Foods and Supplements to Beat the Blues

Ads for antidepressants make it seem as though the most logical solution for a case of the blues is to seek a prescription. Pharmaceutical drugs may be helpful — even necessary — for people with severe depression, but for others, there are natural solutions that may work even better, with less risk of adverse side effects. Dietary supplements and lifestyle changes can be used to naturally lift your spirits.


“I think that a lot of our modern-day fatigue and depression has to do with the fact that we’re totally separated from nature,” said Eric Yarnell, ND, assistant professor of botanical medicine at Bastyr University and author of Clinical Botanical Medicine. “People don’t eat well, they watch huge amounts of television and don’t spend much time relating to people or the outdoors.” He believes that eating plenty of whole, unprocessed foods and getting regular exercise are the first steps to take in attempting to boost your mood and energy level. “Also, I tell people to turn off their televisions,” he said, noting that replacing TV with even 15 minutes of daily outdoor activity and sunlight will help, as will getting enough sleep.

According to Jonny Bowden, CNS, author of The Most Effective Natural Cures on Earth, many foods that are commonly thought to give us energy actually don’t. “Foods that are processed and contain lots of sugar or white flour raise blood sugar temporarily, which feels good, but then set us up for a crash of energy and mood,” he said. “Foods higher in protein (like grass-fed beef, chicken or fish) and higher in healthy fats (like nuts) will raise and sustain energy better.”

But it is, as always, a matter of balance. Daily Health News contributing medical editor Andrew L. Rubman, ND, points out that an extreme low-carb diet can actually kick off fatigue: “Often, if people go overboard on an Atkins-esque high-protein regimen, they end up feeling lethargic, which in turn affects mood.”


Eating whole foods with little or no added sugar, exercising (even a bit) and getting some moderate sun exposure are all highly effective ways to beat the blues and lift the spirits. Some people, however, still feel like there are times when they need a more controllable lift — and for them, Dr. Yarnell says there are natural supplements that really do help. Research supports three, in particular — St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), goldenroot (Rhodiola rosea) and eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus).

St. John’s wort

A meta-analysis published in the British Medical Journal in 1996 reviewed 23 trials on St. John’s wort involving more than 1,700 patients, with researchers reporting it was more effective than a placebo at treating mild to moderately severe cases of depression. “The evidence is very strong that St. John’s wort is an effective natural antidepressant for people whose depression is mild,” said Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the nonprofit American Botanical Council. This distinction is an important one, he notes — you might recall that the reputation of St. John’s wort was sullied by a 2001 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, calling it ineffective. Blumenthal explained that this particular study had examined a group of patients that included those who’d already been unresponsive to treatment with a conventional antidepressant drug, so their depression was quite severe.

The two caveats for people interested in using St. John’s wort to elevate their mood are as follows: Those with severe depression should seek medical advice to ensure proper treatment and monitoring. Also, cautions Blumenthal, “St. John’s wort interacts with a whole suite of conventional pharmaceutical drugs so you must check with your health care provider about any possible interactions before taking it.” Your prescriber will quite likely recommend preparations standardized to contain 0.3% hypericin, a naturally occurring compound in St. John’s wort to which manufacturers standardize their extracts for quality control purposes. And, if you are scheduled to have elective surgery, make sure you discontinue this supplement ahead of time.

Rhodiola rosea/Goldenroot

In Europe, Rhodiola rosea or R. rosea, the best known and most studied of different species of Rhodiola (also called goldenroot), has a long history of being used to treat chronic fatigue, especially in Sweden and Russia. One interesting study tested the effect of 170 mg of R. rosea root extract on 56 physicians who were on stressful night-call duty. R. rosea brought about a statistically significant reduction in general fatigue for the first two weeks — but the positive effect seemed to fade by six weeks, suggesting it might be a good short-term solution that is helpful for acute stressful conditions but not for chronic stress. An experienced naturopath can provide advice on what’s the best dosage in your case.

As for depression, last year a clinical trial found that R. rosea can also work as an antidepressant and mood elevator. In this Swedish study, R. rosea extract was found to not only help reduce symptoms of depression in patients with mild to moderate depression, but also to enhance their cognitive and sexual function, as well as mental and physical performance under stress.


There is some debate about eleuthero, also known as Siberian ginseng (although it is no longer marketed under that name in the US). Blumenthal is not enthusiastic about eleuthero, calling it “not great” for fatigue, but Dr. Yarnell believes it’s effective, doesn’t have significant adverse effects and works “to balance people’s systems.” One clinical study evaluated 96 adults who had complained of fatigue for at least six months. They were given four capsules per day of eleuthero. While some reported their fatigue lessened considerably, the results were not statistically significant… though two sub-groups in the population — those with longstanding fatigue and those with less severe fatigue — experienced some effect from the treatment after two months.


It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Natural supplements aren’t necessarily risk-free and so it is vitally important to seek supervision by a physician experienced in their use, advice that rings as true when we’re talking about moods as with physical ailments. You may find these products can be very beneficial and produce less adverse effects than pharmaceutical products… but use them responsibly.