How Deficiencies in Trace Elements Can Cause Psychological Imbalances

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In the practice I see many of my patients being malnourished. While they say they eat healthy, when digging further I realise that many eat out and on the run. In the evening there might be a cooked meal but often this is another meal eaten late at night and prepared to satisfy hunger as opposed to nourish. Trace elements are chemical elements that are needed in minute amounts. Although they are minute they are nevertheless essential and without them disease is inevitable. There are many physical symptoms that arise from a deficiency in trace elements however there are psychological symptoms too, which further reiterates the strong bond between the gut and brain.

Iron Deficiency

Iron deficiency, essential for brain development, is the world’s most common single nutrient deficiency. There are many forms of Iron-deficiency anaemia and therefore while very common among women, it can also affect both men and children alike. Studies show that infants with a long standing Iron deficiency can also have long lasting developmental problems not only in motor functioning but also intellectually. A research done on children with ADDH concluded that Iron deficiency also contributes to this physiopathology, particularly those with a very low ferritin level, where children were very inattentive, impulsive and hyperactive.1. 

Studies have also revealed that low Iron levels in mothers’ can affect their behaviour as well as postpartum depression. Pregnancy too puts a high demand on the mother as well as the foetus, as they both require substantial amounts of essential nutrients.2. If this demand is not met, particularly during critical developmental periods in growth, then the foetus can be exposed to hypoxia. There is furthermore extensive literature linking mental disorders with foetal hypoxia and malnutrition. This literature also supports cognitive, motor and behavioural deficits in children born to a mother with Iron deficiency or a child born with its own deficit.3. 

Iron is furthermore a cofactor in the production of certain neurotransmitters. These include serotonin, noradrenaline (essential for our fight or flight response) and most importantly dopamine. Both noradrenaline and dopamine are responsible for mood and behaviour. While noradrenaline acts mainly in stress responses it is also involved in pain, cognition, mood, emotions, movement and blood pressure. Dopamine plays a major role in pleasure, delusions, psychosis and drug abuse.4.   

Magnesium deficiency 

Another trace elements essential to the body is magnesium. A deficiency in magnesium can affect men, women and children, and the link between this and depression has been well documented. There has also been a direct link made with magnesium deficiency and mood liability, apathy and mental retardation. Studies have shown that low magnesium levels can cause symptoms of depression such as with bi-polar syndrome, anxiety and PMS.5.  

It has been proposed that this lack magnesium can come from stress, excess calcium in the diet, but also from the removal of magnesium from wheat and water which leads to symptoms of agitation, insomnia and drug abuse.6.   

Stress is one of the big disturbers of Magnesium, deleting the bodies’ reserves. We can however use Magnesium against stress, as it acts on the hormonal axis, preventing stress hormones entering the brain and therefore protecting it. I’ve heard Magnesium being referred to as the ‘original chill pill’.

Chromium deficiency

A less well-known but equally important trace element is chromium. Chromium is involved in the breakdown of glucose along with insulin. In the presence of chromium less insulin is needed. The problem today is highly refined carbohydrates contain little or no chromium and it is this type of food that requires increased insulin. 8. 

Chromium has been successfully used for ‘atypical’7 depression which is associated with carb cravings, weight gain, mood swings and excessive sleepiness. The way Chromium is also said to help is that as it improves Insulin, it then allows Insulin to help transport tryptophan (the precursor for Serotonin- our ‘feel-good’ hormone) across the blood-brain-barrier into the central nervous system making it available to be transferred into Serotonin.

How Essential are Trace Elements to our Health?

It is a fundamental fact that what we eat is essential to good health! This was described as far back as 450BC by Hippocrates where it was discovered that a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables could lead to disease. It is not only the vitamins and minerals within these products that are essential to maintain health but also minute amounts of trace elements. We are told that simply ‘eating healthy’ will give us the nutrients we need.  However, what healthy eating is for some is not the same for the others and information on what is ‘healthy’ can also be very contradictory! Furthermore, it can be debated as to whether we really are getting everything we need from the fruit and vegetables grown in essentially over-cropped soil.

What is ‘healthy eating`?

Healthy eating should basically be a varied diet with a balanced amount of protein, carbs, fruit and vegetables. Many people however, especially those wanting to lose weight, eat a high protein diet while others are addicted to a diet of highly processed carbohydrates. Essential to a balanced diet though is fruit, and more particularly vegetables. Research though has proven that the quality of the soil we use today to grow crops is often lacking in the essential minerals that it once had. The continuous cropping of this soil has led to the foods produced being nutrient depleted. Furthermore, fertilizers do not contain any trace elements that nourish the soil and there are also many problems with soil oxidation and soil PH. Exacerbating this, is the fact that there are many people who do not ‘eat healthy’, with a balanced diet of fresh fruit and vegetables, and instead live on fast ‘modern’ food, filled with herbicides and pesticides, additives, conservatives and flavourings.

So where are we Getting the Nutrients From?

With such depletion in the soil, it is obvious we are not getting these essential elements in the amount that we need. The question then must be raised as to what exactly is the amount we need to have as our Recommended Daily Allowance. For most nutritionists the RDA is the absolute minimum before deficiencies arise. It therefore makes sense to assume that if we are not getting the trace elements, we need from the food we eat, then we are generally eating on the edge or below our RDA.

For those of us with access and know-how, we can avoid these deficiencies with good quality, easily absorbable supplements. For those who have no access or know-how, or even those taking inadequate products, the bodies store house is running on empty. The results of this can be seen not only physically but also mentally, with certain trace element deficiencies leading to ADHD, anxiety, aggression, bipolar disorders, depression, PMS and even schizophrenia. Our brain, as with the rest of the body, requires nutrition in order to function.  Many professionals say that adequate nutrition comes from a good quality diet.  Unfortunately, a ‘good quality diet’ isn’t enough anymore.

There is a long list of trace elements that are essential to our dietary intake and all play a vital role. The amounts vary between mineral to mineral but even if we need them in minute amounts, we cannot survive without them. Some common trace element deficiencies can have substantial mental health implications. In order to prevent the increase in certain mental disorders, and as our intake of minerals through food is inadequate, the best we can do is choose a good quality multi-vitamin and mineral supplement in order to keep our body and mind free from possible life-debilitating illnesses.


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