5 Herbs for Mental Health
Safety concerns about any side effects of many antidepressant medications have led to increased herbal psychopharmacology research. Additionally, a general trend toward natural solutions increases herbal remedy popularity. As such, more people seek effective alternatives or supplements to prescribed medications traditionally used as mental health therapies. With that in mind, five herbs for mental health have research to support their efficacy with a variety of mental illness symptoms when used in cooking, teas, baths, tinctures, salve, or in capsule form.
Saffron has been used in folk and Ayurvedic medicine as a sedative, expectorant, anti-asthma treatment, emmenagogue, adaptogenic agent, pain relief solution. Research shows that saffron is on of the effective herbs for depression that reduces the symptoms. Research has also shown to be as effective as the antidepressants, imipramine, and fluoxetine. Besides being an antidepressant, it calms the central nervous system (CNS) and has anti-anxiety effects. Other studies show there is a benefit to anxiety as well. Saffron relaxes the muscles of the digestive tract to reduce spasms which helps digest food and enhances appetite.
Bacopa has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic traditional medicine and has many pharmacological and therapeutic benefits. It is an adaptogen, antidepressant, and used for focus and energy. Adaptogens help people lower stress by restoring the biological capacity to adapt and respond to environmental stressors. Bacopa is also considered a nootropic, or a compound that enhances brain function, especially memory and cognitive processing. Bacopa may increase the effects of key neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, nor-adrenaline, dopamine, and acetylcholine, which calm the CNS and support mood balancing. Research indicates that Barcopa is one of the natural anxiety supplements that works for people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For those with memory, focus, or learning issues, which can be impacted by mental health issues, research has found the Bocapa improves these conditions.
Rhodiola has been a part of traditional medicine systems in parts of Europe, Asia, and Russia for centuries to improve performance and to reduce fatigue and depression. It has both adaptogenic properties and energetic capacity. Rhodiola supports Tyrosine in the body, which assists with focus. It is a mild stimulant and can help with low energy in the afternoon. Research has been shown to support its efficacy with stress, anxiety, athletic performance and endurance, mental performance, and fatigue.
Kava is an herb that is a member of the pepper family and native to the islands of the South Pacific. It is known for its anxiolytic, antiepileptic, antidepressant, anti psychotic, and sedative properties. Its calming qualities make it one of the effective herbs for anxiety that also improves sleep. Short-term use of kava has been noted as effective for patients with mild to moderate anxiety disorders who are not using alcohol or taking other medicines metabolized by the liver, but who wish to use natural remedies. Research supports that Kava compares favorably to benzodiazepines, which are used to treat anxiety and can be addictive. It is also been known to improve cognitive abilities, which can be impacted by depression and anxiety.
Licorice, a common herb used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, contains beneficial metabolites. Licorice root has many benefits and can be used as an anti-inflammatory, expectorant, demulcent, adaptogen, anti-viral, anti-tumor, and antidepressant. The minerals found in licorice are very stimulating and support adrenal functions, which can be particularly impacted by stress. It also can soothe the stomach and speed the repair of the stomach lining and restore balance, which research has shown the importance of the brain-gut connection in mental health.
Many causes of mental illness arising out of the central nervous system or chemical imbalances. All patients should visit a certified psychiatrist or psychologist who can diagnose mental illness with the appropriate mental illness tests. However, for those whose mental illness treatment history shows little change, complementary and alternative medicine offers natural remedies for depression and anxiety that can be used to support other therapies.
8 herbs and supplements for depression
Depression is a serious mood disorder with symptoms that range from mild to debilitating and potentially life-threatening. Some people look to manage depression with herbal remedies, rather than with medication a doctor prescribes.
The most recent data from the National Institute of Mental Health suggest that in the United States, 6.7 percent of people experienced a major depressive episode in 2016.
Medications and counseling are conventional ways to alleviate the symptoms of depression. However, some herbs and supplements may also help.
In this article, we look at the common herbs and supplements with links to the treatment of depression and discuss their safety and effectiveness.
Herbs and supplements
Some herbs, essential oils, and supplements have shown promising effects for people with depression.
The use of complementary therapies continues to gain popularity, as people look for more natural methods of managing their health.
However, herbal does not always mean safe or effective, and knowing which products to choose can save a lot of time and money.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not monitor herbs in the same way as food and drugs. As a result, manufacturers are not always 100 percent clear about the quality or purity of their product.
Research suggests promise for some supplements in treating mild-to-moderate depression. These are some of the supplements that people most widely use:
1. St. John’s wort
St. John’s wort is also known as Hypericum perforatum. This plant has been a common herbal mental health treatment for hundreds of years. However, people must use caution if they chose to try it as a potential treatment for depression.
A 2016 systematic review found that St. John’s wort was more effective than a placebo for treating mild to moderate depression and worked almost as well as antidepressant medications.
However, this review of eligible studies did not find research on the long-term effects of St. John’s wort on severe depression.
The authors also advised caution against accepting the results wholesale, as the herb has adverse effects that many of the studies did not consider.
St John’s wort can also interfere with the effects of antidepressant medication, meaning that it may make symptoms worse or reduce the effectiveness of conventional treatment.
While St. John’s wort might help some people, it does not show consistently beneficial effects.
For these reasons, people should not use St. John’s wort instead of conventional treatment. Neither should they try St. John’s wort to treat moderate to severe depression.
This supplement comes from the gnarled root of the American or Asian ginseng plant. Siberian, Asian, and Eleuthero ginseng are different plants with different active ingredients.
Practitioners of Chinese medicine have used ginseng for thousands of years to help people improve mental clarity and energy and reduce the effects of stress.
Some people associate these properties of ginseng with potential solutions for the low energy and motivation that can occur with depression.
However, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) advise that none of the many studies that people have conducted on ginseng have been of sufficient quality to form health recommendations.
A study in 2012 reviewed data about chamomile, which comes from the Matricaria recutita plant, and its role in helping to manage depression and anxiety.
The results show that chamomile produced more significant relief from depressive symptoms than a placebo. However, further studies are necessary to confirm the health benefits of chamomile in treating depressive symptoms.
Lavender oil is a popular essential oil. People typically use lavender oil for relaxation and reducing anxiety and mood disturbances.
A 2013 review of various studies suggested that lavender might have significant potential in reducing anxiety and improving sleep.
Lavender has mixed results in studies that assess its impact on anxiety. However, its effectiveness as a treatment for ongoing depression has little high-quality evidence in support at the current time.
Some studies cite using saffron as a safe and effective measure for controlling the symptoms of depression, such as this non-systematic review from 2018.
However, more research would help confirm the possible benefits of saffron for people with depression. Scientists also need to understand any possible adverse effects better.
Some supplements have shown promising effects on depression symptoms. However, many investigations confirming their benefits are low quality.
SAMe is short for S-adenoidal methionine. It is a synthetic form of a chemical that occurs naturally in the body.
In 2016, researchers reviewed all the randomized controlled trials on record for the use of SAMe to treat depression in adults. They found no significant difference between the effects of SAMe on depression symptoms and those of a placebo.
However, they also found that SAMe had about the same effectiveness as the common antidepressants imipramine or escitalopram. Furthermore, it was better than a placebo when the researchers mixed SAMe with selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor medications.
As with many other studies into herbs and supplements, the investigations into the safety and efficacy of SAMe are of low quality. More research is necessary to determine its exact effect.
People use the supplement in Europe as a prescription antidepressant. However, the FDA have not yet approved this for use in the U.S.
7. Omega-3 fatty acids
In a 2015 systematic review, researchers concluded that omega-3 fatty acid supplements are not useful across the board as a depression treatment.
While the study authors reported no serious side effects from the supplement, they also advised that it would only be an effective measure in treatment for depression that was due to omega-3 deficiency.
Also known as 5-hydroxytryptophan, this supplement may be useful in regulating and improving levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that affects a person’s mood.
5-HTP has undergone a number of animal studies, and some, such as this review from 2016, cite its potential as an antidepressant therapy. However, evidence of its effects in human subjects is limited.
5-HTP is available as an over-the-counter (OTC) supplement in the U.S. but may require a prescription in other countries.
More research is necessary, especially regarding concerns that it may cause serotonin syndrome, a serious neurological complication if a person takes 5-HTP in excess.
Supplement manufacturers do not have to prove that their product is consistent. The dose on the bottle may also be inaccurate.
Herbal products are becoming increasingly mainstream. This is not simply a comment on their popularity, but on the level and rigor of scientific research and acceptance by clinical investigators, as well as the attention being paid to these therapeutic options by government bodies. A recent trial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) evaluating St. John’s wort for depression demonstrates this shift.1 Several features of this trial are noteworthy. Not only was the trial of rigorous design and published in a highly reputed journal, but it was completed by a group of high profile and experienced US psychiatric researchers who are generally associated with researching pharmaceuticals.
In the past, the quality of trials involving herbal products and other alternative treatment options for psychiatric and other disorders has been criticized.2 Criticisms have included failing to account for biases and con-founders, using non standardized products and poor study design. However, in the last 5 years, MEDLINE (WWW.ncbi.nlm.NIH.gov/PubMed) has indexed over 50 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) investigating complementary medicines for treating mental disorders, suggesting that an increasing number of alternative approaches are being tested using what is approaching gold standard methods. This number is likely an underestimate because MEDLINE search strategies, even those devised by experts, can fail to locate a significant number of relevant trials.3 It is also well recognized that MEDLINE does not index all relevant journals in the area of complementary medicines.4 The Cochran Controlled Trials Register of the Cochran Library (WWW.cochranelibrary.com), which lists clinical trials that have been identified through regular searchers of MEDLINE, EMBASE and hand searches of clinical journals, is considered an authoritative source of RCTs.5 For illustrative purposes only, a selection of RCTs from the Cochran Library of herbal products used for psychiatric indications is listed in
Some “natural” therapies may be safe, effective for mental health
On Saturday, while thousands of Boston Bruins fans gathered at Government Center to celebrate the team’s recent Stanley Cup victory, a hundred or so true die-hard met a few blocks away at a Massachusetts General Hospital conference to talk about complementary and alternative medicine for psychiatric disorders. While I hated to miss the Bruins parade, I’m glad I attended the MGH conference.
I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic about so-called natural therapies for one simple reason: they don’t have to go through the same rigorous testing in clinical trials that medications do. At the same time, I realize that FDA-approved drugs don’t work for everyone. One in three adults with major depression, for example, can’t completely improve their mood and other symptoms even after trying multiple antidepressants.
Clearly, we need better options for treating mental health disorders. The MGH conference convinced me that some types of complementary and alternative medicine—or CAM, for short—might be worth trying. The presenters, all psychiatrists who treat patients at MGH, backed up their recommendations with scientific evidence. Several of them also contributed to the American Psychiatric Association’s recent report on CAM therapies.
We’ll be doing a story on CAM therapies for psychiatric disorders in an upcoming issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. For now, here are some things I learned on Saturday:
Omega-3 fats, natural fats found in large quantities in cold-water fish such as salmon, can boost the effectiveness of an antidepressant in some people with depression. Omega-3 supplements are now being studied as an alternative to antidepressants during pregnancy.
St. John’s wort is an herbal remedy that can help people with mild-to-moderate symptoms of depression, but doesn’t seem to work as well for severe depression. St. John’s wort can cause problems when taken with some antidepressants and other medications, so talk with your doctor before trying it.
Maca root, a relative of the potato that is used in some cultures to enhance sexual response, may help counter erectile dysfunction, reduced libido, and other sexual side effects of antidepressants.
Valerian, derived from the root of a pink flower, can alleviate anxiety and help improve sleep just as well as some sedatives. It may be a good alternative to consider for children and the elderly—two groups especially sensitive to the side effects of medications. One downside: it takes a while to “kick in,” so if you need fast relief, look elsewhere.
One more caveat: the fact that these products aren’t under FDA oversight means the amount of active ingredients can vary from one product to the next—and even within the same brand. Choose products that bear the U.S. Pharmacopeia Dietary Supplement Verification Program (USP-DSVP) mark. Or check Consumer-Lab.com, which ranks herbs and supplements based on quality and content.