A nutritional supplement, also commonly referred to as a dietary supplement, is a preparation of food, nutrients, minerals, or other substances, usually in the form of a pill or powder, that is mixed in food or drink.
How Supplements Work
Certain vitamins and nutrients found in food can help elevate mood and combat the effects of depression. By taking supplements that contain these nutrients, a person can ensure he or she is getting proper nutrition and thus the maximum mood boost possible from food. Some people use this type of therapy instead of prescription medications to treat mild depression.
Supplements for Depression
Here are some nutritional supplements that are sometimes taken to alleviate depression.
1. Fish Oil
Fish oil contains a high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids. This kind of “good” fat is essential to brain and heart function and is found in naturally high levels in certain fish, avocados, and other foods. Research has shown that people with depression have lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Increasing levels of omega-3 fatty acids through high doses of fish oil and other sources can reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death and lower triglycerides. However, there is no conclusive evidence that fish oil consistently improves mood.
2. St. John’s Wort
One of the most common herbal supplements used to treat mild depression, an extract from the flowering plant St. John’s wort has been used to treat many different conditions for centuries. Many question the efficacy of this supplement in treating depression, and a 2009 study by the National Institutes of Health found that St. John’s wort is of minimal benefit in treating major depression and, furthermore, can interfere with some depression medications.
3. Valerian Root
Valerian root is commonly used to treat insomnia and anxiety because of its calming effects. Some people take valerian root for depression if stress and anxiety are underlying issues and also as a sleep aid if sleeplessness is problematic. Research as to the efficacy of this supplement is considered inconclusive.
4. S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe)
Although S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe) is a chemical found naturally in the body. The supplement form is a prescription drug used to treat depression in Europe, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies it as a dietary supplement. It has been hypothesized that SAMe helps with depression by increasing levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain.
5. Vitamin B6
Clinical evidence does not support Vitamin B6 as a treatment for depression, but anecdotal evidence from its users — especially premenstrual women with depression — supports its effectiveness. Studies have described depression as a symptom of B6 deficiency.
6. Folic Acid (Vitamin B9)
Found naturally in fruits and leafy vegetables, folic acid affects neurotransmitters in the brain. A 2005 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology showed some evidence suggesting low levels of folic acid could contribute to depression. A 2004 study in the same journal found that a combination of folic acid supplements and a selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) medication might have added benefit in treating depression. However, very few people are low in folic acid, and the overall research suggests there is no benefit to treating depression with folic aicd.
This common cooking spice is used in Persian medicine to treat depression. A few small studies in Iran found that taking 30-milligram doses daily had a similar effect to Prozac on people with mild depression.
Different types of passionflower petals and their roots are thought to have antidepressant qualities similar to those of monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) prescription drugs. Native Americans have been using passionflower for centuries to treat insomnia, hysteria, and epilepsy. It’s also used as a painkiller.
Parasympa is a blend of oats, kava, and damiana (a type of passionflower) that is used to relax the autonomic nervous system to relieve stress, improve sleep, increase energy, and aid in digestion.
The same ingredient that flavors beer, hops have sedative qualities that may help address sleeplessness or restlessness in people with depression.
Pros of Supplements
Nutritional supplements can help your body and mind by providing the nutrition they need but aren’t getting from the food you eat. Most of them can be purchased over the counter.
Cons of Supplements
The FDA regulates dietary supplements as food but not as drugs. In other words, there are no FDA-approved supplements for the treatment of depression or any condition. No formal governing body guarantees supplement potency or dosing information. In fact, supplements subjected to scrutiny are often found to contain little or no active ingredients. Also, supplements can be toxic to the body. There are many well-documented cases of kidney and liver failure associated with supplements as well as other problems ranging from heart attack and stroke to nerve damage.
Consult Your Doctor
It is wise to weigh the pros and cons of supplementation by discussing your interests in supplements with your physician. Although most supplements are available without a prescription, you should always consult your doctor before starting to take a supplement. A trained professional, such as a nutritionist or a medical doctor who incorporates alternative therapies into treatment, can recommend a high-quality product and ensure you’re using the right supplements in the right amounts.
What the Expert Says
Dr. Mason Turner, Chief of Psychiatry, Kaiser Permanente San Francisco, said that research doesn’t support the use of nutritional supplements for a primary medical strategy in helping depression.
“However, nutrition is important for depression. Often people who are depressed are not eating well,” Dr. Turner said. “Most supplements are harmless, but many are not needed. You should really talk to your doctor about them.”
Also, he added, as nutritional supplements are not regulated, the safety of the products is unknown.