5 Science-Backed Supplements to Help Fight Depression
This post may contain affiliate links. If you buy something through our retail links, we may earn a small affiliate commission at no extra cost to you.
Depression is a complex mental health condition that affects almost every aspect of a person's functioning, and it can be difficult to treat. Many depressed people have a hard time seeing outside the dark cloud of pessimism that surrounds them. Antidepressants are effective for some people, but they come with side effects. However, there's growing evidence that natural supplements may improve the symptoms of depression for some people. Let's look at five that are supported by science.
Probiotics are live bacteria that have potential gut health benefits. Some experts believe depression begins in the gut. The human gut and nervous system are closely connected by the vagus nerve. So, what happens in the gut can affect brain function and vice versa.
The theory is that people who are depressed have an imbalance between the brain and the adrenal glands that produce stress hormones, like cortisol. The gut and the gut microbiome plays a role in this disruption too. By fixing the gut component of depression, it may help restore the imbalance between the brain and the adrenal glands. One way to restore gut health is to supply the gut with probiotics. Doing this could correct gut imbalances that contribute to the disruption of the brain and adrenal glands.
Another theory is that depression is triggered or worsened by disruption of the ultra-thin intestinal lining. When this permeable lining is damaged, proteins from foods can enter the bloodstream and trigger an inflammatory response that also affects mood and brain health. One cause of intestinal damage and increased gut permeability is dysbiosis, an overgrowth of unhealthy gut bacteria. Probiotics can correct this problem.
Magnesium is a mineral your body needs in substantial quantities for bone health, energy production, heart health, and a healthy nervous system. Magnesium also plays a key role in the production of ATP for cells to use as energy.
Since magnesium is important for brain and nervous system function, can it help depression? A study published in PLOS One found that subjects who consumed 248 milligrams of magnesium chloride each day for 6 weeks experienced improvements in the symptoms of depression. Experts believe that magnesium deficiency is fairly widespread, especially among diabetics. Blood tests that measure magnesium aren't a good indicator of tissue levels of magnesium. So, you can be deficient at the tissue level and still have a normal magnesium blood test. Taking a magnesium supplement is a way to ensure your tissues have an adequate supply of magnesium.
We suggest this YouTube video to help you select the best Magnesium type for you: What is the best magnesium supplement to take?
The best source of vitamin D is exposure to the sun. Most foods are not a good source of vitamin D, with the exception of fatty fish, eggs, and some foods that are fortified with this vitamin. Up to half of the population is deficient in vitamin D, meaning they have a vitamin D level below 20 nanograms per milliliter. Deficiency is more common in older people, and the elderly have higher rates of depression too.
Some studies show a link between low vitamin D and depression. In fact, some symptoms of vitamin D deficiency mimic those of depression, including fatigue and depressed mood. Can supplementing with vitamin D improve the symptoms of depression? Studies are conflicting, but when you look at them as a whole, there is evidence of benefit. The benefits are strongest for people who are low in vitamin D, although some research suggests that even people with a normal vitamin D level may benefit from supplementation.
Before supplementing, it's best to check your vitamin D level to ensure you're taking the proper amount. High doses of vitamin D for a long period of time can be harmful, as it's harder for the body to eliminate excess vitamin D.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids from sources like fish oil play a key role in brain health. These fatty acids are incorporated into brain cells membranes where they help to stabilize the membrane while keeping it fluid. The two main forms of long-chain fatty acids are called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Of the two, research suggests that EPA is more beneficial for alleviating depression than DHA.
How effective are omega-3s for easing the symptoms of depression? A meta-analysis of several observational studies showed that fish oil supplements can modestly improve the symptoms of depression. However, not all studies show benefits. The effectiveness may depend on the dose, the severity of the depression, and other lifestyle habits.
It's not clear how omega-3 fatty acids help the symptoms of depression. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory activity and some studies link depression with chronic, low-grade inflammation. According to some research, omega-3s have other benefits, including benefits for heart health.
St. John's Wort
St. John's wort is an herb that some studies suggest may improve depressive symptoms. An analysis of 29 studies found that St. John's wort was more effective than a placebo for treating mild to moderate depression. Other research shows it to be as effective as some anti-depressant medications. Not all studies show benefits, but some European countries have it on their formulary as a treatment for depression.
St. John's wort appears to be safe for most people and tends to have fewer side effects than prescription anti-depressants. Never use St. John's wort with anti-depressant medications. Doing so can lead to a life-threatening condition called serotonin syndrome. In addition, St. John's wort can interact with some medications.
The Bottom Line
Talk to your physician before taking a supplement for depression, and don't use a supplement as a replacement for medical care. They're also more likely to be effective for mild depression. Talk to your physician about your options.
J Pharmacol Pharmacother. 2012 Apr;3(2):118-26. doi: 10.4103/0976-500X.95506.
National Institutes of Health. "Vitamin D"
Issues Ment Health Nurs. 2010 Jun; 31(6): 385-393. doi: 10.3109/01612840903437657.
Medscape.com. "Vitamin D Supplementation May Help Ease Depression"
PsychiatryAdvisor.com. "A Closer Look at the Importance of Gut Mechanisms in Depression"
Dinan TG, Cryan JF. The microbiome-gut-brain axis in health and disease. Gastroenterol Clin North Am. 2017;46(1):77-89.
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. "St. John's Wort and Depression: In Depth"
Psychology Today. "Magnesium for Depression"
Tarleton EK, Littenberg B, MacLean CD, Kennedy AG, Daley C (2017) Role of magnesium supplementation in the treatment of depression: A randomized clinical trial. PLoS ONE 12(6): e0180067