Q: I am usually an upbeat person. But with what’s going on in the world and the uncertainty, I am feeling more down than usual. Is there a supplement I can take to help the COVID-19 blues?
A: While it’s easy to go to the corner drugstore and buy a bottle of supplements, it’s hard to know if the pills will actually work.
Part of the problem is that the FDA doesn’t regulate the manufacture of over-the-counter supplements as it does for prescription medications, so manufacturers don’t have to prove that the supplements are effective or tell you what the pills are really made of (despite ingredient lists on labels).
The other part of the problem is that we don’t have much evidence on some supplements. That means we may not know all the side effects, and there may not be firm data indicating that the supplements reduce depression symptoms. The research is limited, and the existing studies have produced mixed results.
But some studies do suggest certain over-the-counter supplements may improve the symptoms of depression. For example:
- Fish oil. Boosting your intake of omega-3 fatty acids by eating more oily fish or taking a fish oil supplement may be beneficial.
- Methylfolate. It’s a form of folic acid, a B vitamin, that easily gets into the brain and has helped some people with depression.
- N-acetylcysteine. This substance is a precursor to the antioxidant glutathione and may promote the healthy signaling of nerve cells.
- S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe). This compound is also made naturally in the body. It is involved in the synthesis of neurotransmitters, the chemicals that send messages between brain cells.
- Vitamin D. Low levels of vitamin D are associated with a higher risk of depression. Taking 1,000 IU of vitamin D daily is a very safe dose.
- St. John’s wort. It comes from a flower (Hypericum perforatum) and has been used to treat depression for centuries in Europe. The herb appears to boost brain levels of serotonin. St. John’s wort can have adverse interactions with many drugs. So, if you choose to try this, be sure to review all your medications with your doctor or pharmacist.
Here’s some more natural ways to help boost your mood.
- Exercise. Getting your heart and lungs pumping helps increase blood flow to the brain and encourages the brain to produce natural nerve growth factors.
- Diet. Eating healthfully is associated with enhanced mood and a lower risk for depression.
- Mindfulness meditation. Many studies have linked mindfulness meditation to better mood and reduced anxiety and depression. You can do it almost anywhere and anytime. Just sit comfortably, focus on your breath, and bring your attention to the present. The longer you can practice being mindful throughout the day, the better you’ll become at it.
(Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)