Mental health problems, like depression and anxiety, are experienced by more people worldwide than any other physical disorder. According to predictions from the World Health Organization, by 2020 depression will cause greater disability than any other mental or physical disorder.
This is a severe problem and it is common sense that we find effective solutions for these problems. To-day most mental health problems are treated with psychological and pharmacological interventions. The most common psychological treatments are known as cognitive-behavioural therapies (CBT), while antidepressants are the most common class of medication used to treat both depression and anxiety.
Other interventions are also effective, although not promoted as much as the previous mentioned treatments, including exercise, relaxation/ meditation, and sleep-based interventions. Herbs and nutrients are also often used to treat mental health problems, but there is doubt whether they actually work.
The following more commonly used natural supplements will be reviewed to see if there is actually any evidence to support their efficacy.
1. Omega-3 fish oils. There has been a substantial amount of research on the effects of fish oil, mostly in the area of depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD ). The overall evidence suggests that fish oil is moderately effective for these conditions. In several meta-analyses, it had been confirmed that fish oil can improve depressive symptoms that occur in major depressive disorders and bipolar disorder. The most effective fish oils for mental health are those ones that contain greater concentration of EPA ( a type of omega-3 fat)
2. St John’s wort. This herb has always been very popular for the treatment of depression and there have been many good quality studies in several meta-analyses. St John’s wort has been shown to be effective for the treatment of depression. However, research on stress, ADHD and other mental health problems have not been so convincing. The major problem with St John’s wort is that it interacts with many medications.
3. Saffron. Positive studies on its effect on depression have increased over the last decade. Follow up studies have all confirmed that saffron is effective for the treatment of depression. In comparison with antidepressants such as Prozac and Trofanil, Saffron has proven to be as effective, but with less side effects. Although it is the most expensive spice in the world, only a small amount is needed, which makes the cost quite affordable (approx $30 – $40 a month). Another advantage is that in combination with pharmaceutical antidepressants, it was more effective than the antidepressant alone.
4. Rhodiola Rosea. This herb was originally used in Russia to enhance athletic performance. It was later discovered to be effective for stress, feelings of burnout, and depression. A few good quality European studies have indicated that Rhodiola is helpful for improving mood and seems to be particularly helpful for people with stress related fatigue. People who feel run-down, find it hard getting out of bed in the morning, lack motivation/drive, experience energy slumps in the afternoon, and feel quite flat, may also benefit from Rhodiola Natural practitioners often refer to this condition as ‘adrenal fatigue’.
5. Theanine. This is an amino acid derived from green tea and is claimed to help people experience a relaxed and calm state. Some good studies indicate that it can reduce levels of stress hormones in the body (e.g. cortisol) and can move people’s brain waves into ‘alpha’ states. Alpha brain waves are associated with relaxation and meditation. People with a mind that is constantly racing report positive effects from theanine. It has also shown to improve sleep in children with ADHD, and was even helpful for people with schizophrenia.
This is just a selection of herbs and nutrients with good research-based support for their mental health benefits. There are other options available, including s-adenosyl-methionine (SAME) for depression. Kava for anxiety, B-vitamins for stress, and glycine/magnesium for sleep.