Depression- Can Nutrition Offer an Alternative to Taking Antidepressants?

Posted by on Apr 10, 2013 in Blog, Uncategorized | 0 comments

Depression is one of the most frequent reasons for a patient to consult their GP and it is estimated that doctors see at least one person with depression every day. Drug therapy is still the main therapeutic tool used by practitioners to alleviate symptoms and is effective to a degree, for a lot of patients. However, some people do not respond significantly – and critically, medicines are not without side effects. Coming off them after a period of time can also be difficult and result in some disturbing withdrawal symptoms.

So what alternative does nutritional therapy offer?

Firstly it is useful to understand that population studies are beginning to link certain dietary patterns with an increase in the incidence of depression. Several studies have been published since the year 2,000 showing that depression is more common when a population is consuming a high fat, refined diet with a low intake of fruit and vegetables. In contrast, a more natural, Mediterranean style diet with lots of fruit, vegetables and fish seems to offer more protection against this condition.

But if someone has depression can nutritional therapy help them?

So far research has concentrated on whether depression can be helped by taking high doses of specific nutrients for example, vitamin B6, niacin, folic acid and magnesium.  Currently, the most studied and promising nutrient for the treatment of depression is a fatty acid found in fish oil.

In 1998 Dr Hibbeln published a challenging article claiming that in countries like Japan where there is a  high consumption of fish there is a low incidence of clinical depression and where there is a low intake of fish, as in the UK, depression is much more common.

As a consequence a number of studies in the last 15 years have been funded to look at whether the symptoms of depression can be improved by taking fish oil supplements. The results have been mixed but a pattern is now emerging.

In 2001, Dr Puri reported that a male patient who had been resistant to treatment and who was severely depressed and suicidal sustained a dramatic improvement in all his symptoms of depression after being treated with a fatty acid, Eicosapentanoic acid (or EPA), found in fish oil.

Similarly, in 2006 Dr Frangou conducted a trial with 75 patients suffering from bipolar disorder. They were either given 1g or 2g of EPA or a placebo. Compared to the placebo, patients who had received the EPA supplements showed significant improvements in their depression and Dr Frangou concluded that EPA was an effective and well tolerated treatment for this condition.

A general analysis of 28 studies using fish oils to treat depression has concluded  that EPA may be the most  important nutrient to treat the condition, and work more efficaciously than another fatty acid found in fish oil called DHA.

How does EPA help depression?

Scientists believe that this fatty acid helps to build neuron connections and receptor sites within the brain. High EPA fish oil supplements are now available in health food stores and the recommended dose to treat depression is 1000mg EPA each day.

What other nutrients can help depression?


Another area of research has focussed on a nutrient called 5 – HTP (5 hydroxytryptophan). This nutrient  is found in an African plant called Griffonia and is converted by the body into serotonin – a neurotransmitter which makes us feel contented and happy. 5HTP can now be purchased as a supplement from health food stores but shouldn’t be taken together with SSRI medication.

Many studies have now been completed to show that it can relieve depression, anxiety and insomnia.


In 2003 Dr Davidson conducted a small, placebo controlled trial with patients suffering with ‘atypical’ depression giving them 600ug of chromium picolinate. Patients taking the chromium showed significant improvements in their depression after eight weeks and the scientists concluded that chromium shows promising antidepressant effects in atypical depression.

Vitamin D

Finally, more research is taking place to determine if there is a link between vitamin D and depression.  Evidence to support this link has already come from two studies. Firstly, a study involving a large group of patients with Fybromyalgia. Here the authors found that those with clinically low vitamin D levels (less than 25nmol/l) had significantly higher rates of depression.

Secondly, a study suggesting vitamin D supplementation may be valuable for those suffering from Seasonal Affected Disorder (SAD). A small study of patients suffering with SAD looked at whether vitamin D supplementation can be as effective a therapy as phototherapy at relieving depression. The results were exciting, showing vitamin D supplementation to be more effective than phototherapy.

In summary, there are a range of over the counter supplements that may help to improve the symptoms of people with depression. It may also help to speak to a nutritional therapist who can assess your individual needs and lifestyle and make a range of recommendations on dietary changes.

For more info or to make an appointment, please contact me at

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