Supplements for Depression that Work
Using evidence-based treatment
Some people claim that vitamins and minerals can cure serious mental illness. That's not what I'm talking about here. While in general, there's not a ton of research funding for supplements and herbal products, there are a number of supplements that do have some research evidence to support their effectiveness in depression.
For people with mild depression, a supplement may be helpful on its own, but for people with moderate to severe depression, supplements can serve as an add-on to another primary form of treatment. These are some of the examples from complementary and alternative medicine chapter in my new book Managing the Depression Puzzle.
St. John's wort
St. John's wort is a herbal product that has shown some effectiveness in mild depression. SJW contains a number of different compounds, several of which affect the neurotransmitter serotonin. It's not clear which particular compounds are responsible for the beneficial effect. The strength of SJW is described in terms of the compound hypericin. There can be considerable variation from one formula to the next.
SJW can interact with a number of different psychiatric medications, so if you're taking meds don't use SJW without consulting a health professional.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3s are a type of unsaturated fatty acid found primarily in fish oils, and they have anti-inflammatory effects. Some, but not all, studies in depression have shown a benefit. There are two primary types of omega-3s, EPA and DHA. EPA appears to be the most important in depression, so pick out an omega-3 formula with a high EPA content.
I've been taking an omega-3 supplement for several years now. I honestly have no idea if it's doing anything for me or not, but at this point, I really need any little bit of help that I can get, so I'm sticking with my omega-3s.
Curcumin is a compound that's part of turmeric, a spice that's commonly used in Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine. It has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and some research has shown it to be helpful for a variety of different inflammatory conditions as well as depression.
There appears to be a link between depression and inflammation in a subset of people with depression, which may account for some of the beneficial effect that's seen in depression.
I started taking a curcumin supplement a couple of months ago. Much like with the omega-3s, I have no idea if it's actually helping, but I figure might as well keep going with it.
L-methylfolate is an activated form of folic acid. It's considered activated because it's able to donate a single-carbon methyl group to the process of synthesizing new neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Some studies have shown a beneficial effect from L-methylfolate use in depression, particularly among people with elevated levels of inflammation.
The dose needed to achieve the effect on depression is 15mg. It's available in 15mg tablets in the U.S., but for some reason, in Canada, it's only available as 1mg tablets. Popping 15 of those a day would get rather expensive rather quickly. I used to get it as an injection from a naturopath, but that was also expensive, so I stopped it even though it was helpful.
S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe)
S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe) is involved in the synthesis process for serotonin and other neurotransmitters. It may be useful as an add-on to another form of treatment for depression.
The recommended dose is 1600 mg/day. SAMe tends to be fairly pricey, so you might not get the best bang for your buck with this option.
What's most important when considering the use of supplements in depression, or any illness for that matter, is to keep in perspective what they can and can't do. Just because something is "natural" doesn't mean it's safe or effective. But if you're looking for something else to add into your overall plan for managing your illness, a supplement or two might be worth a try.