Take Control Of Depression With These Nutrients & Herbs

Being in a funk, feeling blue, experiencing the doldrums? Everyone goes through low moods now and again. But for one in every twelve Americans, frequent feelings of apathy, sadness, hopelessness, or even a sense of worthlessness can signal depression. And if you’re a woman, studies show that you’re twice as likely as a man to be affected. (1)

Depression isn’t a one-size-fits-all condition. There are several forms of the disease, including:

  • major depressive disorder (MDD), the most enduring and serious form of the disease
  • persistent depressive disorder (PDD), which is marked by a low mood on most days for at least two years
  • bipolar disorder that manifests as mood swings between elation and deep sadness
  • seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression related to shorter days and changes in the season
  • postpartum depression that may occur after giving birth (2)

While conventional treatment often includes antidepressant drugs and professional therapy, if you suffer from mild to moderate depression you may be able to consider a more natural approach, starting with what you eat.

woman smelling her tea

Natural alternatives like diet and mood-regulating herbs, in tea form, may be just as effective as antidepressants for mild to moderate depression.

Nutrition & mental health

According to a growing number of studies, adopting a nutrient-dense whole foods diet may give your brain what it needs to prevent the onset of depression. Eating a diet high in refined and processed foods, on the other hand, may boost your risk. This was shown in a review of 21 studies from around the world. After analyzing the data, the researchers found that eating a Mediterranean-type diet contributed to the prevention of depression. However, a diet high in red or processed meat, refined grains, sweets, and fatty foods (think trans fats and an overabundance of pro-inflammatory omega-6 oils) was found to increase the risk. (3)

What you eat may also improve symptoms if you’re already suffering from depression—at least according to researchers at Australia’s Deakin University. During their study of 67 people with depression, half were given nutritional counseling designed to improve their diets while the other half were given one-on-one social support. After 12 weeks, those who improved their diets experienced significantly happier moods compared to the group assigned to chat or play cards with a companion. It was so effective that 32 percent of those making dietary changes had a complete remission of their symptoms. (4)

So what are the best feel-good foods, according to these scientists? Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats like olive oil, cold-water fish like salmon or sardines, and poultry. Not only are these foods packed with vitamins and minerals, but they also boast an array of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that help flip the switch on depression.

Herbs & supplements for depression

What you eat isn’t the only avenue leading to natural depression relief. Several herbs and supplements can also trigger a happier mood. Here are four of the most effective:


Sometimes called the “roseroot herb,” has a well-earned reputation for reducing stress and fatigue, improving concentration, and boosting fitness. But studies also point to this herb’s ability to improve mild to moderate depression, even at fairly low doses. (5) It’s so effective that when one clinical trial of 57 people suffering from mild to moderate MDD pitted a standardized rhodiola extract against the SSRI drug sertraline, researchers found that, while rhodiola wasn’t quite as effective as the depression drug, it was significantly better tolerated, making it an option for some people. (6)

Rhodiola extract next to a cup of tea

Rhodiola has a well-earned reputation for reducing stress and fatigue, improving concentration, and boosting fitness.

So how does rhodiola work to thwart depression? Swiss researchers found that it acts as a natural MAO inhibitor. (7) MAO (monoamine oxidase) is an enzyme that helps degrade key neurotransmitters in the brain like serotonin that contribute to feelings of well-being.


This one could be one of serotonin’s best friends (as well as two other happiness chemicals in the brain, dopamine, and norepinephrine). New research shows that this colorful herb can effectively reduce the severity of symptoms, often as well as antidepressant drugs. (8) In one six-week randomized clinical trial, 30 patients diagnosed with mild to moderate depression were divided into two groups—one group took 30 mg of saffron and the other took 100 mg of the SRRI imipramine.

By the end of the study, the researchers concluded that saffron was just as effective as the pharmaceutical but without any of the adverse side effects like weight gain or the loss of libido. (9) Crocin, the main antioxidant compound in saffron, has also been found to boost the effect of SRRIs. (10)

Saffron extract in a wooden bowl

Saffron has been found to effectively reduce the symptoms of depression.

St. John’s wort

The tried and true granddaddy of herbal depression care. The compounds in the herb have been found to increase the mood-modulating brain chemicals serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline. (11) Two recent meta-analyses—one of 35 trials and the other of 27 trials—show that St. John’s wort reduces the symptoms of mild to moderate depression as well as prescription antidepressants with far fewer side effects. (12)(13) Just be aware that combining St. John’s wort with some antidepressant drugs can cause a variety of adverse reactions.

Pairing the herb with other prescriptions like warfarin, some cancer medications, and even birth control pills can undermine their benefits. If you are taking medication, check with your doctor before adding St. John’s wort to the equation.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Often in short supply in the all-American diets which can cause mood alterations. Here’s why: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the two types of omega-3s critical for maintaining brain health. A deficiency in these healthy fats can impact the transmission of serotonin and other mood-regulating neurotransmitters.

Not surprisingly, scientists have found that omega-3s levels are often low in those with depression. (14) There is some evidence, however, that taking a daily dose of omega-3s can ease the symptoms of depression in both adults and children—including those suffering from bipolar disorder. (15)

Did you know?
Meditation and other forms of self-care can help ease depression-related anxiety.

The anxiety link

Depression and anxiety often go hand in hand. In fact, long-term anxiety can trigger depression and vice-versa—and both conditions can negatively impact your mood and even your adrenal glands.

The good news is that lifestyle changes, such as getting good quality sleep, increasing your social support, exercising, and establishing a regular meditation practice can improve the symptoms of both anxiety and depression. Adding some targeted adrenal support can also help foster a calmer, happier mood.

woman eating yogurt

New evidence suggests that probiotics might reduce feelings of depression.

Gut health and depression

What’s on the horizon for natural depression care? Bugs! Or more specifically, beneficial bacteria, more commonly known as probiotics. Emerging research suggests that certain strains of bacteria can positively impact the gut-brain axis and influence mood, memory, and behavior.

In one 30-day trial, volunteers who took a probiotic supplement containing Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum experienced less stress and had lower depression scores than the volunteers who took a placebo. (16) Another clinical trial tested the effects of a combination of Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, and Bifidobacterum bifidum on MDD and found that the group taking the probiotic had significantly fewer depressive symptoms and reduced severity compared to a placebo.
As a bonus, the researchers noted that those taking the probiotic also had less inflammation, lower insulin levels, and a significant boot in the antioxidant glutathione. (17)

The bottom line

Taken together, these natural nutritional changes can go a long way to prevent or ease the symptoms of depression. And while antidepressant medications are still necessary for some people, many find that the strategies outlined above can help them look beyond their depression to a brighter, happier state of mind.

If you are a practitioner, consider signing up to Fullscript. If you are a patient, talk to your healthcare practitioner about Fullscript!

  1. Prevalence of Depression Among Adults Aged 20 and Over: United States, 2013-2016. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NCHS Data Brief No. 303: Feb 2018.
  2. Depression. The National Institutes of Mental Health Information Resource Center. nimh.nih.gov.
  3. Li Y, Lv MR, Wei YJ, et al. Dietary patterns and depression risk: A meta-analysis. Psychiatry Res. 2017;253:373-382.
  4. Jacka FN, O’Neil A, Opie R, et al. A randomized controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BCM Medicine. 2017;15:23.
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