Natural Antidepressants to Try (and to Avoid)

The evidence for the effectiveness of these natural antidepressants is mixed, though some may be safe alternatives to prescription medications.

natural antidepressants

St. John’s wort is one of the natural antidepressants that can be used as a mild, short-term treatment.

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Supplements making memory and cognitive claims may be marketed as beneficial for mood, depression, sleep quality, and “energy.” Other products focus primarily on these mental factors that affect mood and behavior, which in turn can indirectly affect cognition. The evidence for the effectiveness of these natural antidepressants is mixed, though some may be safe alternatives to prescription medications. You also should exercise caution when taking any of these supplements with prescription drugs; tell your healthcare professional first.

St. John’s Wort

Derived from a flowering plant traditionally harvested on St. John’s Day (June 24), St. John’s wort is one of the natural antidepressants that can be used as a mild, short-term treatment, according to clinical guidelines from the American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine. A review of the evidence about St. John’s wort and major depression, published in the Cochrane Database, concluded that it was as effective as standard prescription antidepressants, with fewer side effects. The U.S. National Library of Medicine, however, cautions that, although some studies have reported benefits for depression, others have not. One large study sponsored by NCCIH found that St. John’s wort was no more effective than placebo in treating major depression of moderate severity.

Keep in mind, also, that St. John’s wort has serious interactions with a long list of medications, including the common blood thinner warfarin, so consult your physician before trying it. St. John’s wort was also among the herbal products targeted by a re-cent investigation as frequently failing to contain the listed ingredient.

Green Tea

We’ve seen how tea might benefit memory and cognition. Green tea and green tea extract also may be used as a natural antidepressant. In one Japanese study, elderly participants who reported drinking four or more cups of green tea per day were 44 percent less likely to have symptoms of depression than those drinking one cup or less per day. A similar relationship was seen for green tea consumption and risk of severe depression. The NCCIH adds, “Some evidence suggests that the use of green tea preparations improves mental alertness, most likely because of its caffeine content.”


Made from the root of valerian, a flowering plant, this herbal remedy has been used since ancient times. It may be effective against insomnia, although the NCCIH advises, “There is not enough evidence from well-designed studies to confirm this.” Moreover, “There is not enough scientific evidence to determine whether valerian works for other conditions, such as anxiety or depression.”

Valerian does not relieve insomnia as fast as standard sleep medications, and continuous use for several days, even up to four weeks, may be needed before an effect is noticeable. Some studies have found that valerian doesn’t improve insomnia any better than a placebo. Valerian should not be taken with alcohol or sedative medications.

Ephedra: Beware

An evergreen, shrub-like plant native to Central Asia and Mongolia, ephedra contains an active ingredient called ephedrine, which can powerfully stimulate the nervous system and heart. Besides its popular use in weight-loss supplements, ephedra also has been touted for “increased energy.” But, ephedra’s risk of heart problems and stroke outweighs any benefits, according to the FDA, which in 2004 banned the sale of dietary supplements containing ephedra. The ban does not apply to traditional Chinese herbal remedies or to products such as herbal teas regulated as conventional foods, so beware.

The Downside of Energy Drinks

You might also be tempted by the claims of so-called “energy drinks,” which have soared in popularity in recent years. The FDA has investigated reports of adverse events tied to these beverages and cautions that these drinks are not alternatives to rest or sleep. The most common ingredients are caffeine, sugar, B vitamins, and amino acids. Although both caffeine and sugar can give you a short-term jolt, there are safer ways to obtain caffeine (as well as the healthy phytonutrients in coffee and tea), and sugar just adds calories.

For more information about natural antidepressants and other supplements for brain health, purchase Brain Power & Nutrition at

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David Fryxell

David A. Fryxell has been the author of Brain Power & Nutrition since its inception (2015), and Healthy-Aging Diet, since its inception with the 2017 edition. He has been a … Read More

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