If you, or someone close to you, has ever struggled with anxiety or depression, you know how difficult simply getting through the day can be when your mind won’t stop racing or you’re overcome with a sense of hopelessness. Americans are suffering from mental health issues more than ever before. In fact, research now estimates that anxiety disorders affect 18.1 percent of adults in the U.S. every year, and more than 16 million adults in the U.S. had a depressive episode in 2016.
Though they’re not a replacement for prescribed medications and counseling, a number of natural herbs, nutrients, and supplements can support mental well-being. Here are seven that are backed by experts and science.
1. St. John’s Wort
Known as the ‘happiness herb,’ St. John’s Wort can be a powerful supplement for mood. It’s got plenty of scientific support, with research (like this Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews review) deeming it effective.
“Very strong short-term evidence suggests that St. John’s Wort is effective in cases of mild to moderate depression, says Jonathan Valdez, R.D.N., owner of Genki Nutrition and spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics..
Something to keep in mind, though: “St. John’s Wort interacts with a number of drugs and should be taken only under the guidance of a health care provider, especially if you already take medications for depression,” says Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition and member of The Vitamin Shoppe Wellness Council. The herb might also increase the breakdown of estrogen, making contraception less effective, and can cause rashes, moodiness, and stomach issues in some people.
If you and your healthcare provider decide St. John’s Wort is a good fit for you, they’ll likely suggest you take it in tincture or capsule form, which are more potent than herbal teas.
The herb ashwagandha is buzzy right now because of its purported stress-fighting, vitality-boosting properties. Considered an ‘adaptogen,’ ashwagandha contains compounds believed to help the body adapt to and overcome stress, and restore communication between your brain and adrenal glands (which produce stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline), says Axe.
According to one study published in Pharmaceuticals, adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha have the potential not only to reduce stress, but to improve attention, increase endurance, and fight fatigue, too.
Because ashwagandha can affect glutamate (an excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain), though, it may be too stimulating for some people, says Taz Bhatia, M.D., integrative health expert and author of Super Woman RX. “If it’s a good fit for you, you will feel your energy balancing rather than a ‘rev’ and a crash.”
Valdez suggests trying 200 milligrams in powder or capsule form per day, alongside a snack or meal.
3. Reishi Mushrooms
Adaptogenic mushrooms like reishi mushrooms, which have been used in traditional Chinese Medicine for over 4,000 years, are nothing new when it comes to supporting mental health naturally. “These amazing fungi, known as the King of Herbs, are noteworthy because of their unique collection of compounds—like triterpenes, alkaloids, and sterols—and antioxidants—like beta-glucans, and triterpenoids—that support a healthy response to stress and healthy energy levels,” says Axe.
One small study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that people experiencing irritability and emotional unease reported mood improvements after taking 1,800 milligrams of reishi a day for eight weeks.
“If reishi is a good fit for you, you’ll feel a relief in irritability and lift in mood over the course of a few weeks,” says Bhatia. If it’s not, you might experience nausea or a worse mood than usual.
Reishi is easy to take in capsule form, but you can drink it, too. Four Sigmatic’s Reishi Mushroom Elixir promises to help you chill.
The compound s-adenosylmethionine, or SAMe, is involved in our body’s process of synthesizing neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are associated with feelings of pleasure and happiness.
SAMe is now being used to support those with dealing with low mood, with the most impressive results coming from clinical trials using SAMe injections, says Axe. (According to a 2016 review published in The Cochrane Database of Systematic Review, more research on the effectiveness of oral supplements is necessary.)
If you’re interested in learning more about whether SAMe might be right for you, talk to your doctor. Just keep in mind that, according National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), SAM-e supplements could contribute to manic episodes in people with bipolar disorder.
When you’re stressed, your body releases a continuous flow of adrenaline (the hormone that makes you feel like you can lift a car but can also worsen anxiety). The mineral magnesium is an important player in adrenaline production, so the more adrenaline you churn out, the more magnesium you burn through. Since we also need magnesium to produce the feel-good hormones dopamine and serotonin, that’s a big problem, says Bhatia.
In fact, research suggests that a magnesium shortage in our body can worsen stress and mood issues. One study published in the Journal of American Board of Family Medicine, for example, linked low magnesium intake with up to a 22 percent greater risk of developing depression.
Most Americans are deficient in magnesium, so upping your intake can have major mood benefits. (The recommended daily intake is 320 milligrams per day for women and 420 milligrams per day for men.) You’ll find the mineral in leafy greens, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, and almonds—and of course, supplements. “Several human case studies show that 125 to 300 milligrams of magnesium at each meal and bedtime can be helpful,” says Axe.
6. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Honestly, what can’t omega-3s do? In addition to supporting heart and eye health and boosting your immune system, these fatty acids may also have mental well-being benefits.
The two primary omega-3 fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), are essential for brain function—and research suggests they relate to mood, specifically. One study published in Psychiatry Research, for example, linked low levels of omega-3s with higher risk of depression and anxiety.
Meanwhile, another review published in Clinical Psychopharmacology and Neuroscience found that omega-3s supplementation may help protect us against mood issues.
Since most people don’t get enough omega-3s through their diet (unless they eat fish regularly), Valdez recommends considering a supplement with 1,000 total milligrams of EPA and DHA. Just check with your doctor first since omega-3s can act as a blood thinner and interact with certain prescription medications.
The relationship between mood disorders and the gut is a complex but critical one. People with depression have been shown to have disturbances in their gut microbiome—specifically increased levels of inflammation, says Mahmoud A. Ghannoum, Ph.D., one of the most sought-after gut health experts in the world.
That’s why Ghannoum (and some research) suggests that depression is more of an inflammatory condition of the immune system (which is housed in the gut) than an issue that stems from the brain.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, Axe recommends talking with your healthcare provider about adding probiotics to your routine. “Most people feel better when taking the right probiotic, and notice their mood lifting and that they feel calmer and more focused,” adds Bhatia.
Research on mood issues and inflammatory gut conditions (which often go hand-in-hand) supports the idea that probiotics can help. For example, one study published in Gastroenterology found that taking a probiotic altered IBS patients’ brain responses to negative emotional stimuli and improved mood.