Herbs and Supplements for Depression

By John Bernard, MD
Medically reviewed
September 1, 2021

One of modern medicine’s many benefits is the continued development of medications which can treat many different physical and mental illnesses. However, just because a medication to treat a specific condition is available, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best option for you, and some patients prefer to try herbs and other supplements either in conjunction with or instead of medications. This is especially true for depression and other mental health conditions.

Doctors have been using botanicals and herbal remedies for thousands of years. As with medication, discovering both the right herbs and supplements for depression—as well as the proper balance—can be tricky, and should be approved by a medical professional. When it comes to natural supplements for depression, there are centuries’ worth of research that can make the search a little easier.

Chat with a doctor and get mental health treatment for just $12

Get started

What Is Depression?

Like any mental health condition, depression is a complex illness that you cannot just turn off or snap out of. It’s a mood disorder that’s associated with a constant feeling of sadness and loss of interest. For some people, these negative feelings can be so intense that they may even feel as though life isn’t worth living.

If you experience any of the following depression symptoms for a prolonged period of time, seek help from a medical professional:

  • Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness
  • Angry outbursts over small matters
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all activities
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Tiredness and lack of energy
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss
  • Increased cravings for food and weight gain
  • Anxiety, agitation, or restlessness
  • Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
  • Feelings of worthlessness or blame
  • Trouble concentrating or remembering
  • Thoughts of death and/or suicide

Fortunately, there are many treatment options to help those who suffer from depression, ranging from therapy to medication. In fact, there are even a few things you can do to help treat yourself, such as balancing your perspective, asking yourself questions about your own depression, being active, and many others.

How Do You Treat Depression?

Because depression is a complex mental health condition, it may not be as easy to treat as a physical illness like the flu or a headache. But it is manageable! The two most common treatments for depression are medication and therapy.

Medication

There are many types of antidepressants available, but some of them have gradually fallen into disfavor. Currently, doctors prefer to prescribe two types of medications that have the lowest risk of side effects: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). These medications can be especially useful because they treat both depression and anxiety, conditions which often accompany one another.

Therapy

The most effective type of talk therapy for depression is psychotherapy, which involves working with a licensed therapist to reduce your symptoms over time. Psychotherapy is a general form of talk therapy that helps you understand why and how you experience your moods, feelings, thoughts and behaviors. You do not need to have a diagnosed mental condition to benefit from psychotherapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a short-term form of treatment that teaches you specific skills to cope with your symptoms, manage your reactions, and eventually reestablish a more stable mood and approach to life. This kind of therapy is designed for people with specific mental conditions, including mood disorders, anxiety, addiction, personality disorders, and eating disorders. The main difference between general psychotherapy and CBT is the length of treatment and approach. While you may benefit from psychotherapy for years, CBT generally lasts for a limited number of sessions, until you have learned the skills necessary to help manage your mental health.

Chat with a doctor and get mental health treatment for just $12

Get started

Common Herbs and Supplements to Treat Depression

Herbal supplements are monitored by the FDA differently than medications, and it is important to consult with your doctor before taking any supplements. Even though they often claim to be “all natural,” that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safe, or even effective. Many herbal supplements interact with other medications that you may be taking. If your doctor recommends a natural supplement to aid in your treatment, the best place to find a good variety of remedies would be your local health food store or pharmacy.

Here are a few of the best natural remedies for depression.

St. John’s wort

St. John’s wort is a yellow plant that grows in Europe and looks very similar to a daffodil. Though not FDA-approved in the U.S., St. John’s wort is widely prescribed to treat depression in other parts of the world, especially in Europe. The plant’s effects were similar to that of a placebo treatment for moderate to severe depression, but in mild cases, St. John’s wort may help uplift your mood. However, since St. John’s wort is a stimulant, do not take it if you suffer from anxiety, as it may increase your anxiety.

After consulting with your doctor, it is generally safe to take between 300-600 mg of St. John’s wort up to three times per day for as long as six weeks. Keep in mind that St. John’s wort may cause side effects, including:

  • Upset stomach
  • Dry mouth
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Interactions with other medication

The biggest risk of taking St. John’s wort is the supplement’s interaction with other medications, which can be fatal in some cases. If you’re taking any blood thinners, birth control pills, chemotherapy, HIV/AIDS medications, or drugs to prevent organ rejection after a transplant, do not ingest St. John’s wort because it can either completely block the medication from working or severely limit the efficacy.

St. John’s wort can also stop other prescribed mental health medications, like antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, from working properly, or can increase their risk for serious side effects.

SAMe

Like St. John’s wort, SAMe is not FDA-approved in the U.S., but it is prescribed as an oral supplement in many European countries. The dietary supplement is a synthetic form of a chemical called S-adenosyl-L-methionine, which occurs naturally in the body and is thought to promote healthy moods, liver function, and joint function. Most studies on SAMe for depression have been small or short, or have used an injection rather than an oral supplement—for these reasons, the National Institutes of Health says that its effects on depression are not conclusive.

SAMe should not be taken in conjunction with other antidepressants or if you have bipolar disorder because it may trigger mania. It may also decrease the effect of drugs used to treat Parkinson’s disease, and could potentially cause a dangerous infection in people who are HIV-positive. Although SAMe been helpful in mild cases of depression and anxiety, there are quite a few potential side effects to watch out for, including:

  • Negative changes in mood
  • Drooling
  • Restlessness
  • Tremors
  • Uncontrollable head, mouth, neck, arm, or leg movements
  • Unusual weakness or tiredness

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in cold-water fish, flaxseed, flax oil, and walnuts, but are also available in supplements. Though these supplements have been FDA-approved to reduce the risk of cardiovascular events, some people use them to treat depression and depressive symptoms of bipolar disorder. If taken according to packaging instructions, the supplements are generally safe with little to no side effects.

5-HTP

Short for 5-hydroxytryptophan, 5-HTP is an amino acid that your body uses to produce serotonin, whose nickname is the “happy chemical.” Like serotonin, your body produces 5-HTP naturally. Your body uses it to produce serotonin, which helps boost your serotonin levels, which, in turn, can elevate your mood. 5-HTP is often used to help with sleep. But when taken as a supplement for depression, evidence is limited as to its effectiveness. There are also serious risks to 5-HTP supplements. Not only are they not FDA-approved, they’re known to cause severe neurological conditions, among other serious side effects. 

DHEA

DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone, is a hormone your body produces naturally. Since a drop in DHEA levels has been linked to depression, taking DHEA as a dietary supplement can improve mood. DHEA is approved by the FDA, with minimal possible side effects that range from upset stomach to acne. However, it may increase your risk of hormone-sensitive cancers, such as breast cancer, prostate cancer, and lymphoma.

NAC (N-acetylcysteine)

NAC, or N-acetylcysteine, is an amino acid that has been shown to offer many health benefits, and is commonly used by medical professionals when treating patients with an acetaminophen (Tylenol) overdose. 

Studies show that NAC can help reduce depressive symptoms in those suffering from depression, schizophrenia, trichotillomania, and more. This may be due to the fact that taking NAC can decrease the levels of certain molecules that cause inflammation in the brain and body, specifically molecules associated with the aforementioned mental illnesses. It has also been suggested that NAC can help stimulate and regulate neurotransmitters like dopamine and glutamate, helping boost mood.  

Using NAC as a supplement is seen as generally safe, though side effects can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation. 

Saffron

Commonly used as a spice for cooking, saffron is a purple flower used for its stigmas (the thread-like parts inside the flower), which are golden-hued when dried. When ingested, these dried stigmas are considered a safe, natural way to help reduce depressive symptoms.

Studies suggest that saffron may help boost mood because it contains two main antioxidant compounds—crocin and crocetin—which may help increase serotonin levels in the brain by inhibiting serotonin reuptake. A 2015 research review found that saffron supplements helped participants with major depressive disorder (MDD) quell their symptoms with the same effectiveness as prescription antidepressant medication. 

Using saffron as a supplement is generally considered safe in small doses.

Vitamin D

When most people think of vitamin D, they think of the sun—and they aren’t wrong. When your skin is exposed to sunlight, it manufactures vitamin D, which can help the body and brain in many different ways.

But many of us don’t get enough: An estimated one billion people worldwide have insufficient or deficient levels of vitamin D. And research has shown that people who suffer from depression tend to have lower vitamin D levels than the general population, and those with the most severe cases of depression have the greatest deficits in the vitamin. 

When taken as a supplement, vitamin D has been shown to moderately reduce depressive symptoms and increase quality of life in people with depression. Though more research is needed, it’s thought that vitamin D helps decrease the severity of depression by boosting mood and reducing inflammation in the brain. 

Taking vitamin D as a supplement is seen as safe in moderation. 

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)

Often combined with saffron, rhodiola is an herb typical to both western and traditional Chinese medicine, boasting a variety of different health benefits when used as a supplement.

When taken by those with depression, rhodiola has been shown to reduce depressive symptoms and boost mood, especially in those with mild-to-moderate depression. Research suggests that rhodiola may work by modulating mood-related neurotransmitter receptors and molecular networks, and by improving the body’s stress response by reducing overactivity in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis, which is thought to be related to depression. 

Taking rhodiola as a supplement is seen as safe in moderation, though side effects can include dizziness, dry mouth, or excessive saliva, especially when used in large doses.  

B vitamins

Much like vitamin D, deficiencies in B vitamins have been linked to depression. Though there are eight different types of B vitamins, the three most commonly related to depression are vitamin B-12, folate, and vitamin B-6. 

Research shows that B vitamins play a large role in brain health, as they’re necessary for the production and regulation of several mood-boosting neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Studies suggest that taking vitamin B-12, folate, and vitamin B-6 as supplements can prevent relapse of depression symptoms, and can help stop the onset of these symptoms for people at risk of depression. 

B vitamins can be found in many foods, so having a healthy, varied diet can ensure that you are getting your fill. But if you still find yourself deficient, taking supplemental B vitamins, typically in pill form, is seen as safe in moderation. 

Magnesium

One of the most essential minerals in the human body, magnesium is highly connected to brain health as well as a variety of other bodily functions. Much like B vitamins and vitamin D, magnesium deficiency is very common in people suffering from depression, and low levels may be linked to depressive symptoms. 

Studies have shown that taking magnesium as a supplement can reduce depressive symptoms in those who suffer from MDD. Research shows that this may be due to the impact magnesium has on regulating the neurotransmitter glutamate, which is related to depression. 

Taking magnesium supplements is generally considered safe in moderation, though it should be taken cautiously. Side effects can include nausea, cramps, softening of the stool, and diarrhea.

Creatine

Often taken by athletes as a supplement to help build muscle and boost strength, creatine is an organic compound produced within the body. There is growing evidence that creatine may be beneficial for those suffering from depression, as it can help regulate brain chemistry.

While research is limited, clinical trials giving creatine supplements to participants with MDD have shown promising results for reducing depressive symptoms. When used in moderation, creatine supplements are seen to be generally safe, though weight gain (in lean body mass) may be a side effect. Creatine mixed with caffeine may lessen creatine’s effectiveness.

Ginseng

Commonly used in teas and other wellness-focused drinks, ginseng iw a plant native to the Far East that has been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine.

The root of the ginseng plant is what’s used for medicinal purposes, and it contains properties believed to help increase resistance to stress and boost mental clarity and energy when taken orally. Because depression can sap the energy of those who suffer, ginseng has long been seen as a natural alternative to other stimulants while also offering other health benefits.

Though the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) states that there have not been enough high-quality trials to fully understand ginseng’s impact on depression, they do indicate that it appears to be safe for most people when taking the recommended amounts. Insomnia tends to be the most common side effect of ginseng, but others include:

  • Menstrual problems
  • Breast pain
  • Increased heart rate
  • High or low blood pressure
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Digestive problems

Lavender

Your nose surely knows the soothing scent of lavender—the sweet-scented, purple flower common to bubble baths, lotions, candles, and teas—but did you know that it has also been touted for its ability to ameliorate depressive symptoms?

One of the most popular aromatherapy herbs, lavender’s essential oil has been used for hundreds of years to boost mood, as well as alleviate anxiety, which is often comorbid with depression. Research on rodents has found that the essential oil contains two terpenes called linalool and linalyl acetate, which have been shown to have a calming effect on chemical receptors in the brain when inhaled, slowing down rapid thoughts and allowing users to relax into a more peaceful state. 

In addition to inhaling the essential oil, lavender can also be taken orally, often by making tea from its leaves or taking it as a supplement. That said, the oral effects of lavender have not been studied as widely, and like any supplement, should be taken cautiously and in consultation with your doctor.

While the NCCIH states that using lavender as aromatherapy for depression is generally safe, ingesting it may lead to some mild side effects. 

Chamomile

If you suffer from depression, a cup of chamomile tea might not be a bad idea—especially if you also struggle with anxiety.

Chamomile is an herb that has been used as a natural antidepressant and anti-anxiety solution for centuries, and has also been said to help treat inflammation, stomach problems, and skin conditions. While more high-quality studies are necessary to show chamomile’s direct impact on depression, studies have shown that it can significantly help reduce depressive symptoms over a placebo when taken as either a tea or supplement.

The NCCIH states that normal doses of chamomile (such as those found in teas and supplements) are generally safe, though they should be avoided by some groups. For example, people who are allergic to plants such as ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, or daisies should avoid chamomile, because it belongs to this same family of plants. People taking cyclosporine (used to prevent rejection of organ transplants) or warfarin (a blood thinner) should also avoid chamomile, as it has been known to interact with these medicines. Other general side effects of chamomile can include nausea and dizziness.

When to See a Doctor

Depression is easier to treat when addressed sooner rather than later. If you are experiencing persistent feelings of depression, don’t wait until they go away on their own. Seek medical help if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Stress, fear, or worry that interferes with everyday life, including relationships, work, and mood
  • The inability to control your negative feelings
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • No motivation to get up in the morning

How K Health Can Help

Anxiety and depression are among the most under-reported and under-treated diseases in America. Nearly 20% of adults in the US suffer from mental health illness and fewer than half receive treatment. Our mission is to increase access to treatment for those suffering in silence.

You can start controlling your anxiety and depression and get access to the treatment you need with K Health. Starting at $19/month get prescriptions for mental health medications plus unlimited doctor visits through the K Health app. Start your free assessment to see if you’re eligible.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

John Bernard, MD

Dr. Bernard is an emergency medicine physician. He graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, and did his residency in emergency medicine at the University at Buffalo.

Start free assessment to see if you’re eligible.

Anxiety and depression treatment starting at $12/month.