Walking Guide

Dietary Supplements for Depression

It's becoming more and more common for consumers to forgo medication when looking for a "natural" alternative to treating conditions like depression. No matter what method you choose, it's important to get all the facts. SparkPeople recommends working closely with your health care provider to find a treatment plan that works for you. The following article will help separate the facts from the falsities when it comes to supplements that claim to treat depression.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate dietary supplements, which means that supplements with little to no research on safety or effectiveness are sold in stores and online every day. "Natural" or not, supplements can lead to overmedication, drug interactions, and serious side effects. It probably isn't a good idea to forgo your conventional medical treatment and rely on supplements alone. It's extremely important to always tell your doctor if you are using a dietary supplement or if you are even thinking about combining a dietary supplement with your conventional medical treatment. Discuss the following supplements with your doctor to decide which ones might be right for you.

A derivative of the amino acid tryptophan, 5-HTP (5-hydroxy-L-tryptophan), is converted into the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Supplementing 5-HTP is possibly effective in helping to increase the levels of serotonin in the brain, which helps regulate mood, sleep and appetite. However, additional research is needed. Side effects include: nausea, constipation, gas, drowsiness, and reduced libido. In high doses, 5-HTP may cause liver problems and aggravate asthma.

A number of studies indicate that fish oil supplements, which are high in omega-3s, may be effective at treating depression—when combined with medical treatment. All fish oil supplements are different, so it's important to read labels and discuss them with your doctor. Specifically, the fatty acid EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), which is found in fatty fish and fish oil, is the most beneficial. According to research, taking 1-2 grams of EPA orally (along with standard antidepressant therapy), improves depression symptoms. In contrast, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which is also found in fatty fish and fish oil, does not appear to have these same effects.

Folic Acid is a B-vitamin. Taking folic acid (folate) supplements with conventional antidepressant medication might improve the treatment response for those with depression. However, current research suggests that folic acid is not an effective replacement for antidepressant medication therapy.

Saffron hasn't been widely studied. One study of a specific saffron extract (from the Novin Zaferan Company in Iran) showed that when taken orally, saffron seemed to improve symptoms of major depression. However, one study isn't enough to prove safety or effectiveness.

SAM-e (short for S-adenosylmethionine) is a molecule that naturally occurs within cells and is believed to influence chemicals involved in depression. In several small clinical studies, the dietary supplement SAM-e was shown to be a helpful treatment for major depression when given intravenously or intramuscularly to patients. SAM-e seems to reduce the symptoms of major depression when taken orally as well. Large scale studies are still needed to clarify the true effects of SAM-e in treating depression. SAM-e can have many side effects including nausea, diarrhea, anxiety, headache, and intense mood swings.

The plant St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) has been used for centuries to treat depression. It is sold in the U.S. as a dietary supplement. Research indicates that St. John’s Wort improves mood, and decreases the anxiety, physical symptoms, and insomnia related to mild to severe depression. St. John’s Wort, however, has never been shown to be more effective or significantly better-tolerated than conventional antidepressant medications. St. John’s Wort may cause drug interactions. Side effects include: skin rash with sun exposure, insomnia, vivid dreams, agitation, upset stomach, diarrhea, fatigue, dry mouth, dizziness and headache.

When it comes to treating depression, there is insufficient evidence or limited research to support the following supplements:
  • Acetyl-L-Carnitine
  • Chromium
  • DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
  • DHEA
  • Inositol
  • KAVA (this has also been associated with liver failure)
  • Lavender
  • L-Tryptophan
  • Melatonin
  • Phenylalanine
  • Phosphatidylserine
  • Tyrosine
There's nothing wrong with looking for alternatives to treating depression. While many people are opposed to prescription medications, possibly fearing adverse side effects, it's important to remember that prescription drugs are tightly regulated, tested, and evaluated and approved for use by the FDA. No supplements are tested as thoroughly as medications are. Using supplements, vitamins, and herbs involves risks as well. Always discuss supplementation with your health care provider before making a decision on your own.
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Member Comments

Very good article. I will look into some of these supplements that are suggested. I agree with CHARADE539 "To everyone with depression, whether it is clinical, seasonal, or emotional: Not everything works for everyone". I just haven't found my help yet. Report
Thank you for the information. Report
To everyone with depression, whether it is clinical, seasonal, or emotional: Not everything works for everyone.

For clinical depression, there is a literal chemical imbalance in your brain. This is not your fault, no more than having bad eyesight. In fact, it is exactly like bad eyesight. You are not weak for needing glasses. If you go the medication route, please PLEASE understand this: If the first drug prescribed does nothing, that doesn't mean the medications don't work. Keep going back and keep trying other prescriptions until you find the one that works. It took me several tries, and yes, it sucked until I found the right meds. I had dizziness, drymouth, insomnia, you name it. But you HAVE to power through and tell your doctor that this drug isn't working and you need to try a different one. If you go the supplement route, understand that they take a lot longer to effect your system than drugs do. It can sometimes take months of taking a supplement before you see a difference. Because of this, finding the right supplement can take a lot longer.

For all kinds of depression, even clinical: Your environment can make your depression better or worse. Toxic people in your life can flare up symptoms like your wouldn't believe. It is hard to avoid it, especially when depressed. Many times I felt (because of my depression) that I deserved the poor treatment I was given. Don't let this happen, please, it's an awful way to live. If you are closing off, feeling trapped or anxious around a particular person, if you feel you cannot be yourself for fear of repercussions, they are toxic, get away. Gaslighting often can cause emotional depression. It's awful and it sucks and don't let people do it to you, no matter what your brain tells you. You NEVER deserve it. I promise.

Report
Just starting something to get moving pretty regularly seems to help more than most things to help keep things pretty even. The big changes can be so much harder to deal with. Report
Very informative! Report
good info Report
I take a turmeric supplement containing black pepper to help me stay on an even keel. Report
Great info. Report
Good information. I see a lot of patients who have tried many of these supplements to treat their depression. Report
Very interesting and informative. Report
I don't fight my depression, I know that it is just what is for now. When the doctors get everything figured out I know my mental health will be restored. I have no means of getting enough sleep because of pain so I take melatonin, it's great, but doesn't work every time.
I don't think a "normal" person expects to be happy all the time,
It's an unreal concept.
Being depressed is just a moment in my life,
My life that God gave me and I accept it and know that He is God and
He of course knows what is best for me. Report
FOXGLOVE999
I get so tired of people with no real life experience with major psychiatric disorders telling me that depression/anxiet
y or whatever are made up diagnosis. Suicide is a major problem in this country, that is fueled by this kind of ignorance. I realize that for people who have never experienced this kind of pain, it might be difficult to understand, but that doesn't make it fake. Report
PLASMID203
Great article (I especially appreciated the quick list of things to skip on the last page.) I would love to hear more about antioxidants like alpha lipoic acid, N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) and the like. I kinda place them in the same "supportive care" column as salmon or an extra of helping of vegetables with regard to treating depression. Some supplements like NAC have been used for years clinically/with a prescription to treat cancer, liver failure, (see http://www.mskcc.
org/cancer-ca
re/herb/n-ace
tylcysteine for info on this) but are also sold as supplements and touted as having potential use with regard to depression and anxiety.

Anyway, I'd love to see more articles regarding drugs/supplements that are well characterized and useful for treating other medical conditions that are now studied for the treatment of depression. Report
Not that the drug companies or the FDA are innocent, far from it, but it is impossible to assume a supplement is going to have a consistent level of quality and potency. Products from plants and animals are notoriously variable, and I speak as a person with years of experience in the food industry. Quality control is extremely problematic the closer you get to a natural product. All you have to do is walk around your produce department or farmers' market to see the truth in that statement.

I'm just saying this, "Make your judgment on depression treatment based upon your needs and your lifestyle, tempered with a lot of independent information. And don't believe everything you read on the internet." Report
Wow, this article is simply shocking! It's basically pushing pharmaceutical drugs for depression. The statement toward the end of the article professing that drugs are very tightly regulated is actually laughable. The drug companies hide the negative aspects of their studies and submit the positive ones. There are all sorts of research out there now to prove that. The black box warnings on depression drugs goes on and on and yet these drugs are tightly regulated? That makes no sense at all. After doing hordes of research myself on these drugs after ending up in the emergency room with life threatening side affects from one, I am absolutely convinced that the drug companies and psychiatrists are now trying to make up disorders to sell their drugs. Psychiatric drugs alone kill over 50 thousand people a year and 150,000 end up like me, in an ER with horrible reactions to them. They cause violence, mania, suicidal tendency, etc, and yet we are to be afraid of supplements? Makes no sense. This idea that depression is a disease is quite ridiculous promoted by the drug companies to sell their drugs. There are no tests, none, that would ever confirm the disease of depression. Drugs only cover up the symptoms of depression, they do not cure it (but they do create a patient for life, since once on them, it's hell getting off). I'll try anything else first! There are new studies and new evidence that drugs are ineffective for mild to moderate depression and no better than a placebo. We have become a nation of pill poppers and the drug companies are raking in billions from it and the FDA is being driven by it as well. Report
Walking Guide

About The Author

Becky Hand
Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.
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