Mental health is a rising topic but also a concerning health crisis as anxiety and depression rates seem to be rising among the population. According to Health Canada, about 11% of men and 16% of women in Canada will experience major depression over the course of their lives (1).
Depression presents itself as an invisible condition however it is also a disabling condition that can negatively impact all aspects of human function and quality of life.
Clinical depression is a serious matter that should always be taken seriously and receiving the right support is essential for managing the symptoms and overcoming this condition.
Depressive symptoms can show up as hopelessness, pessimism, irritability, fatigue, apathy, difficulty concentrating, lack of passion or zest for life, poor focus, worthlessness, helplessness, insomnia, low sex drive, oversleeping, thoughts of death, low appetite, and loss of interest in hobbies and activities that usually bring one joy (2).
Though it is natural to feel down or low at times, with depression these feelings tend to be more pronounced and linger on.
The risk of depression can be associated with a lack of community, loneliness, imbalance of brain chemicals, hormonal imbalances, stress, lack of sunlight, daytime napping, excessive use of electronics, television, or cell phones, and unhealthy eating patterns.
Inflammation and stress have both been linked to a higher risk of depression (3)(4)(5).
Often times the first course of action in the treatment of depression is to prescribe antidepressant medication and though this may be necessary in certain cases there are alternatives for those who wish to seek other options.
The good news is that we can take many measures to help prevent a mental health crisis but also treat conditions like depressive disorder naturally. This may include nutritional therapy, eco-therapy, psychotherapy, light therapy, sleep, exercise, community, and dietary supplements.
11 Herbs and Supplements to Help Fight Depression
There are many natural supplements for depression that can help individuals find relief and improve their depressive symptoms as well as general wellbeing, many have even been shown to outperform medications with less of the side effects. As always consult your doctor before starting any new protocol or supplement.
There is ever-increasing evidence for the use of herbal supplements and the treatment of psychological conditions such as depression. Typically recommended for anxiety and even endurance, Rhodiola is also used as a natural alternative to antidepressants with fewer side effects (6)(7). This herb may help to improve symptoms of depression by increasing dopamine and serotonin sensitivity (8).
This herb may be a worthwhile alternative to consider for the treatment of depressive disorder but also for improving cognitive function and decreasing the negative effects of stress on the body and brain (9)(10).
If you are currently using antidepressant medications but are interested in shifting towards a more natural treatment plan always discuss with your health care practitioner before starting a new regimen.
We know you're thinking it... isn't saffron used for cooking? Why yes it is! Nature truly is impressive because it provides so many healing properties available through our food. Saffron is one of those herbs or spices that is also a medicinal healing food.
Though saffron can provide many nutritional benefits when consumed through the diet, its potency will be enhanced through supplementation. Its active constituents have been shown to exert anti-inflammatory, antidepressant, antioxidant and cognitive improving effects (11).
It can provide antidepressant effects by improving levels of certain brain chemicals such as serotonin, which is well known for its ability to enhance mood (12).
Saffron supplementation has been shown to improve depression scores in those with major depressive disorder however more research will be needed to confirm the long-term health benefits derived from this herb (13).
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that we must be obtained through our diet or supplementation.
Nutritional supplements such as omega-3 supplements can make a big difference in mental health as these fats have been associated with improved brain function and mental health (14).
Among populations with higher fatty fish intake lower rates of depression and mental health issues have been observed (15)(16).
Supplementation with omega 3 fatty acids has shown promising results in the treatment of depression for those lacking these essential fats. Sufficient intake and balance of beneficial fats consumed in the diet is an important part of maintaining good mental health.
Their beneficial effects are said to be primarily due to their anti-inflammatory actions but they are also involved in the creation and maintenance of brain structures and are important components of our cell membranes (17)(18).
The brain needs a steady supply of omega 3 fats in order to function optimally and low levels of the omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA have been associated with an increased risk for depression.
Omega 3 fats in supplement form are typically found in fish oils but also algae oil as a vegetarian or vegan option.
N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) is an antioxidant derived from the amino acid, L-cysteine. It is most often touted for its role in the production of our master antioxidant, glutathione, responsible for neutralizing free radicals and protecting cells from damage. It is well known for its immune-enhancing and detoxifying effects however what is not as mainstream knowledge is its influence on mental health (19).
As an important antioxidant, it can help to reduce free radical damage and inflammation in the brain as well as improve dopamine function.
This antioxidant has been shown to improve depressive symptoms with minimal adverse reactions (20).
NAC is a safe and effective natural supplement that is being increasingly studied for its benefits on mental health and as a conjunctive treatment for psychiatric illness (21).
Vitamin D is an essential vitamin that provides many health benefits and vitamin D status can play an influential role in mental health conditions.
Nutritional deficiencies can contribute to a higher risk for depression and vitamin D deficiency, in particular, has been associated with depression and psychiatric disorders (22).
In terms of foods, the best dietary sources of vitamin D may include wild fatty fish, eggs, and mushrooms though sunshine exposure and supplementation will typically be needed as it is rare to meet the daily requirements through diet alone.
Many individuals in the Northern Hemisphere will have insufficient vitamin D levels, especially during the winter months.
Exposure to sunlight is a significant and potent source of vitamin D, accounting for over 90% of the vitamin D requirement for most individuals, according to research (23).
Levels of serotonin and vitamin D are often seen out of balance amongst those experiencing seasonal depression and supplementation of this vitamin can help to improve symptoms of SAD during the winter time by balancing serotonin and melatonin (24).
This is why daily intake from a vitamin D supplement can not only help to reduce the incidence of deficiency but also complications from low nutrient status such as symptoms of depression.
B vitamins have important roles in brain function and mood regulation.
Research indicates an association between low status of B-12 and other B vitamins and the occurence of psychiatric disorders such as depression (25). A deficiency in the B vitamins can negatively influence memory function, cognitive impairment, dementia, and depression (26).
You can obtain your B vitamins from a long list of foods however absorption and nutrient status may be impacted by factors such as digestive disorders, pregnancy, aging, low dietary intake, vegetarian or vegan diets, certain medication conditions, or use of medications. A B-complex can help you to receive all eight of the B vitamins in one supplement if you are looking to increase your intake.
Testing is recommended to verify if you are particularly low in certain vitamins and determine the appropriate dosing to re-establish a healthy baseline.
An important mineral for cognitive function, zinc has been shown to exert antidepressant effects (27).
Zinc has anti-inflammatory benefits and and is essential for neuro functioning as it is highly concentrated inside of the brain (28).
Research has found a significant relationship and association between low levels of zinc and symptoms of anxiety and depression (29)(30).
Though low nutrient status such as zinc won't necessarily cause depression it can definitely influence mood and cognitive function among individuals.
Zinc can be found in foods such as oysters, seafood, pumpkin seeds, legumes, dairy, and eggs or taken in supplemental form if needed.
St. John's Wort
This herb has been used for centuries to treat mental health conditions, including depression.
Its beneficial effects on the brain are said to be linked to its ability to increase good feeling neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, working in a similar way to antidepressants (31).
Studies have shown St.John's Wort may even outperform certain anti-depressant medications causing fewer side effects and providing similar benefits (32)(33).
Always consult with your doctor before supplementing with St.john's Wort as this herb can interfere with medications.
You may not have heard of creatine used for mental health conditions such as depression, but it does have some promising research supporting its efficacy.
Creatine is a naturally occurring compound found in muscle cells and often taken in supplement form among athletes and bodybuilders to improve performance, energy, strength, and muscle mass (34).
This substance which is made up of amino acids has been shown to possess neuro-protective properties and antidepressant effects (35)(36)(37).
Creatine is a widely available nutritional supplement that shows potential as an alternative to antidepressants and improving mental health conditions like depression (38).
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