Mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and high stress are commonplace in our society. In fact, although they often do not get the same publicity, they are experienced by more people worldwide than any other physical disorder.
It is predicted that about 50% of people will experience some type of mental health problem at least once in their lifetime, and based on estimates from the World Health Organisation (WHO), by 2020 depression will cause greater disability than any other mental or physical disorder.
Given the extent of the problem, it is imperative that we come up with effective solutions for these problems. Currently, 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 to the same extent as the previously mentioned treatments. These include exercise, relaxation/ meditation, and sleep-based interventions.
Herbs and nutrients are also often used to treat mental health problems, but there is often debate about whether they actually work. It is often argued by mainstream professionals that all they do is create expensive urine and do little to improve one’s mental wellbeing.
In this article, we will review some of the more commonly used natural supplements to see if there is actually any evidence to support their efficacy.
There has been a considerable amount of research investigating the effects of fish oil for the treatment of several mental health problems. Most of the research has been in the area of depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Overall, the evidence suggests that fish oil is moderately effective for these conditions. In several meta-analyses (reviews that combine the results of numerous studies) it has been confirmed that fish oil can improve depressive symptoms that occur in in major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder. It also has a moderate effect on attentional symptoms in ADHD. Fish oil is not a magic bullet but it can help (and is also beneficial for physical health).
The most effective fish oils for mental wellbeing are those that contain greater concentrations of EPA (a type of omega-3 fat). Just check the label to see if the fish oil you are buying has a greater level of EPA than DHA.
This herb has traditionally been extremely popular for the treatment of depression and there have been many good-quality studies investigating its effects. Again, 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, so always speak to your doctor first.
Interest in saffron has increased over the past decade after there were initial positive studies confirming its effects in depression. This prompted further follow-up studies which have all established that saffron is effective for the treatment of depression.
In head-to-head comparisons with antidepressants such as Prozac and Tofranil, saffron has proven to be as effective, but with fewer side effects. Although saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, only a small amount is necessary so the cost is quite affordable (approximately $30-40 a month).
Another advantage is that in a recent study it was shown that the combination of saffron and a pharmaceutical antidepressant was more effective than the antidepressant alone.
This herb was originally used in Russia to enhance athletic performance and was later revealed to be effective for stress, feelings of burnout, and depression. There are several positive findings in European-based studies, although English-based ones have been fewer in number. However, a few good-quality 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.’
This is an amino acid derived from green tea and is claimed to help people experience a relaxed and calm state. There have been some moderately-good studies showing 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. This amino acid has also been 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 that have 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.
Unfortunately, natural products don’t receive the same vigorous research as pharmaceutical medications, primarily because they cannot be patented. This means that there is less money being invested in research on natural products simply because other companies can replicate the formulations and sell them under their own banner.
If you are interested in using natural supplements, make sure you purchase them from a reputable company, preferably an Australian one because Australia has the most rigorous testing for natural supplements in the world.