The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved medications for the treatment of depression, but you may not like the idea of taking a synthetic or manufactured pill. Another option that some people try to help feel better are herbs and natural remedies. Many of these have been used medicinally for centuries as folk and alternative treatments. Today, many herbs are marketed as mood boosters for people who experience chronic feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
Studies have attempted to track the benefits of herbs for treating depression. Here are several herbs that may help lift your mood when you experience mild to moderate depression.
St. John’s Wort
St. John’s wort is a plant that’s native to Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa. Europeans commonly take St. John’s wort as a way to treat depression, but the FDA hasn’t approved the herb to treat the condition. Taking the herb has been linked with increasing the amount of serotonin. Serotonin is a feel-good chemical in the brain that’s often low in people who have depression. Several antidepressants work by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), St. John’s wort may help milder forms of depression, although its effects haven’t been conclusively proven either way. A 2008 review of 29 studies on St. John’s wort found that the plant was just as effective for treating mild to moderate depression as antidepressants yet resulted in fewer side effects. On the other hand, the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health sponsored two separate studies that found it wasn’t better than a placebo for treating depression.
It’s important to note that St. John’s wort is known for interacting with lots of medications. This especially goes for blood thinners, birth control pills, and chemotherapy medications. Always check with your doctor before taking this herb.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a healthy form of fats found in fish such as salmon, trout, and sardines (among others). They are available in supplement form and are sometimes also called fish oil capsules. According to the Mayo Clinic, researchers have found that people who have low levels of two brain chemicals found in fish oil supplements may be at an increased risk for depression. It is ideal to get a higher ratio of DHA to EPA, which are both types of omega-3 fatty acids.
In addition to taking fish oil supplements to get omega-3 fatty acids, you can also increase the amount of fish you eat. Eating fish three times a week can increase your omega-3 fatty acids without having to take supplements.
Keep in mind that some fish can have high levels of mercury. These include swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, and shark. Avoid these in favor of lower mercury fish like light canned tuna, salmon, freshwater trout, and sardines.
Saffron is a spice derived from a dried portion of a crocus, a flower in the iris family. According to a study in Alternative Medicine Review, taking saffron stigma (the end of the carpel, or rod-like stem, in the flower) has been shown to be effective in treating mild to moderate depression.
SAM-e is short for S-adenosylmethionine. This supplement is designed to act like a synthetic form of the body’s natural mood-boosting chemicals. According to the Mayo Clinic, SAM-e is regarded as a supplement in the United States — the FDA doesn’t consider it a medication. You shouldn’t take SAM-e along with antidepressants. You should also be aware that SAM-e can cause health effects like upset stomach and constipation if you take too much.
There may be a link between low levels of folic acid (the synthetic form of folate) and people with depression. Taking 500 mcg of folic acid has been linked with improving the effectiveness of other antidepressants medications. Focus on consuming folate-rich foods daily. These include beans, lentils, fortified cereals, dark leafy greens, sunflower seeds, and avocado.
Zinc is a nutrient linked with mental functions like learning and behavior. Low levels of blood zinc are more associated with depression, according to Biological Psychiatry. According to Nutrition Neuroscience, taking a 25 mg zinc supplement daily for 12 weeks can help reduce depression symptoms. Taking zinc supplements can also increase the amount of available omega-3 fatty acids in the body.
Myths and Misconceptions About Herbs and Depression
Several heath food stores may market herbs and supplements as being able to treat depression. However, according to a review published in BJPsych Advances, there are several that haven’t been proven as effective in treating depression. These include the following herbs:
- Crataegus oxyacantha (hawthorn)
- Eschscholzia californica (California poppy)
- Ginkgo biloba
- Lavandula angustifolia (lavender)
- Matricaria recutita (chamomile)
- Melissa officinalis (lemon balm)
- Passiflora incarnate (maypop, or purple passionflower)
- Piper methysticum (kava)
- Valeriana officinalis (valerian)
If you do choose to use these or other herbs, always check with your doctor first to make sure they won’t interact with any medicines you might be taking.
Talk to Your Doctor
Although some herbs and supplements show promise in treating depression, they aren’t a consistent or reliable substitute for treatments when you experience severe depression. You should call a doctor right away if you have severe depression or thoughts of hurting yourself. Don’t try to rely on supplements as a way to pull you through these severe symptoms. Depression can be a serious disease. You should work with your doctor to find a treatment plan that fits for you.