Since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic in January, a new plague has been following in its wake—This pandemic has created a parallel surge of anxiety and depression in the United States. This hits an already vulnerable population–about seven percent of adults in the United States experienced a major depressive episode in 2017.5 And while not all people have been equally devastated by the virus–be it emotionally, physically, or otherwise–the sudden lifestyle changes and the psychosocial stress caused by home confinement has deeply affected most people, regardless of their mental health.8 However, some people with pre- existing mental health conditions are more susceptible to stress, compared with the general population. Thus, they could be more intensely affected by the emotional responses brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and experience relapse or worsening of their mental health symptoms.6
While medications can be an effective means of managing and preventing depressive episodes, they might not be readily available to everyone who needs them, due to stringent stay-at-home orders. Even during normal circumstances, such medications are not a “one size fits all” solution and can take weeks to take effect. For this reason, there has been a growing interest in the relationship between nutrition and mental health. In fact, diet is now considered a “modifiable risk factor” for depression.2
A 2019 randomized controlled study published in PLOS One found that a healthy, diverse diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and lean meat was associated with reduced symptoms of depression.2 The three-week study observed young adult participants with depression who followed either a Mediterranean-style pattern of eating
or did not change their eating habits at all. Symptoms of depression decreased significantly among in the Mediterranean diet group. Those participants saw their depression score fall from the moderate range down to the normal range. Alternatively, the depression scores among the control group who didn’t change their diets–consuming more refined carbohydrates, processed foods, and sugary foods and beverages–remained in the moderate severity range.2
While the findings of this study add to growing literature that shows that a healthy diet can be linked to lessening symptoms of depression, it is not a silver bullet. Psychotherapy and antidepressant medications are common treatments for easing symptoms of depression and anxiety, but they also require an integrative approach to treatment that includes physical activity, adequate sleep, and other lifestyle changes. There are also specific nutrients that can complement this treatment, which include magnesium and vitamin D.
As the fourth most abundant mineral and second most abundant cation in a cell, magnesium is a keystone for overall health and wellness.10 It is critical for many processes in the body, including regulating muscle and nerve function, energy production, and making protein, bone, and DNA.11 Magnesium deficiency has been associated with several chronic health conditions, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but this mineral does more than improve your physical health. It plays a critical role regulating mental health and brain function too.
The association between magnesium intake and depression is well documented, and research continues to clarify this relationship.9 A study in Nutrients found that lower serum magnesium levels were associated with greater depressive symptoms. This suggests that increasing its intake might be an effective biologic mechanism for treating mild to moderate depression.3 Unlike many antidepressants, magnesium supplementation can show improvements in mood in as little as one week.3
Sources of magnesium include almonds, black beans, cashews, pumpkin seeds, and dark chocolate.13 However, the standard diet of most Americans provides less than the recommended amounts of the mineral, so supplements are an effective means of increasing magnesium intake. Consult with your physician to see if magnesium supplements are right for you.
In addition to keeping bones healthy and strong, helping cell growth, and promoting robust immune function, vitamin D can have a positive effect on your mood. While it isn’t clearly understood how “the sunshine vitamin” affects our mood, numerous studies have observed low vitamin D levels in people diagnosed with clinical depression.15 Simply put, the lower the level of vitamin D, the greater the incidence of depressive symptoms.
Interesting to note: According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), part of the National Institutes of Health, 35 percent of adults, over 50 percent of infants, and 61 percent of the elderly in the United States have insufficient levels of vitamin D. A key factor in determining vitamin D level is exposure to sunlight, which accounts for over 90 percent of the requirement for most people.18 Many Americans spend most of their time indoors which decreases their exposure to sunlight.14 The intake of this vitamin can be further inhibited by a person’s geolocation, the time of day, and the season. While there aren’t many food sources for naturally occurring vitamin D, there are a few, including salmon, cheese, eggs yolks, and mushrooms.14