If catching that Huberman morning sunlight feels like way too much, or if your workout has become the last thing you want to do—you might be experiencing depression. And you’re not alone: An estimated 8% of US adults had at least one major depressive episode in 2021, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) (1). The good news? The mental health condition is highly treatable—and while therapy and antidepressant medication are solid options, taking supplements for depression may also help.
That’s because not getting enough of certain nutrients may increase the risk of depression or make symptoms worse, according to a 2023 study (2). Supplements aren’t a silver bullet, but they can help, say experts.
“Proving that a single vitamin or supplement ‘cures’ depression is nearly impossible, but the literature does support the idea that proper nutrition is protective when it comes to depression,” says Judith Steinman, Ph.D, program coordinator for the College of Pharmacy at the University of Hawaii in Hilo.
In other words, if you make up for any nutrients you lack (you can ask your healthcare provider for a blood test to check), your mood may improve.
BOOST YOUR MOOD
What Causes Depression?
There are as many causes of depression as people liking Antonie Lokhorst’s TikToks. Biological, psychological, and social factors play a role, as do genetics: There’s an up to 40% likelihood of inheriting depression if one of your parents or siblings has it (and 70% if that sibling is your identical twin).
Early life stress, chronic stress, or recurring bouts of acute stress can also lead to major depressive disorder (MDD), a more severe form of depression.
Antidepressants, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs) target these neurotransmitters to help your brain generate and use them properly (3).
But your diet can also be protective.
How Nutrients Relate to Depression
When you hear “malnutrition,” you might only think of not getting enough food. But having a deficiency or imbalance in certain essential nutrients also qualifies.
Malnutrition has a “bidirectional link” with MDD, according to a 2022 study (4). Meaning, it can go both ways. Malnutrition can lead to MDD, but if you develop MDD, you might develop poor eating habits that can leave you lacking in crucial nutrients.
Fortunately, there’s a solve: A 2022 review found a diet rich in vegetables and fruits and limited in pro-inflammatory junk food, fast food, and meat, may lower the risk of developing depression or depressive symptoms (5).
Of course, supplements aren’t meant to replace medication or therapy. Or even a healthy diet. But they can help address nutritional deficiencies and bridge gaps where your diet falls short. “Some diets can cause severe reductions in vitamin and mineral levels,” Steinman explains. For example. vegetarians, vegans, and others following restrictive diets may need to take supplements, she says.
GOOD MOOD FOOD
Which Natural Supplements May Be Helpful for Depression?
While no supplement can cure depression, evidence suggests these nutrients and vitamins may help.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Both EPA and DHA (another PUFA) are thought to help reduce inflammation. EPA may also boost the production of two important “feel good” chemicals linked to mood: dopamine and serotonin.
A 2019 meta-analysis revealed that the most effective dose of EPA was between 720mg and 1,000mg. Another study found that omega-3 supplements that are at least 60% EPA were most effective (6).
Find it in food: cold-water fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, sardines), seafood, flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, fortified milk and other beverages
Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to an increased risk of depression. And while the research has been mixed, some studies have found vitamin D supplements could deliver antidepressant effects (4).
Vitamin D is thought to do a few things tied to a better mood: it improves gut health, helps with serotonin production, and regulates circadian rhythms. Some evidence suggests that in men, it can also help with testosterone production.
Nearly 50% of people worldwide have a vitamin D deficiency, mainly because we don’t get enough exposure to sunlight—the source of up to 90% of our vitamin D (7).
When you soak up the sun, your skin absorbs UVB rays which get converted into vitamin D3. And it doesn’t take much: Just 20 minutes of sunlight per day with more than 40% of your skin exposed can help prevent a deficiency (7).
When popping the supplement, aim for 15 mcg per day, unless you’re over 70 (in that case, bump it up to 20 mcg).
Find it in food: fish (especially trout and salmon), other seafood (like shrimp), mushrooms, eggs, fortified milk
What you didn’t know when you were guzzling OJ as a kid: Vitamin C (aka ascorbic acid) is good for more than your immune system. Your body needs it to produce feel-good chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
C’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties are also thought to help with depression.
A 2021 study found that getting vitamin C from vegetables—or from a combo of veggies and a C supplement—reduced the risk of depression (8).
Vitamin C is water-soluble and your body doesn’t store it, so it has to be replenished daily.
Find it in food: citrus fruits, red and green peppers, broccoli, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower
A vitamin-B deficiency can lead to a host of potential problems, depending on which ones you’re lacking, the 2023 Nutrients review found (2). Being severely deficient in some B vitamins can leave people feeling like they’re dying: fatigue, sleep problems, irritability, migraine, and cognitive impairment.
There are eight types of B-complex vitamins, and they’re all key for brain and central nervous system to functioning. Deficiencies in B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B6 (pyridoxine), and B7 (biotin) can all lead to depression. B6 supplementation has been found to be particularly good at improving depression, since your body needs it to produce dopamine and serotonin.
Additional research has found supplementation with B12 (cobalamin) can delay the onset of depression and improve outcomes when paired with an antidepressant (9). Only animal products contain B12, so vegans and vegetarians might not get enough of it.
Find it in food: beans, meat, dairy products, leafy greens, fortified cereals
SAMe is a naturally occurring chemical your body makes from methionine, an amino acid found in protein-containing foods.
Abnormal levels of SAMe have been found in people with depression. It’s not totally clear how SAMe works to help with depression, but experts suspect it may have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
SAMe may not be safe for people with bipolar disorder and may interact with antidepressants and other medications and supplements, so talk to your doctor before supplementing.
Find it in food: meat (beef, lamb, pork, poultry), fish, shellfish, eggs, beans, dairy products
L-5-hydroxytryptophan—or 5-HTP for short—is produced from tryptophan (yep, the stuff in turkey). Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning your body doesn’t produce it you have to get it from food.
Tryptophan converts to 5-HTP, which then converts to the neurotransmitter serotonin. That serotonin then converts melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate your sleep-wake cycles.
Supplementation with 5-HTP is thought to boost serotonin levels. But taking too much can cause severe side effects, including a potentially life-threatening condition called serotonin syndrome.
Find it in food: 5-HTP isn’t found in food, but tryptophan is. Good sources are turkey, chicken, milk, oats, canned tuna, and cheddar cheese.
DHEA levels decline with age, so supplementation may be able to improve depressive symptoms, as well as other conditions that occur as sex hormones skip out.
Heads-up: If you’re a competitive athlete, avoid this one. DHEA is listed on the World Anti-Doping Agency Prohibited List because it mimics the effects of anabolic steroids.
DHEA supplements in capsule or other forms are available, but DHEA isn’t found in food.
What to Know Before Taking Dietary Supplements for Depression
Some supplements may interfere with other medications, so always keep your physician in the loop about your supplement use.
If you’re feeling any symptoms of depression (feelings of emptiness, low mood, lack of interest in things you once thought fun, lethargy, irritability, and even weight loss, according to the National Institute of Mental Health), consult your doctor.