Natural Antidepressants: Proven, Drug-Free (evidence-based guide)

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Last updated July 10, 2023.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.

These supplements and activities are very effective natural antidepressants. They often work faster, better, and with far fewer side effects than Rx drugs.

Depression is one of the most common mental disorders, affecting many millions of people every year. 

It’s estimated that 1 in 8 adults now takes a prescription antidepressant

But antidepressant drugs can have unacceptable side effects and don’t work for everyone.

The 14 natural antidepressants we’ll discuss have been shown to work as well as 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: 

  • agitation
  • digestive upset
  • drowsiness
  • headache
  • insomnia
  • loss of libido
  • memory loss
  • weight gain

They have also been known to increase the risk of suicidal thoughts, especially in children, teens, and young adults. 

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. 

The addictiveness of antidepressants has largely been downplayed.

A team of researchers found SSRIs to be as hard to quit as highly addictive benzodiazepines


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Antidepressant Drugs Aren’t Right for Everyone

Children, the elderly, and pregnant and breastfeeding women are not good candidates for antidepressant drugs

They do not mix safely with many other medications and even some over-the-counter supplements. 

Many people just don’t like that they feel emotionally numb on prescription antidepressants.

And finally, sometimes these antidepressants just inexplicably stop 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 help you.

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 schedule.

1. Curcumin

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). 

When curcumin is taken along with a prescription antidepressant, it enhances the drug’s effectiveness

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One of the ways curcumin works is by increasing levels of serotonin and dopamine

Serotonin is a primary brain chemical associated with happiness.

Dopamine is the body’s “motivation molecule” and also drives its pleasure-reward system.

Consider curcumin if you have major depressive disorder, depression along with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or if you want to enhance the effectiveness of your antidepressant.

2. Saffron

Saffron is well known as a rare, brilliant yellow culinary spice, but it is not generally known as a natural antidepressant.

Several studies confirm that saffron works as well for depression as Prozac due to its serotonergic, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective properties

When buying a saffron supplement for depression, quality matters. A lot.

It’s critical that you take a standardized extract of Crocus sativus that’s made by a reputable company.

If it says only “saffron extract” on the label, it’s almost certainly not the real thing.

Turmeric, American or Mexican saffron (Carthamus tinctorius), and meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale), which is poisonous, are examples of saffron copycats you may come across. 

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). 

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.


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3. Fish Oil

Depression has been linked to suboptimal levels of omega-3 essential fatty acids

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. 

Another omega-3, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), has also been found to reduce depression.

If fish is not a regular part of your diet, consider taking an omega-3 supplement that contains both DHA and EPA.

Note that if you take an antidepressant, eating fatty fish at least once a week makes it much more likely to be effective

4. Tryptophan

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that’s a precursor to both serotonin and melatonin, the body’s natural sleep hormone. 

It also increases dopamine, endorphins, and norepinephrine, three brain chemicals vital to positive mood. 

Several clinical studies have shown that it works as well for depression as prescription antidepressants. 

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). 

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 serotonin from tryptophan.

For this reason, tryptophan supplements work better to increase the body’s level of tryptophan than the tryptophan found in food. 

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)

There’s evidence that drinking green tea daily can reduce the risk of depression. 

EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate), one of the main active compounds found in green tea, is thought to be largely responsible for tea’s antidepressant properties.

EGCG increases resilience to stress and is as effective for anxiety as anti-anxiety drugs

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One way it works is by normalizing the activity of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a primary relaxing brain chemical often referred to as “nature’s Valium.”

Another way that EGCG works is by altering brainwave patterns, putting you in a “relaxed yet attentive” state similar to meditation. 

It is best to get EGCG from green tea rather than from a supplement since EGCG supplements are prone to degradation and are very poorly utilized by the body. 

Additionally, you’ll miss out on the synergy between EGCG and two other substances in green tea — caffeine and l-theanine, another relaxing compound. 

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.

6. Acetyl-l-Carnitine

Acetyl-l-carnitine (ALCAR) is an amino acid with well-documented brain-boosting properties. 

ALCAR 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.

ALCAR 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. 

7. Kava

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.

It’s as effective for anxiety as prescription anti-anxiety medications, but it’s also been found to be an effective alternative to antidepressant drugs

Related on Be Brain Fit —
Using Kava for Anxiety and Stress

Kava works by increasing the level of the relaxing brain chemical GABA

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.

And, unlike hormone replacement therapy, kava will not disrupt estrogen levels

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8. Arctic Root

Arctic root (Rhodiola rosea), as the name suggests, is found mainly in cold regions of the world. 

It has been used traditionally in Asian and Eastern European 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. 

It can reduce depression faster than prescription antidepressants. 

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 strikingly similar to those of antidepressants and include anxiety, upset stomach, dry mouth, headache, fatigue, dizziness, mental confusion, and sexual dysfunction. 

It can make dementia worse and trigger psychosis or mania in bipolar disorder patients

St. John’s wort reacts badly with literally hundreds of common pharmacological substances, both pharmaceutical and natural. lists over 500 known interactions

Women need to be aware that it can make birth control pills less effective

St. John’s wort definitely should NOT be taken with antidepressant drugs.

Together, they can cause serotonin syndrome, a serious and potentially fatal condition. 

For the same reason, St. John’s wort should NOT be mixed with supplements that work by raising serotonin

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

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

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.

Coconut oil, with its unique composition of antioxidants and medium-chain fatty acids (MCTs), has been found to be an effective antidepressant functional food

2. Exercise, Outdoors If Possible

There are few things better for 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. 

Physical exercise regulates the same neurotransmitters targeted by prescription antidepressants, and, in some cases, can relieve depression as well as or even better than these drugs. 

When possible, exercise outdoors.

Exercising in nature is considerably more beneficial for your mental health than exercising indoors. 

Outdoor exercise will also help to reset your circadian rhythm for better sleep and replenish your valuable stores of mood-boosting vitamin D

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 conducted a meta-analysis of human trials involving mindfulness meditation. 

They concluded that its best uses were for depression, anxiety, and pain management.

However, they also found that meditation’s benefits extended to mental disorders of all kinds, including anxiety disorders and substance abuse.

Meditation increases GABA and serotonin while reducing cortisol, a stress hormone that significantly contributes to depression. 

It reduces the brain inflammation associated with depression, and can even dial down the expression of pro-inflammatory genes

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, self-hypnosis, autogenic training, biofeedback, and progressive muscle relaxation. 

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.” 

But you don’t have to knit, any purposeful activity will do.

Take your pick from drawing, reading, arts and crafts, playing music, gardening, doing home repairs, or many other activities. 

Being engaged in a leisure activity that you enjoy focuses the mind similar to meditation, releases dopamine, and protects the brain from aging. 

5. Remember to Breathe

Few of us think much about breathing, we just do it.

Unfortunately, few adults breathe from the diaphragm as they should.

Instead, we take short, shallow breaths from the chest that contribute to the body’s stress response.

Andrew Weil, MD, 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.

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

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