Can Zinc Deficiency Cause Depression? How Food Can Trigger Major Depressive Episodes (and what to do about it)

Tuesday, July 11, 2017 by Meg   •   Filed under Physical Health and Emotion

Zinc is an essential element for both physical and mental health, though it is often overlooked. Zinc builds proteins, encourages immune system health and assists with the creation of DNA.  It also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, carrying messages to and from cells, a vitally important function for all internal processes. 

But not everyone gets enough of this nutrient. Zinc deficiency is thought to effect 20% of individuals worldwide, and more in less developed countries4. And being deficient in this element may trigger a number of physical symptoms as well as anxiety and depression.

Symptoms of Zinc Deficiency

The physical symptoms of zinc deficiency may include hair loss or other hair and skin issues like acne or eczema, nail problems, diarrhea, delayed wound healing and anemia. Reduced fertility and a loss of sex drive are also common with zinc deficiency, though let’s be honest, most of us wouldn’t be in the mood anyway with itchy skin and diarrhea. 

Zinc deficiency can also trigger sleep disturbances, fatigue, irritability or difficulty concentrating as well as increases in anxious symptoms and anorexic behavior6. Hyperactivity and lack of focus, such as that present in ADHD, can also occur, especially in children.

But depression seems to be the most connected to zinc deficiency. 

Zinc Deficiency and Depression

In a recent overview of clinical research, zinc deficiency was shown to trigger anxious and depressive behaviors1. This study also found links between zinc supplementation and reductions in those behaviors during supplementation, noting that zinc has been used effectively as a treatment for major depression

Zinc also seems to improve how effective antidepressant medications work, making it especially important in cases where individuals don’t respond to pharmacological treatment. Additional studies have found that rodents with zinc deficiencies not only develop depression, but are resistant to antidepressant drug therapy2, 3. Zinc supplementation in addition to antidepressant treatment has been found to be significantly more effective than SSRIs alone 5.

Some of these studies make me want to get a pet rat, just to save one of them from a fate of lack of nutrients followed by capricious amounts of drugs. Though when I say it that way, they sound more like frat boys right after mid terms as opposed to abused lab animals. 

“Micky, you going to the rave later? I hear they have Prozac…”

At any rate, zinc helps antidepressants work better and improves depressive symptoms in rodents and humans alike. Part of this may be because zinc plays a role at the cellular level, and triggers premature cell death in its absence4. As discussed in depth in past posts, in depression, the brain changes in response to an inability to protect cells from death, and trouble generating cells to replace them. This leads to lower functioning in certain areas of the brain over time. It is possible that some of the role zinc plays in depression may be due to this restorative effect on cells in the brain, particularly since the more cells are lost, the less able those cells are to respond to medication treatment, leading to worsening symptoms over time.  

These chemical and cellular changes in the brain may help explain why zinc deficiency has been linked to postpartum depression as well. Zinc is one nutrient that is often depleted in pregnant and nursing mothers—particularly if children are born close together—because we don’t have time to build up our vitamin and mineral stores between pregnancies. It is especially critical that this population eat a diet high in zinc rich foods, especially since we only absorb around 30% of the zinc we ingest.

So what should we eat?

Foods High in Zinc with Percentage of Recommended Daily Value (%DV)7,8

  • Oysters, cooked, breaded and fried, 3 ounces, 493%DV
  • Zinc lozenges, 1 lozenge, 153%DV
  • Wheat Germ, toasted 1 cup, 126%DV
  • Dark Baking Chocolate, 1 cup grated, 85% DV (19% DV per 29g square). 
  • Beef chuck roast, braised, 3 ounces, 47%DV
  • Pumpkin and squash seeds, 1 cup, 44%DV
  • Crab, Alaska king, cooked, 3 ounces, 43%DV
  • Cocoa powder, 1 cup 39%DV
  • Beef patty, broiled, 3 ounces, 35%DV
  • Lamb, 3 ounces, foreshank 49%DV, stew meat 37%DV 
  • Lobster, cooked, 3 ounces, 23%DV
  • Pork chop, loin, cooked, 3 ounces, 19%DV
  • Baked beans, canned, plain or vegetarian,19%DV
  • Chicken, dark meat, cooked, 3 ounces, 16%DV
  • Yogurt, fruit, low fat, 8 ounces, 11%DV
  • Cashews, dry roasted, 1 ounce, 11%DV
  • Chickpeas, cooked, ½ cup, 9%DV
  • Spinach, one cup cooked, 9%DV
  • Cheese, Swiss, 1 ounce, 8%DV
  • Oatmeal, instant, plain, prepared with water, 1 packet, 7%DV
  • Milk, low-fat or non fat, 1 cup, 7%DV
  • Almonds, dry roasted, 1 ounce, 6%DV
  • Kidney beans, cooked, ½ cup, 6%DV
  • Chicken breast, roasted, skin removed, ½ breast, 6%DV
  • Cheese, cheddar or mozzarella, 1 ounce, 6%DV

Did you notice that chocolate is high in zinc? If you didn’t, I’m pointing it out now, because it seems that many the foods likely to stave off depressive symptoms are the ones we tend to crave during those times. 

However, it is important to note that added sugars will alter how able you are to benefit from the nutrients in good chocolate. There is also a great deal of research indicating that unprocessed cacao (as opposed to cocoa) is vastly superior in all nutritional categories, though the specific percentage of daily value for zinc remains elusive. I use this cocao powder in smoothies or hot chocolate, or mix it with coconut oil and honey for a healthy “truffle”. I also add these cocao nibs to cookies or milkshakes.  

I recommend taking these zinc guidelines as simply another reason to eat chocolate and enjoy some crab legs or a lobster tail. 

“Honey, my therapist said we have to go out to dinner….and have dessert.”

If that doesn’t work, you can always try reminding your significant other that said chocolate and lobster may, over time, lead to less itchy skin, fewer mental health issues and improvements between the sheets. No wonder folk wisdom the world over says chocolate and oysters are aphrodisiacs. I assume this is what led a waiter at a restaurant in Mexico to elbow my husband when I ordered the Oysters Rockefeller. 

“Ahhh, looks like someone will be having a good time tonight!”

While it may be more of a long-term improvement area, chocolate and seafood are really their own rewards. Take advantage of the excuse to enjoy more of them.   

*Zinc should be used as a supplement, not as a stand alone treatment for depression. If you are suffering from major depression, please seek the assistance of a clinician. 

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Topic-Relevant Resources

Listening to Prozac: The Landmark Book About Antidepressants and the Remaking of the Self, Revised Edition
Psychiatrist Peter Kramer discusses the implications of preferred personality on mental health along with the evolution of Prozac as a preferred treatment for undesired traits.

Against Depression
Detailed explanations of the systems involved in depression along with personal stories of success from psychiatrist Peter Kramer.

Prescription for Nutritional Healing
Guide to natural health practices

Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease
A look at the effects of processed food on the brain.

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
An in depth look at how the food industry alters physical and emotional health through advertising and addictive substances.

Help Me, I'm Sad: Recognizing, Treating, and Preventing Childhood and Adolescent Depression
A deep but easily readable look into the world of childhood and adolescent depression.

Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, Dyspraxia, A.D.D., Dyslexia, A.D.H.D., Depression, Schizophrenia
An additional piece to the puzzle for those suffering from allergies and certain types of neurological issues. Food matters for mental health. This helps to explain some of those processes.

Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats
Great book on nutrition that includes old world recipes to get back to basics