These supplements and activities are very effective natural antidepressants. They often work faster, better, and with far fewer side effects than Rx drugs.
Table of Contents
Depression is one of the most common mental disorders, affecting many millions of people every year. (1)
It’s estimated that 1 in 10 adults now takes a prescription antidepressant. (2)
But these antidepressants can have unacceptable side effects and don’t work for everyone.
The 14 natural antidepressants we’ll discuss work as well or even better than the usual drugs prescribed for depression — with far fewer side effects.
Reasons to Consider Natural Antidepressants
The first-line medical treatment for depression is a prescription antidepressant medication, almost always a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).
Rx Antidepressants Aren’t That Effective and Have Serious Side Effects
But these drugs work for only about half of those who take them.
Prescription antidepressants also have some serious side effects, including: (3)
- digestive upset
- weight gain
- memory loss
- loss of libido
They have been known to increase the risk of suicidal thoughts, especially in children, teens, and young adults. (4)
Antidepressant Medicines Are Addictive and Can Cause Withdrawal Symptoms
Tapering off an SSRI or even missing a few doses can cause withdrawal symptoms, including agitation, anxiety, mental confusion, nausea, insomnia, dizziness, and brain zaps. (5)
The addictiveness of antidepressants has largely been downplayed.
A team of researchers found that SSRIs are as hard to quit as highly addictive benzodiazepines. (6)
Antidepressant Drugs Aren’t Right for Everyone
Children, the elderly, and pregnant and breastfeeding women, for example, are not good candidates for antidepressant drugs. (7)
They do not mix safely with many other medications and even some over-the-counter supplements. (8)
Many people just don’t like that they feel emotionally numb on prescription antidepressants.
Finally, sometimes these antidepressants just quit working.
9 Natural Antidepressant Supplements
If you’re depressed, you’d like relief fast.
But you may lack the motivation to make better, healthier lifestyle choices that could definitely help.
Taking the right natural antidepressant supplement can help put you on the path to feeling better.
Some of these natural antidepressants are even found in everyday foods, drinks, and spices.
" Curcumin supplements are as effective for depression as Prozac.
You don’t need to take them all to experience relief.
Choose one that best matches your unique set of symptoms.
Note: If you currently take a prescription antidepressant, talk to your doctor before taking any of these supplements or making any changes to your medication.
Curcumin is the main active component in turmeric (Curcuma longa), a golden spice commonly used in Indian cuisine.
Curcumin supplements are as effective for depression as Prozac, the most popular selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). (9)
Curcumin works by increasing levels of serotonin and dopamine. (12)
Serotonin is a primary brain chemical associated with happiness.
Dopamine is the body’s “motivation molecule” and also drives its pleasure-reward system.
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Saffron is well known as a rare, brilliant yellow culinary spice, but it is not generally known as a natural antidepressant.
When buying a saffron supplement for depression, quality matters. A lot.
It’s critical that you take a standardized extract of Crocus sativus that comes from a reputable company.
If it says only “saffron extract” on the label, it’s almost certainly not the real thing.
American or Mexican saffron (Carthamus tinctorius) and meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale), which is poisonous, are examples of “other” saffrons you may come across. (18)
Saffron is one of the most common fraudulent foods.
Ingredients that have been used to fake or adulterate saffron include foods (black pepper, flour, millet, buckwheat, starch) and things you would not want to eat (marigold flowers, corn silk, gypsum, chalk, glycerin, sandalwood dust, barium sulfate, twigs). (19, 20)
Many saffron supplements are sold for weight loss since saffron also decreases appetite.
This makes saffron a good choice if you are depressed and want to lose weight.
3. Fish Oil
Depression has been linked to suboptimal levels of omega-3 essential fatty acids. (21)
The best dietary sources of omega-3 fats are cold-water, fatty fish like salmon and sardines.
Deficiency of one particular omega-3, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is linked to depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. (22)
Another omega-3, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), has also been found to reduce depression. (23)
If fish is not a regular part of your diet, consider taking a fish oil supplement that contains both DHA and EPA.
Note: If you take an antidepressant, eating fish can make it more effective. (24)
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that’s a precursor to both serotonin and to melatonin, your body’s natural sleep hormone. (25)
Several controlled studies have shown that it works as well for depression as Rx antidepressants. (26)
A wide variety of disorders have been correlated with low levels of tryptophan.
Besides depression, tryptophan has therapeutic value for anxiety, insomnia, migraine headaches, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). (27)
There’s a strange paradox when it comes to getting tryptophan from food.
Tryptophan is found in animal protein foods like meat and eggs, but the presence of protein blocks the synthesis of tryptophan into serotonin.
For this reason, tryptophan supplements work better to increase the body’s level of tryptophan than the tryptophan found in food. (28)
A word of caution: Do not take supplemental tryptophan along with an SSRI. When taken together, they can cause a potentially serious condition known as serotonin syndrome.
5. EGCG (in Green Tea)
Drinking green tea daily can significantly reduce your risk of depression. (29)
EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate), one of the main active compounds found in green tea, is thought to be largely responsible for tea’s antidepressant properties.
One way it works is by normalizing the activity of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a main relaxing brain chemical often referred to as “nature’s Valium.”
Another way that EGCG works is by altering your brainwave patterns, putting you in a relaxed, yet attentive, state similar to meditation. (32)
It is best to get your EGCG from green tea rather than from a supplement, since EGCG supplements are prone to degradation and are very poorly utilized by the body. (33)
Additionally, you’ll miss out on the synergy between EGCG and two other substances in green tea — caffeine and l-theanine, another relaxing compound. (34)
These three potent substances work together to improve memory, attention, and learning.
Drink green tea if your depression is accompanied by stress, anxiety, or problems with focus and concentration.
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Acetyl-l-carnitine (ALC or ALCAR) is an amino acid with well-documented brain-boosting properties. (35)
ALC works largely by creating acetylcholine, the primary neurotransmitter associated with memory and learning.
Acetylcholine activity is the target of Alzheimer’s drugs, which block the breakdown of this brain chemical.
ALC also has fast-acting antidepressant properties.
It kicks in often within a week, working faster than prescription antidepressants.
This effect is even noticed in seniors who are typically slow to respond. (36)
Kava (Piper methysticum) is a traditional relaxing tea used in South Pacific cultures.
Its extract has been standardized and used as a natural remedy, mainly for anxiety.
Kava works by increasing the level of the relaxing brain chemical GABA. (40)
If you have depression along with overwhelming stress or anxiety, kava is a supplement you might want to try.
Kava is especially helpful for menopausal and perimenopausal women who are depressed and anxious.
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8. Arctic Root
Arctic root (Rhodiola rosea), as the name suggests, is found mainly in cold regions of the world. (43)
It was used traditionally in Chinese medicine as an adaptogen to increase physical stamina and reduce fatigue due to stress.
It works by increasing the activity of the mood-boosting neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. (44)
It reduces depression faster than prescription antidepressants. (45)
If your depression is accompanied by anxiety or fatigue, or is caused by seasonal affective disorder (SAD), Arctic root may be the answer.
9. St. John’s Wort (Caution!)
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is one of the most popular natural antidepressants.
It compares favorably when tested against numerous antidepressant medications.
However, just because St. John’s wort is natural, doesn’t mean that it is without risks.
Its side effects are surprisingly similar to those of antidepressants and include anxiety, upset stomach, dry mouth, headache, fatigue, dizziness, mental confusion, and sexual dysfunction. (46)
It can make dementia worse and trigger psychosis or mania in bipolar disorder patients. (47)
St. John’s wort reacts badly with many common pharmacological substances, both pharmaceutical and natural. (48)
It interacts with literally hundreds of medications and can make birth control pills less effective. (49)
St. John’s wort definitely should NOT be taken with antidepressant drugs.
Together, they can cause serotonin syndrome, a potentially fatal condition. (50)
This includes other natural remedies for depression, such as 5-HTP and tryptophan supplements.
The bottom line is that St. John’s wort is just not worth these side effects unless you’ve exhausted all other natural antidepressant options.
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5 Activities That Work as Natural Antidepressants
Not all natural antidepressants are things you ingest.
Some are things you do.
Supplements can definitely help kickstart you to feeling better, but taking them forever isn’t ideal.
Once you are feeling more hopeful and motivated, add some (or all five) of these proven antidepressant lifestyle habits to your daily routine.
1. Give Your Brain an Oil Change
You’ve certainly heard that trans fats — the kind found in processed, fried, and fast foods — are bad news for your health.
But did you know that they can also make you depressed?
There’s a direct correlation between the amount of unhealthy trans fats consumed and the risk of depression. (52)
We’ve been led to believe that vegetable oils like soy and canola oils are healthy, when, in fact, they are a hidden source of trans fats. (53)
The simple act of replacing these oils with extra virgin olive oil slashes your risk of depression in half.
Another brain-healthy food that should be in every kitchen is coconut oil.
2. Exercise, Outdoors If Possible
There are few things better for your overall mental health than physical exercise.
Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, delivering more oxygen and nutrients while removing toxins and metabolic waste.
It also stimulates new brain cell formation and greater connectivity between areas of the brain. (55)
It can even change the expression of genes for the better. (56)
When possible, get outdoors.
Exercising in nature is considerably more beneficial than exercising indoors. (58)
Outdoor exercise will help to reset your circadian rhythm for better sleep.
It can replenish your valuable stores of mood-boosting vitamin D. (59)
3. Practice Mindfulness Meditation
The evidence is overwhelming — a regular meditation practice is an excellent way to beat depression.
A research team at Johns Hopkins University analyzed more than 18,000 studies on mindfulness meditation. (60)
They concluded that its best uses were for depression, anxiety, and pain management.
- generalized anxiety disorder
- social anxiety
- panic disorder
Meditation reduces negative self-talk, often a problem for those with a mood disorder.
Depression also responds favorably to other mind-body techniques including yoga, guided imagery, self-hypnosis, autogenic training, acupuncture, biofeedback, and neurofeedback. (68)
4. Take Up a Hobby
It may sound too simple to be true, but taking up the right kind of hobby can act as a natural antidepressant.
Over 80% of knitters with depression felt happy when they knitted; more than 50% reported feeling “very happy.” (69)
But you don’t have to knit, any purposeful activity will do.
Take your pick from drawing, reading, arts and crafts, playing music, gardening, making home repairs, or many more. (70)
Being engaged in a leisure activity you enjoy focuses the mind similarly to meditation, releases dopamine, and protects the brain against aging. (71)
5. Remember to Breathe
Few of us think much about breathing — we just do it!
Unfortunately, few adults breathe from the diaphragm as we should.
Instead, we take short, shallow breaths from the chest which contribute to the body’s stress response.
Dr. Andrew Weil, a well-known leader in the field of integrative medicine, contends that learning to breathe properly is the single most important thing you can do for your overall health and mental well-being.
Employing proper breathing techniques reduces depression and anxiety, sometimes as effectively as medication. (72)
One breathing exercise — Sudarshan Kriya yoga (SKY) breathing — can alleviate mild and major depression, anxiety, insomnia, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In one study, participants who practiced SKY breathing for 30 days experienced significant relief from depression.
Within 90 days, the brainwave patterns of depressed study participants had returned to normal and they reported feeling free of depression symptoms. (73)
Natural Antidepressants: Take the Next Step
Antidepressant medications are not the only way to get relief from depression.
Nature provides a medicine chest of antidepressant herbs, amino acids, and healthy oils that have been studied and shown to work as well as prescription antidepressants.
Some work better, faster, and almost always with significantly fewer side effects when compared to antidepressant drugs.
And finally, keep in mind that not all proven natural antidepressants are things you ingest — some are things you do.
By including mood-elevating activities in your daily routine, you can reduce your need to take antidepressant pills of any kind, be they drugs or supplements.
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