There are pros and cons to taking any dietary supplement. You might find yourself asking, “Will my body actually absorb all the nutrients the supplement contains? Will the benefits be as effective as if I were to purchase whole foods? Are supplements worth the cost?” The truth is that some supplements can do what your diet can’t do to keep you healthy, either because your diet isn’t providing enough of an essential nutrient or because the supplement contains beneficial substances not found in food. Unfortunately, solid research on the effects of specific foods and supplements on mental health issues like depression is lagging behind the research confirming their benefits on physical health. The good news is that science is catching up; here’s what studies reveal.

Raw Foods to Improve Mood

If you’re looking for a clear path to better long-term health, your first step could be eating more fresh fruits and vegetables on a regular basis. Studies show that in addition to physical benefits, the more fruits and veggies you eat result in better mental health, as well. Over the past few decades, researchers have found compelling evidence that people who eat fruits and vegetables have fewer symptoms of depression, stress, and overall negativity. Research also shows that those who eat the most fruits and vegetables are generally happier, feel more satisfied, and find more purpose and fulfillment in their lives than those who eat fewer or none.1

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Now, researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand have delved a little deeper.1 They surveyed more than 400 young adults ages 18 to 25 about their typical eating habits when it comes to raw versus cooked, canned, or otherwise processed fruits and vegetables. They found significantly fewer symptoms of mental illness and overall feelings of positivity, life satisfaction and fulfillment in those who consumed the most servings of raw fruits and vegetables, compared to those who ate more canned, cooked, and otherwise processed produce.

The researchers narrowed down the top 10 raw fruits and vegetables they found to be associated with better mental health and fewer symptoms of depression. These include carrots, dark leafy greens such as spinach, lettuce, cucumber, apples, bananas, grapefruit, other citrus fruits, fresh berries, and kiwifruit.

The Mediterranean Diet

Fresh fruits and vegetables are key components of the Mediterranean Diet, which has also been found to have benefits for mental health. One study looking at the dietary habits of adults age 65 and older living in the Mediterranean region found that those who reportedly followed a traditional Mediterranean diet reported significantly less depression than those who did not stick to the diet.2 As a group, they were also more physically active, more educated, and had fewer cases of diabetes, suggesting that a combination of factors may influence depression levels rather than one simple factor such as diet. In this study, daily tea drinking was also associated with significantly lower levels of depression.

Years of research also suggest that sticking to a Mediterranean-style diet helps ensure you not only get enough fresh fruits and vegetables but also grains, legumes (dried beans, lentils and peas) and seafood to ensure a steady supply of nutrients associated with lower levels of depression. One of the most studied of these nutrients is omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, sardines, and herring. Omega-3’s are also produced in your body from substances in flaxseeds, walnuts, soybeans and leafy green vegetables.

What About Supplements?

Omega-3 fatty acids are also packaged as dietary supplements. Scientists began looking at the mental health-omega 3 connection decades ago, when studies found omega-3 fatty acid deficiencies in the blood cells of depressed people.3 More recent studies have confirmed that omega-3 levels are lower in people with active depression, especially severe depression, than in those who are in remission or who have never been diagnosed with depression. One study found that omega-3 supplements can also help lower anxiety levels, but only when coupled with depression. Supplements were not helpful for people who suffered from anxiety alone.4 The results of ongoing studies have been mixed, but continue to suggest that omega-3 supplements may improve symptoms of depression.5 Interestingly, a small study published in 2018 found that a Mediterranean diet supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids significantly improved symptoms in adults who suffered from depression, particularly when the diet includes a wide variety of vegetables and legumes.6

Does St. John’s Wort Really Work?

Hypericum, more commonly known as St. John’s Wort, has long been studied and continues to be studied as a supplemental, complementary or alternative treatment for depressive symptoms. Unfortunately, even though some research has shown promising results, most studies have been too small in scale and too short-term to be considered significant. Concerns about a lack of standardized preparations, long-term safety, and potential drug interactions have prevented medical professionals from making broad recommendations for usage.7 But a 2017 meta-analysis of 27 studies concluded that St. John’s Wort works as well as the commonly prescribed SSRI antidepressants (SSRI is an acronym for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) such as Lexapro, Zoloft, and Prozac  for treating mild to moderate depression, suggesting that full-scale research is certainly warranted.8

Other supplements that show some promising results include vitamin D, vitamin B12, zinc and SAMe (S-adenosyl-L-methionine), saffron and turmeric.9, 10 Although there’s not yet enough evidence to allow for broad recommendations from the medical community, most of these supplements also show enough promise to justify further research.

Anti-Inflammatory Supplements to Reduce Depression?

In at least two studies, for instance, saffron supplements were found to be just as effective as prescription antidepressant medication for reducing symptoms of depression and improving mood.  Turmeric research has shown similar results. Other studies, however, have shown little to no effect. This could be because turmeric, and to some degree, saffron, are known to have anti-inflammatory properties, so while they may be effective in a subgroup of people whose depression is due to inflammation, this could explain why they don’t work for everyone.10

Some over-the-counter supplements may be used in addition to medications, while others may interfere with the action of prescription antidepressants. Some may work in cases where prescription medications have failed. Others may have long-term side effects that are yet to be determined. These are the types of questions researchers must answer before the medical community can make recommendations for use. Alternative or holistic health care practitioners may be able to give individual advice on the use of some of these therapies for treating symptoms of depression.

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Last Updated: Mar 20, 2019