If you’re feeling sad and hopeless—that is, you can’t imagine life will get better—you’re most likely suffering from depression. Although antidepressant drugs are popular, some studies show they’re no more effective than placebos for the mild-to-moderate depression for which they are usually prescribed. And antidepressant drugs, which work by increasing brain levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters (brain chemicals that influence mood), can also come with undesirable side effects, including weight gain and libido loss.
So if you’re feeling down, first check out these safe, natural options, which studies show can enhance mood. Their benefits will likely be greater if you combine them with better eating habits, regular, moderate exercise, and a little more time in the sun. Consider finding a therapist to talk to; research shows psychotherapy can relieve depression equally as well as drugs. And if you think you may be suffering from major depression (the most serious type), see a health care provider.
B12 and L-tyrosine
If you sometimes have a “down day,” try taking this combination 15 minutes before breakfast. Priscilla Slagle, MD, a nutrition-oriented psychiatrist in Palm Springs, California, recommends the duo as a safe, occasional natural upper. The amino acid L-tyrosine is a primary building block of stimulating neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, which contributes to positive moods. Getting enough B12 helps make neurotransmitters that affect your mood, sleep, and how you feel pain.
Dose: Try 500 mg of L-tyrosine and 1,000 mcg of sublingual B12.
B vitamins help convert protein building blocks, like L-tyrosine and L-tryptophan, to functional neurotransmitters. Vitamins B3 and B6 seem to have the most striking anti-depressant effect, but vitamin B12 and folic acid often help as well.
Dose: Your best choice is a high-potency formula containing at least 25 mg of vitamins B1, B2, and B3. Note: The niacin form of B3 causes a tingling flush for about one hour, and vitamin B2 will turn urine bright yellow, but both effects are harmless.
Omega-3 fatty acids
The biologically active constituents of fish oil, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), foster normal brain development and healthy moods. They help the brain make neurotransmitters, and numerous studies indicate they fight depression and other mood disorders, including bipolar disorder and hostility. Omega-3s boost the health of brain cell membranes, facilitating communication between cells, including receptors for serotonin and other neurotransmitters.
Dose: Take 2–4 grams fish oil daily; high EPA formulas may work best for depression.
Short for S-adenosylmethionine, SAMe is a natural compound the body uses to produce serotonin and other neurotransmitters. It can also boost levels of these neurotransmitters and help them work better, leading to healthier moods. Studies show SAMe can work as well as some antidepressant drugs, and it also increases the activity of those meds. In addition, SAMe lessens osteoarthritis pain and stiffness.
Dose: Take 800–1,600 mg daily.
St. John’s wort
Solid research shows that St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) resolves mild-to-moderate depression better, and with fewer side effects, than leading prescription drugs, including Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil. An analysis of 29 studies found that St. John’s wort also helps relieve the most severe types of depression.
Dose: For mild-to-moderate depression, take 300 mg three times daily. For more severe depression, take 600 mg three times daily. Note: St. John’s wort enhances the body’s breakdown of drugs, including oral contraceptives and chemotherapeutic drugs, and therefore reduces their effectiveness.
New research points to low levels of vitamin D as a cause of depression, especially during the shorter days of fall and winter. High-risk groups include people middle-aged and older, as well as people with chronic diseases.
Dose: Take 2,000–5,000 IU of vitamin D3 daily, depending on location, season, and lifestyle. Ask your doctor to test your D levels regularly.