These supplements and activities are great 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 roughly 40 million Americans each 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 an antidepressant prescription medication, almost always a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).
But these drugs work for only about half of those who take them.
And they also have some serious side effects including digestive upset, insomnia, agitation, drowsiness, weight gain, headache, memory loss, and loss of libido. (3)
They have been known to increase the risk of suicidal thoughts especially in children, teens, and young adults. (4)
Tapering off an SSRI or even missing a few doses can cause withdrawal symptoms including nausea, insomnia, dizziness, lethargy, flu-like symptoms, 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)
Antidepressants aren’t right for everyone.
Children, the elderly, and pregnant and breast-feeding women, for example, are not prime candidates for antidepressants. (7)
Antidepressants do not mix safely with many other medications and even some supplements. (8)
Many people just don’t like the way they feel emotionally numb on antidepressants.
And frustratingly, sometimes 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 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.
Several of them are also found in everyday foods, drinks, and spices.
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 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)
Related articles —
The Impressive Brain Benefits of Curcumin Supplements
Curcumin works by increasing levels of serotonin and dopamine. (12)
Serotonin is the brain chemical responsible for happiness.
Dopamine is your “motivation molecule” and is also in charge of your pleasure-reward system.
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Saffron is well known as a rare, brilliant yellow culinary spice, but it is little 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.
Related articles —
Supplements for Depression: 12 Top Herbal & Vitamin Remedies
American saffron, Mexican saffron, and meadow saffron (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 food items (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)
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Fish Oil: Liquid Gold for Depression and Mood Disorders
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 that 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)
A wide variety of disorders have been correlated with low levels of tryptophan.
Besides depression, tryptophan has therapeutic value for ADHD, anxiety, insomnia, OCD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Related articles —
Use Tryptophan to Boost Serotonin for Better Mental Health
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. (28)
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)
Drinking green tea daily reduces the risk of depression by 44%. (29)
EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate), one of the main active compounds found in green tea, is thought to be largely responsible for this.
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 brainwave patterns, putting you in a relaxed, yet attentive, state similar to meditation. (32)
It is best to get EGCG via green tea and not as a supplement.
EGCG supplements are very poorly utilized — as little as 1% of it gets absorbed! (33)
And by taking a supplement, you’d miss out on the synergy between EGCG, caffeine, and l-theanine, another relaxing substance found in green tea. (34)
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.
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Acetyl-l-carnitine (ALC or ALCAR) is an amino acid with well-documented brain-boosting and anti-aging 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 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.
Related articles —
Using Kava for Anxiety and Stress
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 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. (44)
It works by increasing the activity of the mood-boosting brain chemicals serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. (45)
It reduces depression faster than prescription antidepressants. (46)
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, St. John’s wort is a risky herb with many side effects and negative interactions.
Its side effects are surprisingly similar to those of antidepressants and include anxiety, panic attacks, dizziness, nausea, and spikes in blood pressure. (47)
It can make dementia worse and trigger psychosis or mania in bipolar disorder patients. (48)
Ladies, it can make your birth control pills less effective.
It reacts badly with many common pharmacological substances, both pharmaceutical and natural. (49)
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Benefits (and Risks) of St. John’s Wort for Depression
It 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.
The bottom line is that St. John’s wort is just not worth these side effects unless you’ve exhausted all other natural antidepressants.
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5 Activities That Work as Natural Antidepressants
Not all natural antidepressants are things you take.
Some are things you do.
Supplements can definitely help spark you to get “out of the woods,” but taking them forever isn’t ideal.
Once you are feeling more hopeful and motivated, add some (or all 5) of these proven antidepressant activities to your daily routine.
These activities are an excellent next step along the road to mental health and happiness.
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 ubiquitous source of trans fats.
Another brain-healthy food that should be in every kitchen is coconut oil. (54)
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.
It can even change gene expression. (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 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.
However, they also found that meditation’s benefits extended to mental disorders of all kinds, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, panic disorder, agoraphobia, and addictions. (60, 61, 62, 63)
Meditation reduces negative self-talk, often a problem for anyone 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, or doing home repairs. (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 that contribute to the body’s stress response.
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.
Related articles —
Search our site to find full-length articles on most of these antidepressant supplements and activities.
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. (73)
In one study, participants using 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.
Natural Antidepressants: Take the Next Step
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.
And finally, keep in mind that not all proven natural antidepressants are pills you take — some are things you do.
By including antidepressant activities in your daily routine, you can reduce your dependence on prescription antidepressants.
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