This article originally appeared on Live in the Now.
Happiness has a unique biochemistry in the brain, and nutrition plays a vital role in regulating it. Providing your brain with the right nutrients can help set the stage for healthy mood balance.
A major cause of mood problems is stress. It can be hard to feel happy when you’re stressed, because stress depletes our brains of the feel-good neurotransmitters we need to be happy. It’s no wonder antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs are big sellers these days. But before you turn to these drugs, it may be worth your time and energy to consider the natural route.
Your mood can be effectively balanced and enhanced naturally if the building blocks are available to make four key happiness neurotransmitters: serotonin, dopamine, noreinephrine and gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA).
Like so many natural remedies, those that improve your mood — like regular exercise, a good multivitamin and fish oil — also improve your overall health. Natural remedies also tend to be gentler on your body and less likely to cause negative side effects than drugs.
Here are some supplements that can help lift depression, reduce anxiety, improve your resilience to stress and improve sleep. Read on to see which ones are right for you. You’ll want to take the first two supplements on the list (fish oil and a good multivitamin) regardless of what others you choose to try.
Note: If you are already taking drugs for depression, anxiety or insomnia, talk with your doctor before adding a natural remedy. Some of these remedies, like fish oil and SAMe, can actually help prescription drugs work better — but they are best combined only with close medical supervision.
Considered one of the most effective all-natural anti-anxiety solutions available, this fast-acting supplement can calm and lift the spirits in a similar manner that many anti-anxiety medications do, without having to permit time for it to build up in your system. You may have seen this South African succulent herb offered under the name of its most popular patent anti-anxiety ingredient called Zembrin, the most researched and most respected extract of Sceletium tortuosum in the world. The San Bushmen of South Africa have used sceletium for centuries to enhance mood, relieve stress and anxiety and combat fatigue. If you frequently find yourself stressed, irritable or moody, this is the supplement you want to have on hand.
SAMe (pronounced “Sammy”) is a naturally occurring substance found in every cell. It is composed of amino acids and has a major role in the body. It drives a chemical process called methylation that is critical for the production of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, all important for regulating mood, sleep and appetite. SAMe also seems to improve cell membrane fluidity, helping brain cells signal better to one another.
Brain imaging studies indicate that SAMe affects the brain similarly to conventional antidepressants. Low levels of SAMe are linked with higher rates of depression. There is a wide body of medical research suggesting that SAMe can be an effective tool in treating depression. And research shows it also has joint health benefits. Along with exercise, SAMe is our first choice for mood improvement. Typical doses range from 400 mg to 1,200 mg per day.
Supplemental fish oil can lift depression and actually help you to calm down in the face of stress. People with high blood levels of omega-3s are less likely to report feeling depressed than people with low levels. They are less likely to try to commit suicide. They respond better to antidepressant therapy. And they’re less aggressive. The latest research suggests that fish oil promotes structural improvement in areas of the brain related to emotional arousal and regulation.
“You won’t see as immediate a result as you will with some other supplements,” says Live in the Now Medical Editor Kevin Passero, N.D., of Bethesda, Maryland. “It can take 8 to 12 months to be really effective. But that doesn’t discount how valuable it really is.” Take a supplement that has a good amount of DHA in it compared to other fish oils. (A ratio of 2:1 of EPA to DHA is acceptable.) Take at least 1,400 mg a day of a high quality fish oil.
Tyrosine is an amino acid that is a precursor to two important neurotransmitters, epinephrine and norepinephrine. It also supports normal thyroid function. “As a general rule it is helpful for people with low, slow, down depression,” says, Dr. Passero. It goes well taken with SAMe. Some scientists believe that the brain may not be able to synthesize enough tyrosine under stressful conditions and that increasing the availability of tyrosine to the brain helps avoid the negative effects of stress. Tyrosine can also improve alertness after sleep deprivation. We recommend 500-1,000 mg a day for energy.
5-HTP, or 5-hydroxytryptophan, is used by our bodies to make serotonin. By supplementing with 5-HTP, you increase the building blocks available for the production of this vital neurotransmitter, which helps regulate mood, sleep and appetite. Reduced levels of serotonin are associated with depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, aggressive behaviors, suicide, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and migraine headaches. Taking 5-HTP seems to significantly improve symptoms of depression, including in patients with treatment-resistant depression. It is a good first choice for people with revved up, anxiety-linked depression, Dr. Passero says.
Dosages of 5-HTP range from 50-400 mg taken at bedtime or in divided doses throughout the day.
Best known for its ability to break up brain plaques and curb inflammation, curcumin may also be a spice to tap for those looking to boost mood. Believe it or not, studies have found that curcumin may improve depressive states even better than some depression medications. One study published in Phytotherapy Research was particularly compelling, as it compared the efficacy of curcumin with that of fluoxetine (also known by the trade name Prozac).
GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) is a natural substance used for relieving anxiety and elevating mood. In the central nervous system, GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter. It decreases nerve activity, preventing nerves from overfiring. In addition to reducing anxiety, GABA improves sleep cycles, leading to more restful sleeping. It has powerful stabilizing effects on blood pressure and helps reduce pain from chronic conditions such as arthritis and lower back pain. GABA supplements can help to relieve the intensity of pain.
Some doctors recommend GABA in the amount of 2 grams four times daily, but a safer, more realistic dose is 500-2,000 mg taken on an empty stomach at bedtime.
Taurine is an amino acid precursor to GABA, and may actually work better than GABA for relieving anxiety because it crosses the blood-brain barrier and gets into your brain better than GABA, where it works to increase GABA production and produce calmness, Dr. Passero says. A typical dose is 500-1,000 mg a day, taken in divided doses.
Rhodiola rosea, or roseroot, is an herb that has been used in traditional medicine in Russia and the Scandinavian countries for centuries. It is used for increasing energy, stamina, strength and mental capacity; and as a so-called “adaptogen” to help the body adapt to and resist physical and mental stress. It is also used for improving athletic performance, improving sexual function, depression and anxiety. Research does show it has significant central nervous system activity, reducing depression. It is especially good for low-slow depression, says Dr. Passero. However, people with anxious depression should avoid it. ‘Those people would do better taking a gentler herb, such as ashwagandha or holy basil,’ he says. These are both Indian (Ayurvedic) herbs known for their ability to relieve stress and reduce anxiety.
An effective dose of rhodiola is 170 mg twice a day of standardized extract; of ashwagandha or holy basil, about 500 mg daily of a standardized extract.