in supplements and fortified foods.
The recommended dose of folic acid is 400 mcg for most adults and 600 mcg for pregnant women. (22)
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin) — For Nerve and Brain Health
It’s critical for a healthy nervous system and for the formation of serotonin. (24)
Vitamin B12 deficiency can be quite serious and should not be taken lightly.
If left untreated, it leads to irreversible nerve damage and can be life-threatening.
If you suspect you are deficient in this important nutrient, I urge you to get your blood levels checked and supplement accordingly.
Vitamin B12 Food Sources and Supplement Dosages
Vitamin B12 is found almost exclusively in animal protein sources — meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, and eggs.
By far the best sources are clams and beef liver.
The only reliable plant source of B12 is the sea vegetable nori. (31)
For those with compromised digestive systems, supplemental B12 is absorbed more efficiently than B12 from food where it’s bound to protein. (32)
The best B12 supplements are methylcobalamin or adenosylcobalamin.
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The RDA for vitamin B12 is 2.4 mcg, but most supplements contain much, much more.
Manufacturers offer megadoses of B12 because only a small percentage gets absorbed.
There are no known adverse effects from taking these large doses. (35)
Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid) — A Natural Antidepressant
Vitamin C isn’t just for colds; it’s also a proven stress buster and antidepressant.
It puts the brakes on the release of the stress hormone cortisol.
Excess cortisol increases susceptibility to depression. (36)
People with low vitamin C levels are often depressed and fatigued. (37)
Study participants who took vitamin C reported feeling happier, often within as little as one week. (38)
Vitamin C is yet another serotonin cofactor that acts as a natural antidepressant.
Severe vitamin C deficiency causes mice to act depressed and reduces serotonin and dopamine levels in their brains. (39)
One study found that vitamin C enhanced the effectiveness of the antidepressant Prozac in children who were depressed. (40)
Vitamin C is required to produce norepinephrine, a chemical that acts as both a stress hormone and a neurotransmitter. (41)
Vitamin C is also a potent antioxidant. (44)
Antioxidants protect the brain by halting free radical damage and inflammation, a potential cause of depression.
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Vitamin C Food Sources and Supplement Dosages
The top sources of vitamin C are fruits and vegetables. (45)
The fruits with the most vitamin C are citrus fruits, melons, kiwis, mango, papaya, pineapple, and berries of all kinds.
The best vegetable sources are peppers, green leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, and tomatoes.
The RDA for vitamin C is 75-90 mg, but most experts believe this amount to be ridiculously low.
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Most studies use much higher dosages.
One study on depression had participants taking 3,000 mg per day. (46)
You can safely take more, but doses over 2,000 mg per day can cause digestive upset in some people.
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Vitamin D — The Sunshine Vitamin
Vitamin D has profound effects on the brain during all stages of life from infancy through senior years. (49)
A review of studies on over 30,000 participants found a solid link between depression and vitamin D deficiency. (50)
This is not surprising since vitamin D regulates the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin. (51)
Unfortunately, vitamin D deficiency is disturbingly common.
It’s been called an “ignored epidemic” that affects over 1 billion people worldwide.
It’s estimated that 77% of Americans are deficient. (52)
Vitamin D is synthesized when your skin is exposed to sunlight.
But most of us spend too much time indoors or covered with sunscreen to manufacture appreciable amounts, especially during the winter months.
Low levels of vitamin D, rather than shortened daylight, may be the underlying cause of the depression millions of people experience in the winter known as seasonal affective disorder. (53)
Vitamin D deficiency, like B12 deficiency, can be quite serious.
It’s linked to a long list of health problems including cancer, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s. (54)
Vitamin D Supplement Dosages
By far the best way to get vitamin D is from the sun.
But if you live north of the 37th parallel, the sun’s rays are too weak to trigger vitamin D production most of the year.
When you can’t get all the vitamin D you need from the sun, consider taking a supplement.
The recommended daily doses of vitamin D are in flux.
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It’s widely agreed that the current recommended daily amount of 400 IU is way too low.
Other researchers are advocating 7,000 IU, which is still well below the safe upward intake amount of 10,000 IU per day. (57)
The only way to know for sure where you stand and how much you should take is to have your vitamin D status tested.
You can talk to your doctor or order a vitamin D test kit from the Vitamin D Council, a nonprofit educational organization.
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Why You Should Take a Multivitamin for Depression
In a perfect world, you’d get all the nutrients you need for optimal mental health from food alone.
But nowadays even if you forgo processed foods and eat a diet of “real” and healthy food, you may still be short on nutrition.
Many aspects of modern life are vitamin drains.
Alcohol, caffeine, smoking, stress, sugar, toxins, prescription medications, and malabsorption are among the many factors that increase your brain’s demand for vitamins.
And some people have inherently greater requirements for certain nutrients than the average person. (58)
Don’t underestimate the power of a good multivitamin supplement for helping with mood disorders.
There are occasions when a single-nutrient supplement is warranted.
But starting with a high-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement is more convenient and economical, and does a better job of covering all your basic needs.
Taking a multivitamin supplement as nutritional insurance can help you be healthier, happier, and may even help you live longer. (63)
Vitamins for Depression: The Bottom Line
In many very concrete ways your brain needs vitamins to ward off depression.
Vitamins are essential for the formation of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine — neurotransmitters linked to happiness.
Some vitamins have antidepressant properties of their own, while others enhance the actions of prescription drugs or other natural remedies for depression.
Taking a high-quality multivitamin supplement is a good place to start as it will usually cover basic vitamin requirements.
The next step to consider would be getting your vitamin B12 and D levels checked to rule out deficiencies as an underlying cause of your depression.
While there is no guarantee taking these vitamins will cure your depression, any deficiencies can certainly impede your recovery.