A Definition of Depression
Depression is a cognitive state characterised by hopelessness and apathy. The condition can affect how you feel, think and manage daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working.
To be diagnosed with depression, the symptoms must be present for at least two weeks and must cause significant distress or impairment in a person’s social, occupational, or educational functioning (1).
Symptoms of depression can range from mild to severe and potentially life-threatening.
The World Health Organization has estimated that, worldwide, there are more than 300 million people of all ages suffering from depression.
The condition is the leading cause of disability and is a major contributor to the global burden of disease.
There is no single cause of depression and it is thought to result from a complex interaction of social, psychological and biological factors.
More women are diagnosed with depression than men, but the condition can affect people of all ages and backgrounds.
Types of Depression
There are a number of different types of depression.
- Persistent depressive disorder (or dysthymia) is a depressed mood that lasts for at least two years. During this time, the person may experience both periods of major depression along with periods of less severe symptoms.
- Postpartum depression can occur after giving birth, usually within two weeks, and can be associated with extreme sadness, anxiety, and exhaustion making it hard for the mother to take care of herself and her child.
- Psychotic depression is when a person has severe depression plus symptoms of psychosis, such as hallucinations and delusions.
- Seasonal affective disorder is a condition that can occur during the winter months when there is less sunlight. The symptoms can include social withdrawal, increased sleep and weight gain.
Signs of Depression
These are just a few of the obvious symptoms of depression:
- withdrawal from friends, family & society
- inability to concentrate
- thoughts of death
- drastic change in appetite
- energy loss/fatigue
- sleep issues
- alcohol and/or drug abuse.
(Note: You should speak to a doctor if you think you may be experiencing depression.)
Management of Depression
Severe depression usually requires treatment from a medical doctor and may include psychological therapies and/or a prescription of antidepressants (2). However, antidepressants can have adverse side effects, adherence can be difficult, and there is a lag time between starting antidepressants and improvements in symptoms.
Psychological treatments do not tend to have side effects but some people may not wish to attend psychotherapy because of perceived stigma. This is why some individuals choose alternative therapeutic approaches, particularly if they have mild to moderate depression.
Lifestyle and Depression
Eating a nutritious diet is associated with better mental health and a lower risk of depression. Conversely, eating a less nutritious diet is associated with the presence of depressive symptoms (3).
Although there are a number of theories, the exact mechanisms explaining the link between diet and depression is not fully understood.
Physical activity can also help to reduce the symptoms of depression (4). Although the findings about physical activity and depression are consistent, more research is needed to determine the best types of exercise as well as the timing and frequency of sessions.
Depression and Supplementation
There are a number of supplements available that can help to manage the symptoms of depression. It is important to note that not all supplements will be suitable if prescription medications are being taken because they may counteract.
Here’s a quick visual of the eight types we will cover in this article.
ⓘ We strongly recommend that you consult with your healthcare provider before taking any supplements to ensure there are no contraindications and that they are right for you. This information is not intended to replace professional advice or meant to be used to prevent, diagnose, or treat any disease or illness.
8 Natural Supplements that Fight Depression
Now, as promised, let’s examine each of them in greater detail, shall we?
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
This refers to two types of omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). They are usually found in fish, animal products, and phytoplankton.
Although they can be synthesized in the body from alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), this is in low amounts for most people. It is therefore not recommended to rely on this conversion process to obtain sufficient EPA and DHA.
How do omega-3 fatty acids help depression?
A meta-analysis of studies on depression and omega 3 supplementation found that taking between 200-2,200 mg of EPA daily was statistically significant in reducing depression symptoms (5).
Interestingly, supplements containing less than 60% EPA (a higher DHA content) were ineffective.
The fact that EPA is primarily effective for ameliorating depression symptoms suggests that the mechanism is reducing neuroinflammation.
Similar results were reported in another meta-analysis, which found that EPA but not DHA was associated with a reduction in depression symptoms (6). The optimal dose was found to be around 1,000 mg EPA per day.
Supplementation was more effective in those with worse symptoms at baseline.
Another study of pregnant women with depression given 2,200 mg EPA and 1,200 mg DHA for 8 weeks was found to significantly reduce depression symptoms relative to placebo (7).
How do I take omega-3 fatty acids?
Studies have used a range of doses but the most effective dose for most people seems to be a supplement containing 1000 mg EPA, with this being at least 60% of the total content (supplements will always be a mixture of EPA and DHA).
Higher doses seem to be needed in pregnancy, where a supplement with 2,200 mg EPA and 1,200 DHA being the most effective dose to reduce depression symptoms.
Saffron (Crocus sativus), is the world’s most expensive spice, where the high labor costs have resulted in limited supply. Although it is primarily used to flavor food, it has also been used medicinally.
More recently it has begun to be investigated for its ability to reduce depression symptoms.
How does saffron help depression?
Although there are limited human studies on saffron and depression, they are of high quality. Research has shown saffron to be effective in reducing depression symptoms against placebo and trials against reference drugs, such as the SSRI fluoxetine.
These studies show that saffron, at the recommended dose, has antidepressant properties comparable to prescription medications.
A double-blind, randomized control study found that 8 weeks of 15 mg saffron taken twice daily was as effective in reducing depression as fluoxetine (a prescription medication) in people with mild to moderate depression (8).
Similarly, another double-blind randomized trial found that 30 mg of saffron taken daily for 6 weeks was as effective as 100 mg Imipramine (a prescription medication) in people with mild to moderate depression (9).
A double-blind, randomized, and placebo-controlled trial found that 30 mg of saffron taken daily for 6 weeks was effective at reducing symptoms in people with mild to moderate depression compared to placebo (10).
How do I take saffron?
To obtain the benefits of saffron in reducing depression symptoms, it is recommended to take 30 mg per day for up to 8 weeks. It does not have a high margin of safety so it is not advisable to take a high dose.
Curcumin is a yellow pigment found in turmeric, a flowering plant of the ginger family best known as a spice used in curry. It’s a polyphenol with anti-inflammatory properties and can increase the number of antioxidants that the body produces.
Curcumin and the other curcuminoids found in turmeric can be extracted to produce supplements that have a much higher potency than turmeric. As the bioavailability of curcumin is not very high, supplements tend to contain ingredients to boost absorption, such as black pepper.
How does curcumin help depression?
A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that 500 mg taken twice daily for 8 weeks was able to significantly reduce depression symptoms relative to placebo (11). The benefits were only seen between 4 and 8 weeks, suggesting that at least a month of supplementation is needed to see benefits for depression.
Another randomized, double-blind controlled trial found that 500 mg of curcumin taken twice daily for 6 weeks reduced depression symptoms similarly to taking prescription medication alone or prescription medication with 500 mg curcumin (12).
The reduction in depression symptoms was most effective for the combination group, suggesting that curcumin may be a useful adjunct to prescription medication for depression.
How do I take curcumin?
It is recommended to take 500 mg of curcumin twice daily to help reduce the symptoms of depression. Make sure that you purchase a supplement that contains an ingredient to help with the absorption of curcumin, such as black pepper or lipids.
St John’s Wort
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is a plant that has been used as a mental health treatment for hundreds of years. It works as a dopamine-related anti-depressant.
St John’s Wort is known to adversely interact with a variety of prescription medications so it is important to check with your doctor before taking the supplement.
How does St John’s Wort help depression?
A systematic review found that St. John’s wort was more effective than a placebo for treating mild to moderate depression and worked almost as well as antidepressant medications (13).
Another review of randomized, double-blind trials also found that St John’s wort was as effective as prescription medications but was associated with fewer side effects (14).
More long-term research is needed but the existing studies suggest that St John’s Wort is an effective supplement to reduce symptoms in those with mild to moderate depression.
How do I take St John’s Wort?
A wide range of doses has been used in studies so it is unclear what the optimal dose is. However, positive results are seen when taking doses of between 900 mg and 1500 mg daily.
Panax Ginseng is commonly referred to as the ‘True Ginseng’ because it is the most commonly researched form of ginseng, amongst the 11 types that exist.
Practitioners of Chinese medicine have used ginseng for thousands of years to help individuals improve mental clarity, energy and reduce the negative effects of stress.
How does Panax Ginseng help depression?
A randomized, double-blind, parallel-group study found that 16 weeks of daily treatment with ginseng extract significantly reduced depression symptoms and increased wellbeing in postmenopausal women relative to placebo (15).
Another placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomized trial found that either 200 mg or 400 mg of Panax ginseng taken daily for 8 days improved wellbeing and calmness relative to placebo (16). Results were dose-dependent, with greater benefits being seen with a daily dose of 400 mg.
A placebo-controlled, randomized, double-blind study also found that 200 mg Panax ginseng taken daily for 8 weeks improved mental health and social functioning compared to placebo (17).
Positive effects were not seen until after 4 weeks of treatment, suggesting that at least a month of supplementation is needed to obtain benefits.
How do I take Panax Ginseng?
Although some studies have shown benefits at doses of 200 mg per day, the effects of Panax ginseng seem to be dose-dependent and thus it is recommended to take 400 mg per day for optimal results.
Chamomile is an herb that comes from the flowers of the Asteraceae plant family. It has been used for centuries as a natural remedy for a number of different health conditions, such as: fever, inflammation, muscle spasms, menstrual disorders, insomnia, ulcers, wounds, gastrointestinal disorders, rheumatic pain, and hemorrhoids (18).
The dried flowers of the plant are often used to make tea. The essential oils of chamomile are also used extensively in cosmetic products and aromatherapy.
The key ingredient in chamomile is apigenin, which is a bioflavonoid.
How does chamomile help depression?
A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that 220 mg chamomile extract taken daily for 8 weeks significantly reduced depression symptoms relative to placebo in people suffering from both anxiety and depression (19).
How do I take Chamomile?
Although beneficial effects have been observed with taking chamomile in a tea form, it is preferable to consume in a supplement form for optimal results. A daily dose of 220 mg per day is recommended to reduce symptoms of depression.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a herb from the mint family traditionally used to induce calmness and boost cognition. The leaves are used in teas, as a flavoring as well as in supplements in its extract form.
How does lemon balm help depression?
A double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study found that a 600 mg dose lemon balm reduced negative mood and increased calmness compared to placebo (21). Less positive results were found for a dose of 300 mg suggesting that lemon balm has a dose-dependent effect.
A prospective, open-label study found that 600 mg of Lemon Balm extract taken daily (300 mg at breakfast and 300 mg at dinner) significantly reduced anxiety and anxiety-related insomnia (42%) after 2 weeks of supplementation (22).
In addition, eating problems, guilt, fatigue, and agitation were reduced and feelings of relaxation were increased.
How do I take lemon balm?
Although some benefits seem to be obtained from taking 300 mg per day, results seem to be dose-dependent. It is therefore recommended to take 600 mg per day to obtain optimal results in terms of reducing depression symptoms.
Although it can be taken via tea or aromatherapy, it is hard to quantify the dose and thus taking it as a supplement is advisable.
5-HTP is the precursor to serotonin, the neurotransmitter that plays a key role in regulating mood. It is used to boost serotonin levels in those with depression as well as those with high levels of inflammation.
It can counteract prescription medications so it is important to check with your healthcare provider before taking it.
How does 5-HTP help depression?
An open-label study found that 100 mg of 5-HTP, taken twice daily, alongside 5 g of creatine monohydrate for 8 weeks significantly reduced depression symptoms compared to the control group in people with treatment-resistant depression (23).
Other research has shown that 5-HTP taken in a slow-release form is particularly effective for reducing symptoms of depression because of its improved absorption (24).
How do I take 5-HTP?
A standard dose of 5-HTP is between 300 mg and 500 mg per day, taken either in split doses or as a single dose.
A slow-release form is recommended to optimize absorption. It is generally not suitable to be taken alongside prescription antidepressants.
Depression is a common condition worldwide that affects emotions, thoughts and the ability to carry out activities of daily living. There are several different types of depression and the symptoms can range from mild to severe and potentially even life-threatening.
ⓘ If you think you may be suffering from depression, it is important to visit your healthcare provider to obtain a formal diagnosis BEFORE you do anything else.
Although more severe forms of depression will likely require psychological treatment and/or prescription medication, there are a number of alternative approaches available to help manage symptoms in cases of mild to moderate depression.
Alongside eating a nutritious diet and exercising regularly, there are several supplements that have been shown to be effective in reducing the symptoms of depression.
It may take some trial and error to find what works best for you, but as there tend to be no side effects of supplementation when used appropriately (contraindications aside), it is worth exploring in order to make living with depression more manageable.
Keep Reading: 9 Best Energy Boosting Supplements
ⓘ Any specific supplement products & brands featured on this website are not necessarily endorsed by Emma.
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About the Author
Emma Green has a PhD, MSc and BSc in Psychology and is a certified personal trainer. She currently works as a freelance writer, producing on content on science, health and fitness for a number of online platforms. She also coaches clients online on a one-to-one basis to help them achieve their health and fitness goals. Contact Emma.