June 9, 2023

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Depression—defined as persistent feelings of sadness or loss of interest—is sometimes situational, caused by a specific event such as divorce, job loss or death of a loved one. Other times, it may be linked to a hormonal imbalance in the brain. Regardless of the cause, there are treatments available.
Some options for care involve taking prescription antidepressant medication, which could help curb symptoms. But people who prefer another method may be curious about supplements that may help improve depression symptoms. Here’s what you need to know.
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A person dealing with depression may have low energy, sleep too much or too little, experience changes in appetite, have trouble concentrating or harbor feelings of unworthiness. Non-prescription treatments for depression can include supplements, such as herbs or nutrients, used to manage symptoms of depression. Unlike prescription antidepressants, these options don’t need a doctor’s order.
“There are lots of things people can do to help [manage or treat] depression,” says Jonathan Metzl, M.D., a psychiatry professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and the author of several mental and societal health books. For example, he says that there are many scientific studies linking lifestyle habits such as exercise, eating nutrient-rich foods and meditation to lowering feelings of depression. He notes that therapy is also an important way to manage depression in a non-prescription way.
However, Dr. Metzl cautions that some non-prescription antidepressant remedies should be considered with a skeptical eye, as it’s important to know the scientific evidence backing the use of certain herbs or supplements for better mental health.
There are several different types of depression, and Dr. Metzl says that treating depression varies greatly on the individual. Below are different types of depression—if you are experiencing symptoms associated with any of the different types of depression, book an appointment with your health care provider to discuss proper treatment.
Psychiatrist Danielle Hairston, M.D., who is based in Baltimore, says anyone who is experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or other symptoms of depression should see their primary care doctor. A professional can help you figure out the best course of action to take and can refer you to a mental health provider, if necessary.
Your primary care doctor may be a good person to discuss the pros and cons of prescription antidepressants versus non-prescription treatments as it relates to your unique circumstances. And, if you have questions about a specific herb or supplement, she says that a naturopathic doctor is a good person to ask.
There are times when prescription antidepressants are needed for proper treatment, says Dr. Hairston. Both experts emphasize that treating depression varies greatly depending on the individual, and it is always best to talk through treatment options with a medical expert, such as a primary care physician.
Additionally, Dr. Hairston says some supplements and herbs can interfere with medications, so she does not recommend trying them without talking to your health care provider first if you are taking any medications regularly or have any underlying health conditions.
It’s important to remember that, unlike prescription antidepressants, supplements aren’t regulated. Research is also very limited on the efficacy of natural antidepressants. If you’re considering taking one, look for brands that have been tested by a third-party for safety and efficiency, such as ConsumerLab or United States Pharmacopeia. When talking to your doctors, make sure you let them know all of the medications and supplements (such as natural antidepressants) you are taking.
Here are a few options:
Both psychiatrists say St. John’s Wort—a yellow flowering herb native to Asia and Europe—has long been talked about as a treatment for depression—but both caution that the hype is greater than the actual benefits. Scientific studies show that the herb may help with mild to moderate depression, but not major depression. While researchers do not know exactly how St. John’s Wort could help with mild to moderate depression, one hypothesis is that the supplement naturally boosts the amount of serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline in the brain—three chemicals that play an important role in mood regulation. But this is not known for sure, and prescription antidepressants are more effective at doing this in a regulated and well-studied fashion.
Dr. Hairston adds that St. John’s Wort may interfere with many medications, including prescription antidepressants, which is something to be mindful of.
5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is a naturally occurring amino acid that the body uses to produce the hormone tryptophan. Some people with depression may seek out a 5-HTP supplement because the body uses tryptophan to make serotonin. Dr. Metzl and Dr. Hairston also say this supplement needs more scientific evidence to confirm a legitimate connection.
Dr. Hairston says there are times when taking a melatonin supplement can be helpful because it could lead to better sleep for those who are kept up at night due to their depression. Lack of sleep is linked to experiencing a lower mood, creating a vicious cycle. “Many people associate depression with sleeping too much, but it’s actually more common for someone who is depressed to have trouble sleeping,” she says. “For some, melatonin supplements can help with sleep,” she says. Individuals who get good sleep are less likely to experience depression. For this reason, it might be beneficial for boosting mood.
Dr. Hairston believes there’s a connection between adequate vitamin B12 intake and improved mental health. What scientific studies show, though, is that it’s most important to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin B12 through foods, and to not increase your intake through supplements if you already are meeting the recommended daily amount of 2.4 micrograms a day. This is because while researchers have found a connection between low levels of vitamin B12 and depression, there is no evidence of vitamin B12 being an effective way to treat depression. Additionally, it seems that the most effective way to ensure you’re getting enough vitamin B12 is through foods, not supplements. Foods high in vitamin B12 include meat, poultry, eggs, dairy and fortified cereals.
Omega-3 fatty acids are also linked to improving depression. According to Harvard Health, these nutrients can reduce inflammation in the brain, which may have a positive impact on mood. Both psychiatrists recommend getting this nutrient through foods such as salmon, tuna, chia seeds, walnuts and soybeans. This way, you’ll also get other nutrients linked to benefiting mental health, including vitamin B12 and antioxidants.
A non-supplement option to improving depression symptoms is to work on your lifestyle habits. Both experts say certain lifestyle habits play an important role in managing depression. This includes diet, exercise, meditation and, at times, therapy. Specific to diet, Dr. Hairston recommends choosing foods that keep blood sugar levels steady. Protein, fiber and unsaturated fats help do this. Dr. Hairston says that spikes in blood sugar can cause both energy and mood to rise and fall, making depression harder to manage, so avoid too much white flour, sugar, rice and potatoes.
Physical activity is also important. “Many studies have shown a connection between exercise and mood,” says Dr. Hairston. Some forms of exercise, like cardio, boost endorphins, which is linked to a more positive mood. Yoga is also associated with helping depression since it activates a stress management reaction in the brain. “Exercising also gives someone a sense of accomplishment, another reason why it can help with depression,” adds Dr. Hairston.
There is also a link between meditation and managing depression, adds Dr. Metzl, as mindfulness and meditation may lower cortisol levels, a hormone linked to depression when elevated.
In addition to these lifestyle habits, both experts say anyone experiencing depression may want to consider therapy. There are several types of therapy used to treat depression including cognitive behavioral therapy (which aims to change unwanted behaviors), dialectical behavioral therapy (which focuses on mindfulness and regulating emotions) and psychodynamic therapy (which focuses on the root causes of depression through self-reflection).
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The benefits and drawbacks of these types of treatments depend on the individual, as well as the specific supplement they take, both psychiatrists emphasize. However, Dr. Metzl emphasizes that lifestyle habits—like diet, exercise and mindfulness—are beneficial for everyone. Therapy too, he says, can be beneficial for virtually anyone experiencing depression. However, a drawback to therapy is that it can be difficult to find the right therapist, and sometimes it isn’t covered by insurance.
As for experimenting with supplements, the experts reiterate that the science is still mixed on how beneficial they really are in treating depression. There is very little research done in this area, and most of the research is based on self-report of participants without controlling for other variables that might also affect depression symptoms. The fact that supplements are not regulated is another reason for pause. Even melatonin—which Dr. Hairston says can be beneficial for depression—needs to be purchased mindfully from a company that has undergone third-party testing. This is also why they advocate for upping the intake of nutrients linked to benefittng mental health (namely vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids) through food instead of supplements.
Dr. Metzl warns that it’s wishful thinking to believe one supplement, or even lifestyle practice, is a cure-all. He believes in taking a holistic approach by having healthy habits in place in all areas of life, including diet, physical activity, social interaction and therapy, when needed.
Dr. Hairston is also a strong advocate for prescription antidepressants because they are better regulated and can work for many people who experience depression.
You will find no shortage of supplements online or in health food stores. However, once again, they should be purchased with caution.
As for yoga and meditation, guided videos can be found for free on YouTube. There are also several meditation apps including Calm, Headspace and Insight Timer.
Meanwhile, if you are interested in pursuing therapy, first determine what type you need. Many health insurances cover a range of therapy options, and you can search for a provider who is in-network on their website. Check out affordable therapy options, such as at training clinics, or with providers who offer a sliding scale payment if cost is a concern. Online therapy is also an option for those who would have difficulty getting to and from appointments or have busy schedules.
Both experts say that anyone who is experiencing depression can benefit from seeing a doctor, who can help you determine which course of treatment is best. Additionally, if the treatments you’ve tried haven’t made you feel better, it can be beneficial to meet with your health care provider to go over other options that may be more effective.
Whether you are exploring supplements, prescription antidepressants or nothing at all, if you are experiencing depression, Dr. Metzl says it can be beneficial to see a mental health professional. “It’s a very stressful time [in the world] right now and no one should be afraid to ask for help,” he says.
Experiencing depression can be overwhelming, but there are solutions available that can help. Non-prescription treatments are one possible solution to explore with your doctor, however for some individuals, a prescription antidepressant or therapy will have a more profound and evidence-based effect. Prescription medications are often safer as well, because they are closely regulated by the FDA. In either case, healthy lifestyle habits play an important role in managing depression.
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Emily Laurence is a journalist, freelance writer and certified health coach living in Raleigh, North Carolina. She specializes in writing about mental health, healthy aging and overall wellness. For six years, she was an editor and senior writer at Well+Good, covering everything from food trends to public health issues like the opioid epidemic. She graduated from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in magazine journalism. Find her on Instagram at @EmLaurence.
Dr. Judy Ho is a triple board certified and licensed clinical and forensic neuropsychologist, a tenured associate professor at Pepperdine University and published author. Dr. Judy maintains a private practice in Manhattan Beach, California, where she specializes in comprehensive neuropsychological assessments and expert witness work. She regularly appears as an expert psychologist on television, podcasts and radio, and contributes to other media including print and electronic periodicals. She is a co-host on the syndicate daytime television talk show The Doctors, co-host of CBS’s Face the Truth and host of The SuperCharged Life podcast, which focuses on scientific, tangible tips for physical and mental wellness, and strategies for motivation and productivity.


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