I have always been skeptical of the wild and ridiculous claims surrounding many supplements. However, over the years there have been many studies that show there are, in fact, a few supplements that can be beneficial for mental health. I have tried several of the ones that hold the most promise and have had success with all but one of them. My conditions have always been on the severe side of the spectrum, so I am not ashamed to say that I still take prescription medication (more on this next week). When I started using both prescription medication and a few of the supplements on the following list, I noticed a significant improvement in my mental health. The research behind this list is scientifically sound and backed by medical doctors. However, these studies cannot take into account anyone’s particular needs or current medications. It is imperative that anyone wanting to add any of these to his/her wellness plan talk to their doctor first.
Supplements vary in quality and availability around the world. In the U.S., there are no regulations of any kind, which can lead to poorly manufactured products that contain very little of the ingredient that is listed on the label. That is why I always buy supplements that have been USP certified or have been independently tested by ConsumerLab.com. There is a small yearly fee to join ConsumerLab, but if I am going to take something to improve my mental health, I want to know what I am taking. The following list contains the supplements that have been shown over the years, in clinical research, to have a positive impact on mental health.
The Mayo Clinic did an extensive review of the best studies done so far on vitamin B and came to the conclusion that a deficiency of vitamin B, vitamin B12 in particular, can lead to abnormal mental symptoms such as dementia, psychoses, and mood disturbances.
Vitamin B8 (Inositol) has been shown in studies to have therapeutic effects on conditions such as depression, anxiety disorder and OCD. While it has been demonstrated to be safely used in conjunction with most medications, there have been some questions raised about using it for extended periods of time to treat depression. Because of that, I only use it when I am extremely anxious. It can cause a little stomach upset though, so be warned.
Vitamin B9 (Folate) has been shown in numerous studies to help alleviate depression and to work well in conjunction with medications. However, it has been shown in studies that it cannot be supplemented properly with a pill. The only shelf stable version is a synthetic compound that appears to be ineffective. I boost my folate levels with a green smoothie everyday. Click here for more on green smoothies.
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin) has been the most extensively studied of all the B vitamins. There is unanimous consensus that vitamin B12 deficiencies can cause mental health problems. For example, a recently published report from The Clinical Journal of Psychiatry stated, “a mild decrease in the B12 level is associated with neurologic and psychiatric problems such as ataxia or mood disturbances.”
I love vitamin B12 and can tell a difference when I take it. I make sure to use B12 in the Methylcobalamin (methyl group). It is the easiest for our bodies to absorb. The cyanocobalamin (cyanide) type is cheaper but can be toxic in higher doses, is not easily absorbed and I avoid it.
St. John's Wort:
St. John's Wort is an herbal supplement that is occasionally used in the U.S., but it is wildly popular in Europe. It has been shown in many studies to be highly effective in treating mild to moderate depression.
It can interfere with many medications such as birth control pills, blood-thinning drugs, chemotherapy, HIV/AIDS medications, antidepressants and drugs to prevent organ rejection after a transplant. I found out the hard way on this one. The doctor I was seeing at the time that I tried St. John’s Wort was dismissive of all supplements. He seemed to take great pleasure in telling me I was spending money on expensive urine. I didn’t feel like watching him roll his eyes when I asked him about it, so I just started taking it while still on my other medications. BIG mistake!
Unlike many of the supplements on this list St. John's Wort does not seem to work well in conjunction with other medications, and it isn’t strong enough for me to take by itself. Therefore, I can’t take it. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been many studies that show it does work well on its own for mild to moderate depression because there have been. I would use caution with this supplement by making sure my doctor was in on the decision and was closely monitoring my progress. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
SAMe is a naturally occurring compound found in nearly every tissue and fluid in our body. It is critical to many of our most important processes. It helps break down brain chemicals such as serotonin, melatonin, and dopamine.
There have been many studies over the years on its use to treat depression. The American Journal of Psychiatry recently published a study that reported, “SAMe can be an effective, well-tolerated, and safe adjunctive treatment strategy for SRI nonresponders with major depressive disorder.”
It is sold as an over the counter supplement in the U.S., but in many parts of the world, a prescription is required. SAMe has worked wonderfully well for me. This is a supplement that I have come to rely on.
Omega-3 fatty acids:
These fats have been shown in hundreds of studies to help treat depression and for depressive symptoms in people with bipolar disorder. Dr. Andrew Weil summed up the research nicely when he wrote, “Dietary supplementation with these fats, usually in the form of fish oil, has proved to be an effective, natural and nontoxic therapy for bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, postpartum depression, seasonal affective disorder and other health concerns. It also helps prevent depression and improve overall emotional wellbeing.”
The trick with these lies in the EPA and DHA ratios. The studies that have shown the greatest benefits had a ratio of at least 2:1 EPA to DHA ratio. That is where the problem comes in with trying to get omega-3s from plant-based sources. While there are plant-based sources of omega-3s, such as chia and flax seeds, their fats only come in the ALA form. ALA must be converted, and much of it is lost in the process. For vegans and vegetarians, there are algae based omega-3s that have the proper ratio and can be easily absorbed. I found this form worked just as well as the cold-water fish versions, but they are expensive.
When I started buying fish oil, I quickly learned not to be fooled by high fish oil milligram numbers that are on the front of some brands. It is the EPA and DHA numbers on the back that actually matter. Most successful studies used a minimum of 2 grams of total omega-3s with at least 60% coming from EPA. Some studies went as high as twenty grams and no adverse reactions were experienced. I love omega-3s. I started noticing an improvement in my mood and my anxiety levels after taking them for only a couple of weeks.
Saffron is a spice derived from the flower that grows throughout Eurasia. There have been many studies on the effects of saffron on major depressive disorder. The Journal of Integrative Medicine published a study that did a meta-analysis of the controlled double blind studies done so far. It states, “Findings from clinical trials conducted to date indicate that saffron supplementation can improve symptoms of depression in adults with MDD.”
I haven’t tried saffron because my current medications and supplements are working well, but I wouldn't be opposed to trying it if I needed to. It should be noted, however, that high doses have caused unpleasant side effects such as headache and upset stomach.
DHEA is a hormone that our bodies make naturally. DHEA levels have been shown to be lower, on average, in people with mental illnesses. A link between low levels of DHEA and to depression has been established. Studies have shown improvement in depression symptoms when taking DHEA as a dietary supplement. It has also been shown to work well with most prescription medications.
The Mayo Clinic analyzed the best studies on DHEA done to date and concluded that, “Most studies on the use of DHEA for depression support its use for this purpose. Recent research reports that high DHEA levels may be associated with successful treatment of major depression.”
I love DHEA. Within a short period time, I could tell a noticeable difference in my symptoms and mood. It should be noted that DHEA made from soy or wild yam has been shown to be ineffective.
Researchers from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at St Joseph's Hospital, Hamilton, Ontario, published a systematic review of 14 studies that included a total of 31,424 participants. They revealed an association between vitamin D levels and depression. It was found that low levels of vitamin D not only corresponded to depression but that lower levels of vitamin D increased odds for depression. The British Journal of Psychiatry just published a study in which the researchers concluded, “Our analyses are consistent with the hypothesis that low vitamin D concentration is associated with depression.”
I have yet to find any instances of adverse reactions with other medications, and the fact is that in industrialized societies, vitamin D deficiencies are common. This supplement didn't take much thought. I make sure to take a vitamin D supplement every day. I also try and get as much sunlight as possible, without getting burned. I don't think there will ever be a pill that can take the place of being outdoors and soaking up the sun, even during the winter. Click here for more on exercising outdoors.
Psychology Today has published articles on the benefits of using magnesium supplements. They point to several studies that show its benefits. In one, the researchers reported, “…that magnesium deficiency could cause depression, behavioral disturbances, headaches, muscle cramps, seizures, ataxia, psychosis, and irritability - all reversible with magnesium repletion.” Barbara Bartlik, MD, and Vanessa Bijlani, MD, both psychiatrists, wrote a review of Magnesium for Psychiatry Advisor in which they state, “Treatment with magnesium supplements has been shown to induce rapid recovery from depression, improve symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, and reduce hyperactivity in children with ADHD. Also, patients with schizophrenia have lower erythrocyte magnesium levels than controls.” Obviously, these results came from adding a magnesium supplement to people who were deficient, but many people today are.
Because our modern diet is often magnesium deficient, I take a supplement every day. After only a few days I noticed an increase in energy and felt significantly better. I have taken it ever since.
Melatonin has been studied extensively and has been proved to improve sleep patterns. Regular sleep patterns have been shown to be crucial for mental health.That is why so many people with mental illnesses are instructed to take melatonin.
Primary Psychiatry published a study that stated, “Evidence that antidepressant treatment can promote favorable melatonin receptor expression has led to the suggestion that combination therapy using an antidepressant plus a melatonergic agent may be an effective strategy for treating sleep disorders in the context of depression.” I have found that it certainly helps me sleep, and sleep is vital to my mental health. I take it every night.
I saved Probiotics for last, because the evidence that they help mental health is still coming in. However, I didn’t feel I should leave it off the list because the evidence is growing that probiotics help ease depressive symptoms and anxiety.
One of the reasons that researchers are so interested in our intestinal health is because ninety percent of our serotonin is produced in our gut. It is easy to see why many feel that if our intestines aren’t working properly, then our brains can’t either. There is still a great deal of work to be done, but it is promising. For example, one of the most recent studies found that people who took probiotics experienced lower levels of anxiety and depression. They also had lower levels of cortisol when they woke up in the morning.
While more results on the mental benefits are coming in, it should be noted that many overall health benefits have already been established. There doesn’t appear to be a downside to these, so I added them to my daily regiment. I’m not sure how much of an effect taking these have had on my mental health, but they have certainly helped my overall physical health.
I realize that there are many companies that claim their products have mental health benefits, and they very well may. That doesn’t mean I want to be a lab rat for their products. I prefer to take things that have been on the market for years, tried by thousands upon thousands of people and are backed up by strong scientific studies. I don’t want to try the latest and greatest thing until it has been on the market for years, and large studies have been conducted on it. One clinical trial doesn’t do it for me. I want to see many trials over a long period of time, on a large population of patients. Then, I will consider it. I don’t have the luxury of being careless with my brain chemistry.
As always, I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click the link to the left and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a great resource, and is staffed by wonderful people.
Feel free to send your questions or comments to: