Stroll through your local pharmacy or health food store and you'll likely see some dietary supplements purported to help ease depression. For example, Americans spent some $57 million dollars on the herbal remedy St. John’s wort in 2015, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.
Is it money well spent?
Here’s what the research shows about the effectiveness of St. John's wort and omega-3 fatty acids, another supplement with a reputation for easing depression. In addition, we describe more established strategies for coping with depression.
St. John's Wort
Some research does suggest that taking this supplement may lift your mood, according to a review by the American College of Physicians in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine in February 2016. In fact, it might even be as effective as antidepressants such as fluoxetine (Prozac and generic) and sertraline (Zoloft and generic).
For example, a separate review of nine trials involving depressed patients who were given either St. John’s wort or low doses of antidepressant medication found that after four to 12 weeks of follow-up, the two groups showed similar levels of improvement.
But because the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate the quality or potency of dietary supplements, including St. John’s wort products, the American College of Physicians doesn’t recommend it as a treatment.
Another reason to skip it: “St. John’s wort can interact dangerously with many medications, including allergy meds, birth-control pills, and cholesterol-lowering statins,” says Consumer Reports chief medical adviser Marvin M. Lipman, M.D.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
This compound may also help lift symptoms of depression. An analysis of data from 25 randomized trials involving 1,373 patients with depression found that it worked slightly better than a placebo at boosting mood—and was more beneficial for people with major depression than for those with milder depression.
But “the improvements researchers detected were extremely slight,” Lipman says. “There is not enough evidence to recommend fish oil or other omega-3 supplements as a treatment for depression.”
Another concern: Some tests have shown that some fish oil supplements may contain troubling levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, mixtures of man-made chemicals once used in industry that can negatively affect health.
What to Do Instead
For mild to moderate depression, try talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and getting 20 to 30 minutes of daily exercise, preferably outdoors. For severe depression, opt for CBT or prescription antidepressants, or even better, a combination of the two, Lipman says.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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