July 30, 2021

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11 Herbs and Supplements to Help Fight Depression

8 min read

Depression is a mood disorder that affects over 17 million adults in the United States alone. However, the actual number is thought to be much higher, as many people with depression don’t seek treatment for various reasons (1, 2).

Below are the five classifications of depressive disorders, which share features like sadness, irritable mood, a feeling of emptiness, and cognitive changes that affect functioning (2):

  • major depressive disorder (MDD)
  • disruptive mood dysregulation disorder
  • persistent depressive disorder
  • premenstrual dysphoric disorder
  • depressive disorder due to another medical condition

Depressive disorders are treated with medication and psychotherapy. Lifestyle modifications, including making dietary changes and taking certain supplements, may also help people with depression.

For example, research shows that specific vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other compounds may be particularly effective at improving depressive symptoms.

This article lists 11 supplements that may benefit people with depression.

Omega-3 fats are essential fats, meaning you need to get them from your diet. Some studies show that omega-3 supplements may help treat depression.

A 2020 analysis of randomized control trials including 638 women found that omega-3 fatty acid supplements significantly improved depressive symptoms in pregnant and postpartum women (3).

In the study, supplements with a higher ratio of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) were particularly effective. EPA and DHA are two types of omega-3 fatty acids, both of which are common in seafood (3).

Another review of 26 studies including 2,160 participants found that omega-3 supplements exerted an overall positive effect on the treatment of depressive symptoms.

Specifically, researchers concluded that omega-3 formulations that contained 60% or more EPA in a dose of 1 gram or less per day were most effective (4).

While these findings are promising, other studies have observed mixed results. For example, a 2019 study found that omega-3 supplements didn’t reduce depressive symptoms in children and adolescents with MDD (5).

Overall, omega-3 supplements are well tolerated and a healthy addition to your diet if it lacks fatty fish. They may also help treat depression in certain populations. However, more research is needed.

Summary

Omega-3 supplements may help treat depression in certain populations, but more research is needed.

NAC is a precursor to the amino acids L-cysteine and glutathione. Glutathione is considered one of the most important antioxidants in your body and critical for regulating inflammation and protecting cells against oxidative damage (6).

Taking NAC has been shown to offer several health benefits, including boosting your body’s glutathione levels (7).

Research shows that people with depression are more likely to have higher levels of inflammatory cytokines like C-reactive protein, interleukin-6, and tumor necrosis factor-alpha. Taking NAC may help reduce inflammation and ease depressive symptoms (8).

What’s more, NAC may improve neurotransmitter dysregulation in those with psychiatric disorders. The dysregulation of neurotransmitters like dopamine and glutamate may be associated with mood disorders and schizophrenia, among other conditions (8).

Finally, a 2016 review of five studies concluded that treatment with NAC significantly reduced depressive symptoms and improved functioning in people with depression compared with placebo treatments. Plus, the NAC supplements were safe and well tolerated (9).

Doses of 2–2.4 grams per day are thought to help treat psychiatric disorders like depression (8).

Summary

NAC supplements may reduce depressive symptoms and improve functioning in people with depression.

Saffron is a brightly colored spice that’s packed with antioxidant compounds, including the carotenoids crocin and crocetin. Interestingly, saffron has shown promise as a natural treatment for depression (10).

Studies have observed that it increases levels of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. While it’s unknown exactly how this process works, it’s thought that saffron inhibits serotonin reuptake, thereby keeping it in the brain longer (10).

An analysis of five randomized controlled trials found that supplementing with saffron significantly reduced depressive symptoms in adults with MDD compared with placebo treatments (10).

What’s more, the review found that saffron supplements were similarly effective at reducing depressive symptoms as antidepressant medication (10).

However, the researchers acknowledged that larger trials with longer follow-up periods were needed to better assess saffron’s ability to help treat depression (10).

Summary

Saffron supplements show promise as a natural treatment for depression. However, research is ongoing, and larger, longer studies are needed before strong concussions can be made.

Vitamin D is a critical nutrient that plays numerous essential roles in your body. Unfortunately, many people don’t have sufficient vitamin D levels, including people with depression.

Research shows that people with depression are more likely to be low or deficient in vitamin D. Those with the condition tend to have lower vitamin D levels than the general population, and people with the lowest levels tend to have the most significant depressive symptoms (11).

Vitamin D may fight depression through several mechanisms, including reducing inflammation, regulating mood, and protecting against neurocognitive dysfunction (11).

A 2019 review of four randomized controlled trials found that vitamin D supplements led to clinical benefits in people with major depression (12).

Additionally, a 2020 study in people with depression who were deficient in vitamin D found that receiving a single injection of 300,000 IU of vitamin D along with their usual treatment significantly improved depressive symptoms, quality of life, and illness severity (13).

However, a 2020 review of 61 studies concluded that although vitamin D levels are related to depressive symptoms and supplements may help, more evidence is needed before vitamin D can be recommended as a universal treatment for depression (11).

Summary

Studies show that vitamin D supplements may benefit people with depression. However, more research is needed before it can be prescribed as a standard treatment for depression.

Rhodiola is an herb linked to a variety of potential health benefits when taken in supplement form. These include reduced depressive symptoms and an improved stress response, which can help your body adapt to stressful situations.

The herb may exert antidepressant effects via its ability to enhance nerve cell communication and reduce overactivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis.

The HPA axis is a complex system that regulates your body’s stress response. Research suggests overactivity of the HPA axis may be associated with major depression (14, 15).

Some studies show that supplementing with rhodiola may benefit those with depression.

For example, a study in 57 people with depression found that treatment with 340 mg of rhodiola extract per day for 12 weeks led to clinically meaningful reductions in depressive symptoms (16).

What’s more, while rhodiola treatment was less effective than the antidepressant medication Sertraline, it caused much fewer side effects (16).

Another study found that a supplement composed of rhodiola and saffron significantly reduced depression and anxiety symptoms in adults with mild to moderate depression after 6 weeks (17)

Summary

Rhodiola may reduce depressive symptoms when used on its own or combined with saffron.

B vitamins play important roles in neurological function and mood regulation. B vitamins, including folate, B12, and B6, are needed for the production and regulation of neurotransmitters like serotonin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and dopamine (18).

Research shows that deficiencies in vitamin B12 and folate may increase the risk of depression, and supplementing with these nutrients may help reduce depressive symptoms in certain populations (19).

For example, folate supplements may reduce symptoms of treatment-resistant depression in children and adults who have a genetic mutation that affects folate metabolism (20, 21, 22).

Supplementing with vitamin B12 has also been shown to reduce depressive symptoms in people with MDD when used alongside antidepressant medication (23).

A 2020 review similarly suggested that taking vitamin B12 supplements early may delay the onset of depression and improve the effects of antidepressant medications (24).

Vitamin B6 has also been found to improve depressive symptoms when used in combination with other nutrients, including tryptophan and a form of vitamin B3 called nicotinamide (25)

Summary

B vitamin deficiencies are linked to an increased risk of depression. B vitamins, such as folate and vitamins B6 and B12, may help treat depression.

Zinc is a mineral that’s critical to brain health and the regulation of neurotransmitter pathways. It also boasts antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties (26).

Zinc deficiency is strongly linked to an increased risk of depression and depression symptom severity (26).

One analysis of 17 observational studies found that blood zinc levels were around 0.12 µg/mL lower in people with depression than in those without the condition. The study also associated greater zinc deficiency with greater depressive symptoms (27).

Similarly, a review that included four randomized control studies found that when participants took zinc supplements alongside their antidepressant medications, they experienced significantly lowered depressive symptoms (28).

Summary

Zinc is essential to brain function, and a deficiency in this nutrient may increase the risk of depression. What’s more, supplementing with zinc may reduce depressive symptoms when used alongside antidepressant medications.

In addition to the supplements above, research shows that the following may benefit those with depression.

8. S-Adenosylmethionine (SAMe)

SAMe is a sulfur-containing compound that’s shown promise in the treatment of depression. It’s found naturally in your body and plays important roles in brain functioning.

A 2020 review of 8 studies found that SAMe, when used alone or with antidepressant medications, improved depressive symptoms in people with MDD. The daily doses ranged from 200–3,200 mg, while the treatment time ranged from 2–12 weeks (29).

9. St. John’s Wort

St. John’s Wort is a popular herb that has shown promise in reducing symptoms in people with depression.

A 2016 review of 35 studies found that treatment with St. John’s Wort reduced symptoms in people with mild to moderate depression. However, the supplement has not been proven effective for treating severe depression (30, 31).

Like many other herbs, St. John’s Wort has the potential to interact with commonly used medications. Importantly, the herb can interact severely with some antidepressant medications, leading to potentially life threatening side effects (32).

10. Magnesium

Magnesium is an important mineral that may benefit those with depression. Magnesium deficiency is common among people with depression, and research shows that supplementing with it may reduce depressive symptoms (33).

A randomized study in 126 people with mild to moderate depression found that taking 248 mg of magnesium per day for 6 weeks significantly improved depressive symptoms compared with a placebo (34).

11. Creatine

Creatine is an organic acid that plays an important role in maintaining brain energy, among other functions. Altered brain energy levels are thought to be involved in the development of depression (35).

Some studies suggest that supplementing with 2–10 grams of creatine per day may reduce symptoms in people with MDD (36).

Summary

SAMe, St. John’s Wort, magnesium, and creatine may help reduce depressive symptoms, but more research is needed.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide or self-harm, please seek support:

While you wait for help to arrive, stay with someone and remove any weapons or substances that can cause harm. You are not alone.

Depression is a mental health disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. Although depression is typically treated with medication and therapy, some people may want to try other safe methods like dietary modifications or supplements to reduce their symptoms.

The supplements in this article have been studied for their potential to reduce depressive symptoms and may be appropriate for some people with depression.

However, it’s essential to discuss any supplement with your healthcare provider to ensure that it’s safe for you and fits your needs.

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