Skip to main content

Natural Awakenings Chicago

Supporting Mood with Brain-Boosting Supplements

Jan 25, 2012 10:48AM ● By Lynn Bednar

Antidepressants are widely administered today for mild depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), anxiety, PMS, pain relief, sleep issues and more, with the thought that these drugs would be very effective, in large part based on studies done by Professor Irving Kirsch and his colleagues. Many doctors relied on these original studies to make SSRI antidepressants some of the most prescribed drugs on the market. A new meta-analysis using data from 47 studies done by the same group suggests otherwise: it concludes that these drugs perform no better than a placebo. Teens and even younger children are now taking these drugs and research is piling up that suggests that they create dependency, can cause suicidal thoughts and have serious potential drug interactions.

Before going on an antidepressant regimen, you might consider giving your brain the nutrients it needs and see if an improvement in mood follows. The standard American diet (SAD) does not provide many of the nutrients important to a healthy brain, and healthy brain tissue is crucial to neurotransmitter activity, which in turn is critical to mood. The brain runs on glucose as its primary fuel, but many other nutrients are critical to the structure and functioning of the brain.

Try these brain-boosting nutrients–available at many better health food stores attended by knowledgeable staff– and brighten your mood this winter.

Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, flax and chia seeds, are a source of DHA, a fatty acid. The brain is very rich in DHA and it must be taken in through the diet. It is important to learning, memory and reactions to stress. It has been found in several recent studies that pregnant women whose diets are high in DHA are less likely to suffer from postpartum depression. Fish oils and other sources of DHA provide an anti-inflammatory effect, which can counter inflammation’s effect on mood or behavioral changes.

Phosphatidylserine (PS), is a phospholipid that can improve mood, anxiety and coping with stress. It is present in every cell in the body, but is especially abundant in the brain. It is a crucial building block for the cell membrane, making it important to nerve transmission. It enhances nerve growth factor, which helps manage nerve tissue and repair functions. More than 40 human studies spanning three decades indicate that PS supports just about all brain functions that can be measured, and it has garnered two Qualified Health Claims from the FDA.

Magnesium is involved in 300 biochemical reactions in the body, including energy production, relaxation of the muscles, and calming the nerves. It is one of the most common mineral deficiencies in the U.S. and non-sustainable farming has depleted our soils of this vital mineral. Supplementing with magnesium capsules or powder can alleviate nervousness, anxiousness and irritability. A magnesium-fortified drink called Calm is especially effective.Supplements for depression

Vitamin D is the “sunshine vitamin,” and a majority of those who live up north are vitamin D deficient. Serotonin (a feel-good chemical made by our bodies) levels are about twice as high with exposure to summer sun as opposed to winter sun. A study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that low levels of vitamin D were associated with depressive symptoms, especially in those with a history of depression.

Tryptophan, 5-HTP and B vitamins are all nutrients that help promote serotonin or other neurotransmitters that affect mood. SSRI antidepressants block the uptake of serotonin, and via this mechanism increase serotonin in the body. The amino acid tryptophan or its derivative, 5-HTP, are the building blocks of serotonin and work instead by promoting its production. Vitamins B6 and B3 can also help in this process, as they encourage the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin. B12 and folic acid are necessary for the synthesis of norepinephrine and dopamine, two other neurotransmitters that can have an effect on mood. A 2002 study of 4,000 elderly adults backs this up; many of those who had depression symptoms also had B12 deficiencies. Because the B vitamins as a family are very important to the functioning of the nervous system and reactions to stress, a B-complex vitamin can go a long way toward promoting healthy neurotransmitter activity.

L-theanine is an amino acid derivative. It is known to trigger release in the brain of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which helps to filter out extraneous and distracting stimuli, thereby reducing anxiety.

Antidepressants may be necessary for certain conditions, but properly nourishing the brain first might take care of many of the mood issues that we experience. Given the significant side effects of antidepressants, perhaps we should explore alternatives in cases that are not severe or life threatening.


Lynn Bednar is a certified nutritional counselor and the owner of Walsh Natural Health, a health food store in Evanston. Walsh is located at 2116 ½ Central St., Evanston. Call 847-864-1600 or visit WalshNatural.com.