American Psychiatric Association Task Force on supplements for major depression

The American Psychiatric Association recently commissioned a task force to study the state of “alternative and complementary” therapies for major depression. This follows widespread interest from the scientific community and a considerable accumulation of research to date. The Task Force reported in a 2010 article that focused special attention on these supplements: omega-3 fatty acids (commonly taken as fish oil supplements), St John’s Wort (the botanical Hypericum), Folic acid (a synthetic form of folate, a B vitamin found in leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, beans, and fortified breads and cereals), and S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe).

We welcome this acknowledgment by the mainstream US medical establishment that supplements have a role to play in treating a disabling condition that affects millions of people per year, and is not always easily treatable. (Only one-third of adult patients newly diagnosed with major depression achieve complete symptom relief when taking one antidepressant, so there is often an extended search for the right combination of drug and other treatment needed for remission.)

Below is a brief recap of some of the latest thinking on these key supplements for depression. Of course NYBC recommends that you use these supplements in consultation with your healthcare provider. More information on these supplements can be found by following the links to the NYBC website.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids (fish oil) recommended as a stand-alone treatment for people concerned about side effects, such as those with multiple medical conditions. It has also been combined with other antidepressants as an adjunct therapy. Fish oil’s blood-thinning property makes it problematic for doses above 3g/day. Added benefit: fish oil supports cardiovascular health.

St. John’s Wort is an herb widely studied and used, especially in Europe, for mild to moderate depression, though it hasn’t proved effective for major depression. Those taking protease inhibitors or certain other drugs should avoid St. John’s Wort because it interferes with their action.

SAMe (S-adenosyl-l-methionine). Supplementing with SAMe increases concentrations of neurotransmitters that influence mood, and multiple studies have confirmed its antidepressant effect. A dose of 400-800mg/day has been studied for mild-to-moderate depression, and 800-1600mg/day for moderate-to-severe. Studied as a stand-alone treatment, or as an adjunct treatment. Added benefit: SAMe supports joint health and liver function.

When combined with an antidepressant, folic acid supplements can improve symptoms, particularly in women. However, folic acid supplements are not a stand-alone treatment for depression. The safe upper limit is 1,000 mcg per day.

Follow-up on folate and cancer risk

We’ve had a recent comment on our own post regarding the importance of B12 and folate supplementation for people with HIV. The comment expressed concern about some reports that folate may be associated with increased cancer risk. Here’s a reply to that comment:

We recommend this web page for a recent study of folate and REDUCED colorectal cancer risk:

The 2011 article cited, by a well-known nutrition scientist, finds folate from diet and folate from supplements both associated with reduced colorectal cancer incidence–when taken over a long period (we’re talking about 15-20-30 years). This fits with what is generally understood about the value of vegetables in reducing cancer risk. Not surprising to us is the other finding of the study: that short-term folate intake, around the time of the development of pre-cancers, is not going to help reduce cancer incidence! Indeed, many supplements do not necessarily produce pronounced short-term effects, but rather show health benefits over the long term.

Mayo Clinic’s Guide to Alternative Medicine 2011

This is an easy-to-read, magazine-style guide created by the Mayo Clinic, the world-famous healthcare facility which also happens to have a long-standing receptiveness to alternative and complementary therapies for wellness and prevention. (That’s one of the reasons why it has recently been cited as an example of best practices in American healthcare–the kind of practices that need to be more widely imitated.)

The section on dietary supplements provides capsule reviews of the scientific evidence for the safety and effectiveness of several dozen popular products, from botanicals like ginseng, echinacea and St. John’s Wort, to vitamins C, D, E, B-3 (niacin), and B-9 (folate or folic acid), as well as minerals like selenium, calcium and zinc. Also discussed are fairly well-known categories of supplements, including probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids (these often obtained with fish oil supplements).

The guide rates these supplements with a green, yellow or red light symbol, depending on the strength of the evidence for their use and their safety profile. We weren’t too surprised by most of the ratings. For example, green for niacin, folic acid, Vitamin C and Vitamin D, but a yellow caution light for Vitamin E, which has shown no effectiveness in several good studies dealing with cardiovascular health and cancer, leading some researchers to wonder if the standard “alpha-tocopherol” form of the vitamin is a good format for supplementation. Also, a yellow light for St. John’s Wort, not because it isn’t effective for mild/moderate depression, but because it can interact with a lot of other medications.

Other supplements getting the green light from the Mayo Clinic editors: SAMe (for depression); saw palmetto (for enlarged prostate); green tea (for cardiovascular health, possibly for cancer prevention, and apparently–according to a large epidemiological study–for longevity); gamma linolenic acid (for peripheral neuropathy); CoQ10 (for cardiovascular health, for which it’s used by millions in Japan); glucosamine chondroitin (for osteoarthritis).

Also getting the green light, a supplement most have probably never heard of, but which is featured in the Health Concerns formula Cold Away, available from NYBC: the botanical Andrographis (a cold remedy, showing promise where many other products have disappointed).

See the NYBC entries for more details on how best to take supplements:

B vitamins for eye health

A heart disease study sponsored by the NIH has also yielded some interesting information about the relationship between B vitamins and eye health. The research study, from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, found that taking a mixture of B vitamins, including B-6, folic acid and B-12, lowered the chance of middle-aged women developing macular degeneration (a common form of vision loss in older adults) by one-third. The study, which tracked more than 5000 women age 40 and older, was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Feb. 23, 2009.

Note that NYBC stocks this B vitamin supplement:

B-right (Jarrow)

B-right includes folic acid, B-6 and B-12; one of the rationales for its formulation is to prevent buildup of the chemical homocysteine, which in studies has been associated with heart attacks.

Folate (Folic acid) supplementation: a recommendation for acute, continuation and maintenance treatment of depression

Here is a dosage recommendation for supplementation with Folate/Folic acid during the treatment of depression. It’s the conclusion offered by Simon N. Young, Dept. of Psychiatry, McGill University in a 2004 review article:

What about the recommendation that 2 mg of folate be given during the acute, continuation and maintenance treatment of depression? The actual dosage may be debatable; 1 mg may suffice, particularly in countries where there is voluntary or compulsory fortification of food with folate, and the addition of a vitamin B12 supplement may be prudent, but the general principle is reasonable. With our current knowledge, the potential benefits seem to far outweigh any disadvantages.

Reference: Simon N. Young, “Folate and depression—a neglected problem” in J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2007 March; 32(2): 80–82.

For further discussion, see the NYBC entries:


B-Right (B vitamin complex)


Nutritional supplements for depression: recommendations from an expert on integrative/holistic health

NYBC has been following recent developments in the use of dietary supplements for depression for quite some time now, and we’d like to recommend a recent guide to this topic by Hyla Cass, which appears in her book, Supplement Your Prescription: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Know About Nutrition.

Dr. Cass, a practicing physician and an expert on integrative (“holistic”) health, devotes a chapter of her 2007 book to depression. The core elements of her recommendations are the B vitamins, Folate, Omega-3 fatty acids, Calcium, and Vitamin D (especially in winter). She also discusses SAMe, a natural mood enhancer essential for the manufacture of neurotransmitters (like serotonin), and two botanicals that have a history of use as anti-depressants, St. Johns Wort and Rhodiola.

Dr. Cass’ account is particularly good at reviewing the role of neurotransmitters in depression, and explaining how supplements and nutrition have an impact on them. For example, tryptophan, eaten together with carbohydrates, will raise levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that makes you feel happy and calm and helps you sleep well. The amino acid 5-HTP, meanwhile, can also help the brain produce more serotonin, though unlike tryptophan it does not need the carbs for it to enter the brain.

Anti-depressant prescriptions, as Dr. Cass notes, are among the top sellers among US pharmaceuticals, with 60 million prescriptions written per year at a cost of $10 billion. And while “antidepressants may be enormously helpful, even life-saving for some people,” she continues, “they are often overprescribed, at too high a dose, over too long a time, and often before a good medical evaluation has been done.” (p. 117) Hence her timely guide to using supplements to help maintain the “nutritional balance necessary for good mental health,” or to create “neurotransmitter balance in depression.”

Reference: Hyla Cass, M.D. “Prescriptions for Psychological Health,” in Supplement Your Prescription: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Know About Nutrition. (Basic Health Publications, 2007)

See also the NYBC entries on supplements mentioned above:




Rosavin (Rhodiola)

B Vitamin Complex (B-right)

Fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids)

Recommendations for Cardiovascular Health: from “Supplement Your Prescription,” by Hyla Cass, M.D.

We return to this excellent guide published in 2007 by Hyla Cass, a practicing physician and expert on integrative medicine.

In Chapter 4 of the book, Dr. Cass reviews recent findings that call into question the idea that dietary cholesterol causes cardiovascular disease. In line with the current scientific thinking on this subject, she suggests looking at underlying inflammation as essential to any understanding of risks to heart and circulatory system health. As a consequence, she says, people who want to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease should consider dietary changes that are anti-inflammatory (that is, a diet high in antioxidants, anti-inflammatory herbs, and antioxidant-rich foods–that’s colorful fruits and vegetables, curry, turmeric, rosemary, ginger, green tea, dark chocolate, low-toxin fish like salmon or sardines).

Statin drugs, though they come with some side effects, have proven of benefit to certain groups of people with cardiovascular complications, including diabetics, those who have had a heart attack, and those diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. Like many others, Dr. Cass recommends supplementing with CoQ 10 if you’re taking statins. She also supports use of omega-3 fatty acids (from fish oil), niacin (though not recommended for diabetics), plant sterols, tocotrienols (a form of the antioxidant vitamin E), and D-ribose for controlling cholesterol and otherwise countering cardiovascular disease. In addition, the B vitamins are recommended to help lower homocysteine, high levels of which are associated with artery damage and increased risk of heart disease.

Citation: Hyla Cass, M.D., Supplement Your Prescription: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Know About Nutrition (Basic Health Publications, 2007).