How to Treat Depression Naturally: 3 Key Nutritional Elements You Could Be Missing

I’ve written before about my mental break almost three years ago and my suicidal thoughts on this blog.

What I didn’t talk about in that article was antidepressants and my views on how to treat depression naturally.

I’m straight edge and have a super weird attitude about drugs and alcohol. I’ve never been drunk, never smoked anything ever, and have never taken recreational drugs. As a result of my misdiagnosed autoimmune disorder almost 13 years ago, I also have a very weird attitude about pharmaceutical drugs.

That being said, I don’t believe in taking any type of medication unless it’s more or less a life-or-death situation. This is just my personal philosophy.

Instead of taking medications for things that I personally feel can be treated naturally, I’ve compiled this list of three hugely helpful things that have made all the difference for my mental health when it comes to how to treat depression naturally.

Please note: I am not a doctor, herbalist, or nutritionist. This article is not intended to diagnose any type of illness or offer treatment advice for your particular case. Please consult with your qualified healthcare practitioner about your mental health!

1. Omega-3s

I really can’t say how much I feel omega-3s have helped both my mental and physical health. Omega-3s are essential fatty acids that are absolutely crucial to proper brain function.

Though many people say the evidence isn’t concrete enoughpeer-reviewed research shows that mental health professionals “should at least ensure adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids among patients with major depressive disorder (MDD)”.

There are three types of omega-3s when it comes to humans:

  1. A-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in certain plant-based foods such as flaxseed and walnuts.
  2. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which is found in fish.
  3. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is also found in fish.

While, of course, I would love to sit here and say that vegan sources of omega-3 are the best when it comes to how to treat depression naturally, the fact is that they simply aren’t. Studies show that our brains are designed to function best on omega-3s from fish. 

Your body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but the conversion rate has been shown to be rather poor. What this means is that you’d have to eat A LOT of walnuts, avocados, and flaxseed to get even a fraction of the amount of EPA and DHA you would get from fish (although all of these foods are generally excellent for your health!).

I’ve tried to eat cans of sardines in an effort to boost my fatty acid intake without a supplement, but I’m here to tell ya, it’s just not for me, and I’m guessing it won’t be for you either!

So taking a quality omega-3 supplement makes a lot more sense for many people. But what dose is best?

In his book The New Optimum Nutrition Bible, Patrick Holford, founder of the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, suggests that omega-3 fish oil supplements containing 1,200 mg of EPA a day are best for people with depression, compared to a standard dose of 350 mg each of EPA and DHA.

Personally, I take Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega 2X every day. I just take one capsule (which fulfills the requirements of 350 mg each of EPA and DHA), but the serving size says two capsules, which you could easily take if you were looking for a higher dose of these essential fatty acids!

Yes, they’re more expensive than some supplements, but I would absolutely advocate for these over cheaper versions of omega-3s! Plus, what is your mental health worth?

2. Probiotics

I didn’t really know what I was missing in life until I found out about probiotics.

These helpful bacteria exist in your gut and play a major role in your health, especially when it comes to how to treat depression naturally.

Your gut is intimately connected to your brain in what’s called the “brain-gut” axis. Ignoring the link between our gut health and our brains could have negative repercussions for some people with depression and anxiety.

Established research so far shows mixed results on the link between probiotics and mental health. However, there are other studies that demonstrate their benefit.

For example, a review of evidence on probiotics and mental health disorders showed that “probiotics and prebiotics might improve mental health function”.

Another study shows that “the evidence for probiotics alleviating depressive symptoms is compelling”; however, the research did note that more evidence is needed.

Other research showed that regulating gut bacteria through probiotics helped improved symptoms of anxiety. 

I’d argue that probiotics are absolutely worth a try when it comes to managing your mental health and even your physical health.

But where can you find probiotics?

Probiotics exist in fermented foods, including:

  • Miso
  • Kimchi
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kombucha
  • Natto
  • Yogurt
  • Water kefir

I‘m a huge fan of all these foods; however, I do not eat dairy (for ethical and health reasons). There are so many negative sides to dairy, even outside of the horrific way it’s produced—I would encourage you to get plant-based sources of yogurt, which are just as delicious and won’t give you acne!

However, if you’re having trouble getting at least one of these foods (or drinks—heyyyy kombucha!) every day, you could consider a supplement. However, beware: many probiotics supplements contain dairy, YES, even ones that say milk-free (I wrote a rant about that here.) 

This is the supplement I take for probiotics; I called the company to confirm they are vegan, but that was a few years ago. I would encourage you to do your own research!

However, these days I typically just try to get probiotics through food every day and rarely take a supplement.

Side note: Most herbalists I have spoken with advocate for getting probiotics through food, saying that you simply can’t confirm the integrity of a supplement due to manufacturing methods and that foods provide a much better source.

Also, it’s important to be careful about probiotics–many herbalists consider them to be medicine and there’s no need to go overboard on the amount you consume (for example, there’s no reason to drink a gallon of kombucha every day!).

3. Vitamin D

Over a billion people worldwide are deficient in vitamin D. Deficiency in this essential vitamin has been shown to play a role in autoimmune disorders, gum disease, and 17 different types of cancers, among many other health conditions.

Vitamin D deficiency is also “highly prevalent” in teenagers with severe mental illness. Study after study shows how crucial vitamin D is to our mental health, which could make it an influential supplement when considering how to treat depression naturally.

One study noted that “effective detection and treatment of inadequate vitamin D levels in persons with depression and other mental health disorders may be an easy and cost-effective therapy which could improve patients’ long-term health outcomes as well as their quality of life”.

But how much vitamin D should you take?

Patrick Holford suggests a minimum of 400 IU a day; however, other research showed benefits with as much as 1,500-5,000 IU daily for people with depression.

You’ll want to get your vitamin D levels tested by your doctor to show if you’re deficient and get a recommendation of how much to take!

Where can you get vitamin D naturally?

Humans make vitamin D in their bodies through sunlight exposure, so the more sunlight you get, the more vitamin D you’re likely to have in your body.

However, some people are naturally more deficient in vitamin D, and may still need to supplement even if they are getting the recommended sunlight exposure each day.

Foods that contain vitamin D include:

  • Mushrooms
  • Egg yolks
  • Fish
  • Beef liver

Obviously, these aren’t foods that everyone likes to eat (myself included). Talk to your doctor about a supplement if you need one!

(I do supplement with vitamin D when needed with both a vegan and non-vegan supplement: I take fermented cod liver oil and this vegan supplement. Currently, I’m looking for a better supplement and am researching some options that my integrative health doctor recommended to me. I will update this article when I find one I like!)

Why Shouldn’t I Just Take an Antidepressant?

I’m not a doctor, and I am absolutely not here to tell you whether you should or should not take an antidepressant.

As someone who has never taken any type of antidepressant or antianxiety medication, I can’t say how these medications affect you and can’t tell you whether or not you should take them or consider how to treat depression naturally.

I am, however, an advocate for natural health, and it’s my personal belief that the majority of our modern health problems can be treated through diet, exercise, and herbs. 

Antidepressants can also have major side effects, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Premature delivery and low birth weight of babies
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Weight gain

Above all, I would argue for getting tested with your doctor to see if you’re deficient in anything and considering supplements before going on a medication that changes your brain chemistry and has the potential for serious side effects.

And even if you are on medication and choose to stay on your medication, these supplements may be helpful to you or may support the outcome of your meds, so talk to your doctor about them!

The Bottom Line

How you deal with your mental health is a personal choice, and no one should judge you for it.

There are so many aspects that could play a role in your depression, from genetics to your diet to your environment. Of course, these three nutritional components are only part of the picture—but together, they could make a big difference to your wellbeing!

I deal with the daily stressors of life and my social anxiety by exercising, eating healthy, meditating, and reading. Everyone is different, and what works for me may not work for you. However, if you’re considering how to treat depression naturally, consider these three essential supplements—you could be missing a big piece of your mental health!

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