Research supports a striking number of effective, non-drug remedies for depression.
From yoga and dog visits to curcumin and probiotics, numerous natural antidepressants can benefit many depression types and severities. Read this post to discover which one can work for you.
What is Depression?
Research supports a striking number of effective, non-drug remedies for depression.
1) Mindfulness Meditation
The goal of mindfulness meditation is to become a “witness” rather than a “judge” of events that happen to you.
Mindfulness meditation lowers depression with benefits lasting up to 6 months [R].
It also reduces symptoms associated with acute major depressive episodes [R].
Those who practiced mindfulness meditation for at least 3 days/week were half as likely to relapse into depression as those who did not (in a RCT of 99 recovering depressed patients) [R].
Mindfulness decreases brain (amygdala) activity associated with depression symptoms [R].
- reduced depression symptoms (in an RCT of 139 seniors) [R].
- reduced symptoms in 100 patients with mild depression (in RCTs) [R, R].
- lowered PTSD symptoms, depression, and anxiety in women [R].
- lowered depression more than antidepressants in a study of 137 patients [R].
A single yoga session increased GABA in 8 yoga participants [R]. However, most of the studies ranged from 1 – 3 weekly sessions of 30 – 75 minutes each, for 4 – 12 weeks.
3) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Reduces Depression
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps depressed patients change their patterns of thinking and make behavioral changes to improve coping and reduce distress [R].
The evidence-based strategy is the most widely used for preventing and reducing depression [R].
CBT is effective for both acute depressive episodes and long-term prevention [R].
CBT reduces negative perceptions of emotions [R].
It works by reducing the activity in parts of the brain that are involved in emotional (amygdala, hippocampus) and cognitive processing (prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortex) [R].
CBT is traditionally delivered face-to-face by therapists but is also performed online with or without a therapist [R].
MoodGYM is a free, online CBT program for depression [R].
Individuals who maintain physical fitness are also less likely to relapse into depression [R].
In a 156-person study (RCT) of exercise vs sertraline (antidepressant), aerobic exercise improved depression symptoms to a similar degree as the drug [R].
In another study (RCT), exercisers maintained lower depression symptoms and improved quality of life for a longer period than cognitive behavioral therapy [R].
Moderate intensity (e.g., cycling, brisk walking) and vigorous intensity (e.g., running, swimming) exercise are both effective for depression [R].
For moderate-intensity exercise, benefits may be best achieved with at least 150 minutes/week, broken up into 30-minute sessions [R].
5) Light Therapy
Light therapy involves placing a light box (10,000 lux) near you for 30 minutes/morning upon waking [R].
Bright light therapy reduced depression in a study (RCT) of 99 people with winter seasonal depression [R].
Even though light therapy is best for seasonal depression, it also lowered depression symptoms in a study (DB-RCT) of 122 patients with nonseasonal depression [R].
Patients with bipolar depression recovered faster if they had a window facing east to the morning sun, serving a similar role as a light box [R].
Hypnosis is a state of focused attention and reduced awareness of the environment. It enhances the ability to respond to suggestions [R].
Being in a hypnotic state is not beneficial on its own. But when individuals internalize beneficial suggestions, they can improve their thoughts and behavior.
Hypnosis changes how people view themselves and promotes coping skills to manage depression [R].
7) Interpersonal Therapy
Interpersonal therapy emphasizes the social context of depression and aims to improve communication skills and relationship-building [R].
Interpersonal therapy is one of the most supported treatment options for depression [R].
It is effective on its own and in addition to antidepressant drugs in treating depression and preventing relapse [R].
In a study (RCT) of 120 women with postpartum depression, interpersonal therapy improved depression symptoms and social adjustment [R].
Interpersonal therapy [R]:
- increases social support
- lowers stress
- improves emotional processing
- betters relationship skills
Interpersonal therapy is typically delivered by a therapist over 12 weekly sessions.
However, internet-delivered, self-guided interpersonal therapy also lowered depressive symptoms in a study of over 1800 people [R].
8) Psychodynamic Therapy
Psychodynamic therapy is probably the therapy you most associate with depression treatment. It focuses on conscious and subconscious feelings from past experiences, and how they affect the patient.
The effectiveness of psychodynamic therapy for depression treatment is well-supported [R]. In some cases, psychodynamic therapy was as effective as prescription antidepressants.
Internet-delivered psychodynamic therapy for 10 weeks reduced symptoms in a study (RCT) of 100 patients with mood and anxiety disorders [R].
Psychodynamic therapy reduced metabolic activity in the right insula – a brain region important in emotion control and depression. This decreased activity was associated with greater symptom reduction over 4 weeks of treatment [R].
9) Music Therapy
Music therapy is well-supported for treating depression [R].
In 14 adolescents with depression, listening to rock music decreased cortisol and right frontal brain activation, which is associated with negative feelings, and is higher in depressed individuals [R].
10) Animal-Assisted Therapy
Therefore, improving sleep quality will also benefit depressive symptoms.
12) Art Therapy
Art therapy encourages free self-expression with painting, drawing, or modeling [R].
Massage therapy effectively reduces depression symptoms [R].
Massages can [R]:
- lower depression and anxiety symptoms
- increase dopamine and serotonin
- lower cortisol and norepinephrine
Living in regions with more sunlight is associated with less cognitive impairment [R].
Sunlight also increases relaxation by producing endorphins – responsible for the “runner’s high” [R].
Depressed individuals usually have a disrupted circadian rhythm [R].
Compared to daily exercise, triple chronotherapy provided immediate relief and greater response and recovery in a study (RCT) of 75 adults with major depression [R].
Sleep deprivation increases the short-term activity of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine [R].
Triple chronotherapy restores circadian rhythms of serotonin and dopamine, which are disturbed in depression [R].
To implement triple chronotherapy [R]:
- Day 1 – Don’t sleep at all (total sleep deprivation).
- Day 2 – Go to bed 6 hours before your normal bedtime and sleep for 7 hours. Then, 2 hours of bright light exposure upon waking.
- Day 3 – Go to sleep and wake up 2 hours later than on Day 2, followed by light exposure
- Day 4 – Go to sleep and wake up 2 hours later than on Day 3, followed by light exposure
- Day 5 – Go to sleep and wake up 2 hours later than on Day 4, followed by light exposure.
- After day 5, keep your new sleep and wake times to maintain a healthy circadian rhythm.
Vagus nerve stimulation is FDA-approved for treatment-resistant depression.
Vagus nerve stimulation increases blood flow to brain regions with reduced blood flow in depression [R].
Vagus nerve stimulation also increases norepinephrine and serotonin [R].
17) Expressive Writing
In expressive writing, individuals write deeply about a troubling or emotional event [R].
Writing about deep thoughts related to an emotional event for 20 minutes over 3 consecutive days reduced depression symptoms in a study (RCT) of 40 depression patients [R].
Acupuncture for 30 minutes reduced depression in a study (RCT) of 30 treatment-resistant patients [R].
Neurofeedback training provides participants real-time information on the activity of certain brain regions. It teaches people to self-control their brain activity.
Neurofeedback aligns activity of the left and right brain hemispheres to improve mood [R]. The left hemisphere is often underactive in depression.
20) Cold Exposure
Whole-body cryotherapy reduced depression and anxiety symptoms in a study of 60 depression/anxiety patients [R].
21) Transcranial Photobiomodulation (PBM)
Infrared light stimulates neurogenesis, inhibits brain oxidative stress and inflammation, and increases brain energy utilization, all of which benefit depression [R].
22) Sauna Use
A single session of heat therapy improved depression symptoms in a study of 10 cancer patients [R].
15 minutes/day of infrared sauna use for 4 weeks improved depression symptoms and anger in a study (RCT) of 46 chronic pain patients [R].
23) Dance/Movement Therapy
Supplements That Reduce Depression
25) St. John’s Wort
St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is the most-studied antidepressant herb and is widely prescribed for depression in Europe. The recommended dose is 900-1800 mg/day.
St John’s Wort also prevented or delayed depression relapse in 426 patients (DB-RCT) [R].
Adding omega-3s to the antidepressant Citalopram improved depressive symptoms in 42 patients (RCT) [R].
27) S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe)
SAMe is effective and safe in treating depression (according to a meta-analysis) [R].
In a study (DB-RCT) of 73 patients who did not respond to SSRIs, 800 mg SAMe 2x/day for 6 weeks improved depressive symptoms and increased remission rates [R].
Curcumin (administered with piperine) enhanced the antidepressant effects of SSRIs in mice [R].
Curcumin taken at 1 g/day for 6 weeks reduced depression along with inflammatory cytokines and cortisol, and increased BDNF in 108 adults (DB-RCT) [R].
DHEA impacts release, breakdown, reuptake, and receptor binding activity of serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, and GABA [R].
Because serotonin is produced in the gut, changes to the microbiome can influence serotonin levels and activity in the brain [R]. Probiotics that enhance the diversity of the microbiome can thus promote a more favorable environment for serotonin synthesis.
Probiotics also reduce systemic inflammation, which is often elevated in depression [R].
Between 1.5-3 grams/day for 30 to 60 days reduced depressive symptoms in elderly patients (DB-RCTs) [R].
Acetyl-L-carnitine (1 gram/day for 12 weeks) improved depressive symptoms similarly to an antidepressant in a DB-RCT of 204 patients with chronic depressive symptoms [R].
Acetyl-L-carnitine increases cell growth in the hippocampus, BDNF, and glutamate release, and serotonin levels and receptor activity [R].
33) Vitamin B9/Folate
Depressed individuals have lower folate levels than nondepressed ones [R].
Folate also improves responses to antidepressant drugs [R].
Vitamin B12 taken at 1 mg/day for 6 weeks improved depressive symptoms in a study (RCT) of 73 depression patients with low B12 [R].
35) Vitamin D
At least 600-800 IU/day of vitamin D improved depressive symptoms (in a meta-analysis) [R].
3,500 IU/day of vitamin D for 1 month improved seasonal affective disorder symptoms (in an RCT) [R].
Vitamin D supplementation also lowers suicide risk linked to vitamin D deficiency [R].
It also protects against dopamine and serotonin depletion in the brain (striatum and nucleus accumbens) [R].
Because of its sedating and calming effects, melatonin can counter the sleep disturbances often found in depression [R].
3 mg melatonin at bedtime for 6 months lowered depressive symptoms in a study (DB-RCT) of 79 women [R].
Melatonin can improve the circadian rhythm of various neurotransmitters that are disturbed in depression [R].
In rats, melatonin maintained norepinephrine levels by preserving neurotransmitter transporters and blocking MAO-A [R].
39) Rhodiola Rosea
In animals, rhodiola rosea lowers cortisol, stress-induced protein damage, and nitric oxide, inhibits MAO-A. It also restores serotonin in the hippocampus and repairs damaged hippocampal cells [R, R, R].
40) Magnolia Bark
Case studies show improvements in depression, anxiety, and sleep within one week of magnesium supplementation [R].
Magnesium blocks the NMDA receptor, which reduces the effect of glutamate and lowers depression [R].
Inositol is likely effective for depression (according to a meta-analysis of DB-RCTs) [R].
Myoinositol decreases serotonin transporter activity, thus increasing available serotonin [R].
Psilocybin supplemented at 10 and 25 mg, one week apart, reduced depressive symptoms after 3 months in 12 adults with treatment-resistant depression [R].
Psilocybin improved mood 6 months after use in a study (DB-RCT) of 12 cancer patients [R].
In a study (DB-RCT) of 25 healthy volunteers psilocybin enhanced mood by decreasing amygdala reactivity, a brain region of emotional processing [R].
L-theanine intake (250 mg/day for 8 weeks) improved depressive symptoms, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and cognitive function in 20 patients with major depression [R].
In mice exposed to chronic social stress, L-theanine alleviated depression, shortened lifespan, brain shrinkage, and oxidative damage to DNA [R].
Due to its structural similarity to glutamate, theanine can bind the glutamate receptors and improve glutamate activity, which is disrupted in depression [R].
Zinc deficiency is associated with increased depression prevalence and severity. Furthermore, nonresponders to antidepressant drugs have lower zinc levels than responders [R].
Zinc is an effective standalone or supplementary treatment for depression (according to a meta-analysis of RCTs) [R].
Chronic zinc treatment increased serotonin receptors in rats [R].
Creatine taken at 5 g/day with an SSRI improved symptoms more than SSRI alone in a study (DB-RCT) of 52 women with major depression [R].
Creatine reduces the body’s need to synthesize creatine, which increases available S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe) [R].
Lithium is also often added to antidepressants to improve their effectiveness [R].
Lithium has side effects and potential toxicities to consider before starting treatment [R]. Proper dosage monitoring can limit these risks.
Application of lavender cream nightly for 8 weeks reduced depression, anxiety, and stress in a study (RCT) of 141 pregnant women [R].
Lavender plus an antidepressant reduced depression more than the antidepressant alone (in an RCT of 45 people) [R].
50) Bacopa Monnieri
Bacopa extract (300 mg/day for 12 weeks) improved depression and anxiety symptoms, working memory, and attention in a study (DB-RCT) of 54 healthy seniors [R].
Decreased pregnenolone levels are associated with depression [R].
Depression is associated with abnormalities in brain microtubule function. By increasing the formation and stability of tubules, pregnenolone increases the growth of brain cells (axons and dendrites) [R, R].
The effects of 5-HTP are comparable to prescribed antidepressants [R].
5-HTP plus SSRI raised serotonin 500% in a study of 52 healthy men [R].
55) Holy Basil/Tulsi
Holy basil (1 gram/day for 60 days) lowered depression, stress, and anxiety in a study of 35 participants [R].
In animal studies, holy basil showed antidepressant effects similar to commonly-prescribed antidepressants and improved anxiety, memory, and cognitive function [R].
In a study of 7 depressed adolescents with bipolar disorder, uridine treatment for 6 weeks was associated with decreased depressive symptoms [R].
Tyrosine is a precursor for dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and thyroid hormones.
However, a trial of 65 patients did not support tyrosine as an antidepressant [R]. Tyrosine might only help patients with low dopamine and norepinephrine.
Borage (Echium amoenum) is an herb native to Iran, referred to as “ox-tongue.”
Borage (375 mg/day) lowered depressive symptoms after 4 weeks in a study (DB-RCT) of 35 individuals, but was not effective after 6 weeks [R].
59) Olive Oil
Olive oil increases the release and turnover of dopamine [R].
60) Vitamin B2/Riboflavin
Many individuals with depression are riboflavin-deficient [R].
Riboflavin intake prevented postpartum depression in 865 women [R].
A supplement containing 10 mg of each B1, B2, and B6 vitamins improved depression in a study (DB-RCT) of elderly depression patients [R].
Riboflavin benefits may depend on gender: Increased riboflavin intake was associated with decreased depressive symptoms in girls but not in boys in a study of 6,500 adolescents [R].
61) Vitamin B6
Low B6 levels were associated with increased depressive symptoms in a study of 140 people [R].
Women consuming more foods containing B6 had a lower risk of depression (in a study of 170 women) [R].
64) Ginkgo Biloba
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