Can herbal supplements be used to treat depression?

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Some of the supplements that are purported to help anxiety and depression are omega-3 fatty acids (which are so safe that they should be no-brainer, and they help make you brainier—600 milligrams a day for adults makes a big difference). New mothers can reduce postpartum depression if they add 600 milligrams of plant based DHA omega-3 (or 2 grams of fish oil) to daily diet. DHEA (which should never be taken without checking your blood levels first), SAMe, kava root and St. John's Wort also have substantial data supporting their benefit for depression treatment and suppression. We favor DHA and SAMe, as St. John's Wort has a lot of conflicting data and you should absolutely discuss all other than DHA with your doc, because there can be some interactions with other anti-depressants.

Watch the video to learn more about DHA.

Dr. Sarah N. Mourra, MD

In terms of herbal medications or alternative medications for mood or depression—particularly in people with dementia—two of the most frequently used are St. John’s wort and S-Adenosylmethionine (SAM-e), which are often available in health food stores. However, it’s very important to know that while both of these have been found to have efficacy in the treatment of depression in younger age groups, they are not necessarily a treatment for depression in people with dementia. There are very important considerations with both of these agents. St. John’s wort, for example, can have significant liver interactions, which can interfere with the efficacy of other medications. It’s important to work with the doctor to make sure that all medications are indicated and needed, and that includes supplements and herbal and alternative remedies as well.

For generations, people have used herbal remedies to help with mood disorders. In the past few decades, researchers have begun to examine some of these historic remedies, particularly one called Hypericum perforatum, or St. John's Wort, a bushy herb with yellow flowers. St John's Wort has been used to treat depression since the 1500s. It is a common treatment in Germany.

The herb works in a similar way to some prescription antidepressants by increasing the brain chemical serotonin, involved in controlling mood. A recent scientific review analyzed 29 studies that together included 5,489 men and women with symptoms of major depression. The researchers found that St. John's Wort extracts were not only effective but that fewer people taking them dropped out of the trials due to adverse side effects of the treatment.

If you are considering or currently taking St. John's Wort for your depression, please be aware that research has found that St. John's Wort can cause other medications not to work, or not to work as effectively. It is always important to talk with your healthcare provider about anything you are taking, including herbal supplements or vitamins, in treating depression or other disorders.

Dr. Pina LoGiudice, LAc, ND
Naturopathic Medicine Specialist

Saffron is a well-known Persian spice used for its ability to help the digestive system heal. Because most neurotransmitters are made in the digestive tract, this might be the reason saffron has been shown in studies to elevate low mood. As the most expensive spice, it is high in carotenoids and B vitamins. In studies, saffron has been compared to both Prozac and Imipramine, and found to work at least as well, or better, with less side effects.

While the petal is the expensive part of the herb, you can also take capsules of the stigma part of the plant, which is less expensive, but still contains the powerful mood-enhancing ingredients. Studies use a dose of 15mg twice a day. No toxicity has been shown when taking saffron in therapeutic amounts or in cooking.

Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Practitioner

Some people take herbal supplements, such as St. John's wort, to help ease their depression, but such products are not approved for treatment of depression in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration. Medical experts don't recommend relying on herbal supplements instead of proven depression medications and treatments. You should talk to your doctor before taking an herbal supplement to treat your depression. Herbal remedies can interact with certain medications.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.