Cultures around the world have used natural options for ailments like depression since ancient times. Here’s what the research says.
If you live with depression, you may feel like you want to tackle it from all directions: therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, and natural remedies. But which ones are safe?
Complementary or alternative medicines (CAM) are becoming more respected in the Western model of medicine, as researchers study them in clinical settings.
As with every depression treatment, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Some remedies may help as-is if your symptoms are mild, but in most cases, they should be considered complementary to other therapeutic approaches, not a replacement for them.
If you’re interested in trying CAM to help treat your depression, it’s important to work with your treatment team to figure out the best and safest plan for you.
Science has found a link between various vitamins and mood. In some cases, a deficiency in certain nutrients may be linked with depression symptoms, in other cases, a higher intake of certain vitamins may be associated with improved mood. Quite often, however, research is mixed.
The research on vitamin D and depression is mixed. Several studies have noted the link between vitamin D deficiency and depression symptoms.
Yet a recent study with more than 18,000 participants found that vitamin D supplementation did not help boost people’s mood in a significant way.
Still, you may find some benefits. You can get enough vitamin D through spending time in the sun, supplementing with cod liver oil, or eating certain foods.
Dietary sources of vitamin D include:
- beef liver
- fortified products like milk
- oily fish, like salmon and sardines
Research shows that vitamin C helps regulate neurotransmitters like dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical, along with norepinephrine and epinephrine.
Some studies show that vitamin C supplementation can help improve mood, while others note little difference between those who take vitamin C and those who do not.
A review of the existing literature suggests that more studies are needed to be sure.
You may already know that oranges are rich in vitamin C, but that’s not all. Other sources include:
- Brussels sprouts
- citrus fruits
Research shows a link between low magnesium levels and depression, but a consensus on how exactly the two are related has not been reached.
Interestingly, a study of more than 17,000 adults found that daily magnesium supplementation was helpful for women but not men.
Yet other studies show it can be helpful for all, regardless of sex. One study found that taking 500 milligrams a day for 8 weeks could improve symptoms of depression.
In addition to supplements, magnesium can be sourced from:
- dark chocolate
Research shows a connection between low levels of calcium and depression, but so far the evidence for whether supplements help is inconclusive.
To try increasing your levels of calcium through food, consider adding more:
- dark leafy greens
While there is older research to show that zinc can help symptoms of depression, newer research does not indicate statistically significant improvement. More research is needed.
Still, you may find that it works for you. Beyond supplements, zinc can be found in:
Folate (vitamin B9)
Folate (vitamin B9) has long been suggested to improve how well antidepressant medications work, and newer research shows that those with depression have lower folate levels.
A combination of folate and vitamin B12 may ease symptoms, according to one study.
Vitamin B9 exists in its natural form, folate, and as an artificial form, known as folic acid. To ensure people get enough vitamin B9 through their diet, some foods like certain grains are often fortified with folic acid.
Folic acid supplements are also available. However, getting too much folic acid through supplements may come with health risks, as unmetabolized folic acid can build up in your blood.
Food sources of vitamin B9 include:
- Brussels sprouts
- leafy greens
- sunflower seeds
- fortified grains
Niacin (vitamin B3)
Niacin (vitamin B3) helps synthesize tryptophan into serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate your mood.
There is not enough research to show that niacin can help improve depression symptoms alone, but some studies suggest that a combination of B-vitamins may help.
There have also been positive findings for niacin and mood disorders like bipolar II.
Sources of niacin include supplements, as well as:
- dairy products
There is some older research to show that taking vitamin B12 with antidepressants can improve how well they work.
While there is not enough new evidence to show that B12 can directly improve mood, there is a correlation between low levels of this vitamin and depression symptoms.
Supplements aside, dietary sources of vitamin B12 include:
- nutritional yeast
If you find it challenging to get all the nutrients you need from diet alone, supplements may help. Still, it’s important to speak with a healthcare professional before trying a new supplement to determine the best dosage and discuss potential side effects or medication interactions.
Probiotics are live bacteria that aid your digestion and destroy cells that cause disease.
Some say the second brain is in the gut, and for good reason. There’s a growing body of research in support of using probiotics for depression.
One recent study showed that people with major depressive disorder (MDD) had improved symptoms in just 8 weeks.
Sources of probiotics include:
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids give your heart, immune system, and endocrine system (hormones) ample energy to function.
A recent review study of 180 articles found positive effects of omega-3 fatty acids on depression, compared with placebo treatment.
Other studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids are safe for pregnant women, children, and seniors alike, and they do not have side effects.
Omega-3s can be found in fish or vegan algae oil capsules, as well as:
- chia seeds
- cold-water fish
S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe) is a natural compound synthesized from methionine, an amino acid (the building blocks of protein) found in your diet.
While there have been at least 40 studies on SAMe and depression with some positive results, the evidence is not conclusive.
One study found that SAMe performed better than placebo, but the evidence was considered low to very low quality.
Another study observed that SAMe may help symptoms of neurocognitive, substance use, and psychotic disorders, but the body of evidence there is limited, too.
Still, you may find it helps. Beyond supplements, sources of methionine include:
- Brazil nuts
- egg whites
- sesame seeds
- sunflower seeds
N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) is a precursor to L-cysteine, an amino acid found in your body.
Research from 2018 and 2020 explored this supplement as adjunctive therapy to treatment-resistant depression and depression-induced anxiety with promising results.
Studies have shown that it can also be used alongside antidepressant medications, though more research is needed in this area.
You can supplement with NAC or find it in foods high in protein, including:
- sunflower seeds
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter produced by the body to promote relaxation, regulate sleep, and prevent depression.
For those who live with depression, research shows there may be abnormalities with the GABA system in the brain.
Currently, there is not much evidence on how well GABA reaches the brain in supplement form. Studies suggest it only changes brain levels in small amounts.
A 2020 study shows supplements may have some positive effects on sleep and stress.
It’s too soon to say whether this is an effective treatment for depression. It may be more beneficial to do activities that promote GABA, like exercise and meditation.
Apart from supplements, foods that stimulate GABA include:
- brown rice
Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by your body. It keeps your circadian rhythm in check and lets you know when it’s time to go to sleep.
The research on whether a supplement of melatonin can help depression is mixed. A 2016 study found that it may actually cause short-term depression.
On the other hand, both a 2017 and 2018 review found that it may help depression symptoms in some people.
You can support melatonin production with supplements or foods including:
- mustard seeds
Creatine is an organic compound obtained through animal products like:
- red meat
It’s stored in your muscles and used to build lean muscle mass and improve energy.
It’s a popular sports supplement, but recent research suggests that it may also have an antidepressant effect for those who live with major depressive disorder.
New research also suggests that increasing creatine in the prefrontal cortex of your brain may improve mood, but more research is needed.
Herbal remedies have been used around the world for centuries to help relieve symptoms of depression. It’s good to keep in mind that research on the effectiveness of these herbs is often limited.
St. John’s wort
St. John’s wort is a flowering plant native to Europe.
It’s well-documented to improve mood in the short term. In fact, research shows it’s on par with SSRI medications for mild to moderate depression.
Rhodiola rosea is a flowering plant native to Arctic European regions. It’s an adaptogenic herb, meaning it helps your body adapt to stress.
So far, a small body of research suggests that rhodiola may be effective for treating mild to moderate cases of depression, though more studies are needed.
A 2020 study even found that rhodiola was safe to use in tandem with sertraline (Zoloft) and that it’s effective for symptoms of major depressive disorder.
What can’t turmeric do? This ancient Indian spice, and its main active ingredient curcumin, seems to cover a wide array of ailments, depression included.
While more research is still needed, several clinical trials have shown promising results for turmeric in the treatment of major depressive disorder.
To date, no adverse effects have been reported in any studies.
Saffron is a rich crimson spice from Iran. It’s been used medicinally since ancient times.
An older meta-analysis of five studies found that saffron was effective for treating symptoms of major depressive disorder.
More recent research shows that a dietary supplement of saffron may be more effective than a placebo in cases of mild to moderate depression.
One study even found that saffron has equivalent effects to therapeutic doses of antidepressant medications like imipramine (Tofranil) and fluoxetine (Prozac).
There are no known negative drug interactions for saffron, though you shouldn’t take it if you’re allergic to olives.
Chai hu is a flowering plant that’s been used in Chinese Traditional Medicine (CTM) for more than 2,000 years.
Research suggests that the herb’s antioxidant activity is responsible for its antidepressant effect.
A recent systematic review of 42 studies found that chai hu is safe and effective, particularly for those with post-stroke depression or postpartum depression.
Maca comes from a plant native to Peru. It’s typically ground up into a fine powder.
In 2015, a small study found that maca reduced depression symptoms in postmenopausal women.
Recent research on rats shows that maca can have an antidepressant effect while increasing learning and memory.
To support your treatment, there are several lifestyle modifications you can make.
Research shows that exercise can be effective in reducing symptoms of depression, due to the release of feel-good neurochemicals, like endorphins.
Depression symptoms can make it hard for some people to get motivated to lift weights or do vigorous physical activity. Some other movement ideas include:
A large body of research suggests that meditation can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, among other mental health conditions.
Some studies show that it’s even on par with or, or effective than, physical exercise.
Studies suggest that positive results can be sustained well after 6 and 12 months, if you keep up with the practice.
Research shows that yoga can improve symptoms of depression and anxiety. In fact, some studies suggest the more times a week you do it, the better you may feel.
Note that some research has shown that yoga may not be an appropriate stand-alone treatment for therapy-resistant depression.
You may find it helpful to try free YouTube yoga instructions like Yoga with Adrienne at home, or book a restorative or yin yoga class at a nearby gym or studio.
There is growing support behind psychedelic therapy for the treatment of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health conditions.
The psychedelics most commonly used for drug-assisted therapy include:
A small 2017 study showed positive outcomes for treatment-resistant depression. After two doses of psilocybin in a therapeutic setting, the majority of the study participants still had reduced symptoms of depression 3 and 6 months later.
A small 2020 study of 24 participants with major depressive disorder found that psilocybin provided “large, rapid, and sustained antidepressant effects.”
A 2021 study of 164 participants noted a marked improvement in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, such as rumination.
Due to something called the gut-brain axis, research shows that a healthy diet is linked with reduced symptoms of depression.
Vitamins and minerals linked with lowered depression can be found in a variety of ingredients. These include:
- citrus fruits for vitamin C
- dark chocolate for magnesium
- eggs for niacin
- fish for omega-3 fatty acids
- leafy greens for calcium
- nuts for zinc
- poultry for vitamin B12
- seeds for folate
Research shows that probiotics like kimchi, kombucha, miso, sauerkraut, and yogurt may also help improve symptoms of depression.
Many studies on the Mediterranean diet, in particular, show reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.
This lifestyle emphasizes whole, unprocessed, nutrient-rich foods including:
- ancient and whole grains
- lean cuts of meat of fish
- olive oil
For those with moderate to severe depression, between 40% and 60% of people experience improved symptoms with the use of antidepressants.
Natural remedies are a bit trickier to measure since the evidence relies on self-reporting, there are more variables, and more research is needed across the board.
In either case, your symptom relief will depend on how severe your symptoms are.
Keep in mind that some supplements, like St. John’s wort, can have negative interactions with medications.
Always speak with your doctor before you add a new element to your self-care regimen.
Depression is complex. There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment. What works for one person may not work for you.
An integrated approach — like talk therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, and natural remedies — may help you improve your symptoms.
If possible, consider a diet of whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense food to get the most vitamins and minerals working for your mind and body.
You may also want to incorporate a regular meditation practice, exercise, or yoga.
Most importantly, try not to lose hope. With the right treatment plan and some patience, depression is manageable. You are not alone and healing is possible.