Many natural antidepressants are a great alternative to prescription antidepressant drugs. They often work faster, better, and with fewer side effects.
Depression is one of the most common mental disorders affecting more than 19 million Americans each year. (1)
It’s estimated that 1 in 10 adults now takes a prescription antidepressant. (2)
But antidepressants can have some pretty unacceptable side effects and work in less than half of those who take them.
There’s a wide variety of ways to beat depression that have been proven to be effective in scientific studies.
Here are 14 natural antidepressants that work as well or even better than the usual drugs prescribed for depression — with fewer side effects.
Most of these are supplements but some will be antidepressant activities that can boost your mood without pills of any kind.
Natural Antidepressant Supplements
When you’re depressed, you’d like relief fast.
But you may lack motivation to make some of the healthy lifestyle choices you know you should be making.
Antidepressant supplements can help.
Taking the right supplement can jumpstart your way back to feeling like your best self.
Here are nine natural antidepressant supplements.
Choose one that best matches your unique set of symptoms.
Curcumin is the main active component in turmeric (Curcuma longa), a golden spice commonly used in Indian cuisine.
Curcumin works by increasing levels of serotonin and dopamine. (6)
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Serotonin is the brain chemical responsible for happiness.
Dopamine is your “motivation molecule” and is also in charge of your pleasure-reward system.
Saffron is well known as a rare, brilliant yellow culinary spice but is little known as a natural antidepressant.
When buying a saffron supplement for depression, quality matters.
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.
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American saffron, Mexican saffron, and meadow saffron (which is poisonous) are examples of “other” saffrons you may come across. (12)
Saffron is one of the most common fraudulent foods. (13)
The USP Food Fraud Database lists over 100 ingredients that have been used as fake saffron including marigold flowers, turmeric, poppy flowers, and beet fibers and adulterants.
Many saffron supplements are sold for weight loss since it also decreases appetite.
This makes saffron a good choice if you are depressed and want to lose weight.
Depression has been linked to suboptimal levels of omega-3 essential fatty acids. (13)
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. (14)
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Another omega-3, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), has also been found to reduce depression. (15)
If fish is not a regular part of your diet, consider taking a fish oil supplement that contains both DHA and EPA.
Note that if you are taking an antidepressant, eating fish can make it more effective. (16)
Related articles on Be Brain Fit:
Fish Oil: Liquid Gold for Depression and Mood Disorders
A wide variety of disorders have been correlated to a low levels of tryptophan.
Besides depression, tryptophan has therapeutic value for ADHD, anxiety, insomnia, OCD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
There’s a weird paradox when it comes to getting tryptophan from food.
It’s found in animal protein foods like meat and eggs, but the presence of protein blocks the synthesis of tryptophan into serotonin. (20)
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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.
EGCG (in Green Tea)
Drinking green tea daily reduces risk of depression by 44%. (21)
EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate), one of the main active compounds found in green tea, is thought to be responsible.
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 fascinating way EGCG works is by altering your brain wave patterns, putting you in a relaxed yet attentive state similar to meditation. (25)
It is best to get EGCG via green tea and not as a supplement.
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EGCG supplements are very poorly utilized — as little as 1% of it gets absorbed! (26)
And by taking a supplement you’d miss out on the synergy between EGCG, l-theanine, another relaxing compound found in green tea, and caffeine. (27)
These three powerhouse compounds 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.
Acetyl-l-carnitine (ALC or ALCAR) is an amino acid with well documented brain-boosting and anti-aging properties. (28)
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 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. (29)
Kava (Piper methysticum) is a traditional relaxing tea of the south Pacific.
Its extract has been standardized and used as a natural remedy, mainly for anxiety.
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Kava works by increasing the level of the relaxing brain chemical GABA. (33)
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 women who are depressed and anxious.
Arctic root (Rhodiola rosea), as the name suggests, is found mainly in cold regions of the world. (36)
It was used traditionally in Chinese medicine as an adaptogen to increase physical stamina and reduce fatigue due to stress. (37)
It works by increasing activity of the mood-boosting brain chemicals serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. (38)
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It reduces depression faster than prescription antidepressants. (39)
If your depression is accompanied by anxiety or fatigue, or is caused by seasonal affective disorder (SAD), arctic root may be the answer. (40)
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. (41)
However St. John’s wort is a risky herb with many side effects and negative interactions.
Related articles on Be Brain Fit:
Benefits (and Risks) of St. John’s Wort for Depression
Its side effects are surprisingly similar to those of antidepressants including anxiety, panic attacks, dizziness, nausea and spikes in blood pressure. (42)
It can make dementia worse and trigger psychosis or mania in bipolar disorder patients. (43)
Ladies, it can make your birth control pills less effective.
It reacts badly with many common pharmacological substances, both pharmaceutical and natural. (44)
It definitely should not be taken with antidepressant drugs.
Together they can cause serotonin syndrome, a potentially fatal condition. (45)
For the same reason, St. John’s wort should not be mixed with any substance that works by raising serotonin. (46)
This includes other natural remedies for depression such as 5-HTP and tryptophan.
The bottom line is that St. John’s wort is just not worth the downsides unless you’ve exhausted all other possibilities.
Natural Antidepressant Activities
Not all natural antidepressants are things you take. Some are things you do.
Supplements can definitely help get you “out of the woods” but taking them forever isn’t ideal.
Once you are feeling more hopeful and motivated, add some (or all) of these proven antidepressant activities to your daily routine.
These activities are a great next step along the road to mental health and happiness.
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 risk of depression. (47)
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We’ve been led to believe that vegetable oils like soy and canola oils are healthy, when in fact they are a ubiquitous source of trans fats.
The simple act of replacing these oils with extra virgin olive oil slashes your risk of depression in half. (48)
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Coconut oil, with its unique composition of antioxidants and medium-chain fatty acids, can be as effective for depression as antidepressants. (50)
Exercise — Outdoors If Possible
There are few things better for your overall brain 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.
It can even change gene expression. (51)
When possible, get outdoors.
Exercising in nature is considerably more beneficial than exercising indoors. (54)
Outdoor exercise will help to reset your circadian rhythm for better sleep.
It can replenish your valuable stores of mood-boosting vitamin D. (55)
Practice Mindfulness Meditation
The evidence is overwhelming: a regular meditation practice is a top way to beat depression.
A research team at Johns Hopkins University analyzed more than 18,000 studies on mindfulness meditation.
They concluded that its best uses were for depression, anxiety, and pain management but that its benefits extended to mental disorders of all kinds, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, panic disorder, agoraphobia, and addictions. (56, 57, 58, 59)
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Meditation reduces negative self-talk, often a problem for anyone with a mood disorder.
If you’ve tried to meditate without success, check out our beginner’s meditation guide or try one of the other mind-body healing techniques to experience similar benefits.
Depression also responds favorably to yoga, guided imagery, self-hypnosis, autogenic training, acupuncture, biofeedback, and neurofeedback. (66)
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.” (67)
But you don’t have to knit, any “purposeful activity” will do.
Take your pick from drawing, reading, arts and crafts, playing music, gardening, or doing home repairs. (68)
Being engaged in a leisure activity you enjoy focuses the mind similarly to meditation, releases dopamine, and protects the brain against aging. (69)
Remember to Breathe
Few of us think much about breathing — we just do it!
Unfortunately, few adults breathe from the diaphragm but instead take short, shallow breaths that contribute to the body’s stress response.
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Dr. Andrew Weil, a well-known leader in the field of integrative medicine, believes 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. (70)
One breathing technique — Sudarshan Kriya yoga (SKY) breathing — can alleviate mild and major depression, anxiety, insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder. (71)
In one study, participants using SKY breathing for 30 days experienced significant relief from depression.
Within 90 days, the brain wave patterns of depressed study participants had returned to normal and they reported feeling free of depression symptoms.
You’ll find step-by-step instructions for one Sudarshan Kriya breathing technique along with other breathing exercises here.
Natural Antidepressants: The Bottom Line
Antidepressant medications are not the only way to get relief from depression.
Nature provides a medicine chest of natural 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 drugs like SSRIs.
Not all proven natural antidepressants are pills you take — some are things you do.
By including antidepressant activities in your routine, you can break free from being dependent on taking either pharmaceutical or natural antidepressants to maintain your new, improved mood.