Depression can seem like a dark cloud that never seems to lift. Lack of physical energy, self-destructive thoughts, and feelings of hopelessness are just a few of the symptoms of this debilitating condition, which affects an estimated 300 million people worldwide according to the World Health Organization.
By the way, in the United States alone, nearly 17 million people struggle with clinical depression. And officials at the CDC say that 1 person in 6 will be diagnosed with the condition at some point in their life.
When you are in the grip of depression, everything in life can seem bleak and pointless. Today, conventional mental health professionals seek to treat depression through counseling, talk therapy, cognitive-behavioral training, pharmaceutical medication, or some combination of all these methods.
Many people also choose alternative therapies to deal with depression. For example, holistic practitioners frequently recommend lifestyle changes (diet, nutritional supplements, and exercise), mindful techniques (meditation, yoga, or Tai Chi), and/or non-Western medicine (acupuncture, guided imagery, and massage therapy) to improve mood.
Unfortunately, depression has proven especially resistant to treatment and the success rate of psychotropic drugs (antidepressants) has been especially disappointing.
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St. John’s Wort
Depression is a Multi-Headed Hydra
But each person with depression is unique, which may help explain why there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment that will work for everyone. Compounding things, depression may involve multiple causes that include psychological trauma, neurochemical imbalances, and other biologically-based deficits.
What precipitates depression? And more importantly, how can it be overcome? Simple answers may be elusive. But it’s increasingly clear that depression has a huge biological basis and that recognizing and addressing the physiological factors that underlie it can help you overcome it.
In the past, depression was often explained in terms of a moral failure, unconscious repression, and childhood psychodynamics. Cognitive theories of depression (such as Martin Seligman's theory of learned helplessness) can often offer insight into some forms of the condition.
However, it’s become increasingly clear that most psychoanalytic explanations of depression seem divorced from mainstream science and what we now know about the biochemistry of the condition.
Depression Involves Brain Abnormalities
Here are some of the evidence-based things that we are learning about depression:
- People with severe depression often have structural abnormalities in their brains, which can be seen in MRI scans.
- Consumption of brain-friendly supplements and neuroprotective nutrients (like omega-3 fatty acids) often boosts mood in patients with depression.
- A study published in the journal Nature Microbiology found a strong link between the health of the microbiome (the intestinal flora living in your gut) and depression. To put it simply, an imbalance of “bad bacteria” in your gut relative to “good bacteria” can predispose you to depression.
- According to a study published in Clinical Practice, leaky gut syndrome, a condition characterized by chronic inflammation in the intestines) has been identified as a risk factor for depression.
Does depression lead to brain abnormalities? Or is the condition the result of these neuronal deficits? This is the classic “chicken and egg” question, which may be unanswerable.
A Gut Feeling About Depression
However, it’s becoming clear that many people with depression can benefit from certain activities, foods, and nutritional supplements (nootropics), which support better cognitive and gastrointestinal health. For example, consider a few of the following studies:
- According to Dr. Michael Craig Miller, a psychiatrist at Harvard, exercise stimulates nerve growth factors in a brain region called the hippocampus, a part of the brain that helps regulate mood and relieve depression.
- Researchers have found unequivocal evidence that consuming omega-3 supplements reduces depressive symptoms. Scientists believe it does so by offering neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory effects.
- According to a meta-study published in the Annals of General Psychiatry, the evidence that probiotics can help alleviate depressive symptoms is “compelling.”
Why The Gut-Brain Axis Matters to Your Mood
The so-called “gut-brain axis” is emerging as a major focal point when it comes to “understanding and treating neuropsychiatric disorders, especially depression.” That’s the conclusion of a team of scientists writing in the journal Clinical Psychopharmacology and Neuroscience.
Findings like these promise to transform the mental health field. But in some respects, these results are not a surprise. For example, Hippocrates, the founder of Western medicine, is famous for stating that “all disease begins in the gut,” and today’s scientists and medical practitioners are discovering there’s a great deal of validity to his view.
In fact, science has discovered that the key neurotransmitters that impact mood (especially serotonin) are manufactured in the intestines. As a result, conditions like leaky gut syndrome, microbiome imbalances, and poor nutrition all appear to be positively correlated with depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.
We are learning that depression is far more than just a mental disorder or a brain disease. In fact, it is something of a multi-headed hydra that has many causal influences--genetics, brain chemistry, chronic inflammation, microbial imbalance, and the health of the gastrointestinal system are just a few of the factors that can contribute to the condition.
Conventional medicine and psychiatry have attempted to treat depression using antidepressants, electroconvulsive therapy, and transcranial magnetic stimulation. But while these approaches can help some people (particularly over the short term), depression is a condition with a very high relapse rate.
Results from the field of Nutritional Psychiatry, appear to be more promising. In fact, observational studies have found a clear link between the quality of a person’s diet and mood. Here are findings you should be aware of:
- Nutrients from foods and supplements nourish the brain by counteracting oxidative stress and inflammation.
- Studies show that taking probiotic supplements reduces self-reported depression.
- People in cultures that eat nutritious foods--like the Mediterranean diet--have a substantially reduced risk for being depressed.
- Dozens of studies show that exercise prevents and alleviates depression. Scientists believe that aerobic activity boosts feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin while stimulating processes that lead to nerve cell regeneration.
Taken together, these results indicate that a better diet, exercise, and nutritional supplements (including nootropics) can counteract many of the root causes behind depression.
Ten Nootropics That Can Powerfully Boost Your Mood
Which are the best foods, nutritional supplements, and nootropics for boosting your mood and how do they work? Here’s a look at ten you should be aware of:
1. N-Acetylcysteine (NAC)
N-Acetylcysteine (NAC) is a naturally occurring amino acid. This compound is stocked in emergency rooms across the country as a life-saving treatment for overdoses. The nutrient is also frequently prescribed to break up mucus in people with chronic lung conditions.
But studies have also found that NAC is an important building block when it comes to brain health. In addition to improving the function of feel-good neurotransmitters like glutamate and dopamine function, NAC also has powerful antioxidant and neuroprotective properties that support brain health generally.
In fact, scientists now recognize that NAC plays an important role in maintaining homeostasis (a fancy word for balance) at the cellular level. No wonder, the psychiatric community is investigating NAC’s potential as a mood stabilizer.
2. St. John’s Wort
St. John’s Wort is a medicinal plant that has been used as a folkloric remedy since antiquity to treat depression. Now scientists think they know why. Studies show that compounds in the plant (especially hypericin) help the brain produce mood-boosting neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline. In fact, studies indicate that St. John’s Wort is at least as effective as traditional antidepressants, but without any of the negative side-effects.
Omega-3 fatty acids are amino acids that play a critical role in brain function. Not only is your brain made out of omega-3s, but it also needs this compound to manufacture feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin.
Now, there’s overwhelming evidence that high-quality omega-3 supplements (made from fish oil) can improve brain health and alleviate symptoms of depression.
4. Gingko Biloba
Gingko Biloba is an herb that’s been used for centuries to improve cognition, boost memory, and enhance concentration. The plant contains terpene lactones, a mood-stabilizing compound that naturally increases cerebral blood flow.
The gingko herb has long been one of the most popular herbs on the market and its role in protecting and enhancing memory and cognition generally is well-established. However, to date, studies have not found evidence that gingko has a major impact on depression itself.
Nevertheless, research has found that the herb can help curb chronic anxiety that invariably accompanies depression.
5. Lion’s Mane Mushroom
Lion’s mane mushroom is an edible and widely consumed fungus. Hericium Erinaceus, the botanical name of this mushroom, is loaded with compounds that can stimulate the production of nerve growth factors.
According to a study published in Biomedical Research, lion’s mane mushroom was effective in reducing symptoms of both anxiety and depression.
6. Co-enzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
Co-enzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is an antioxidant nutrient that occurs naturally in the body. However, as we age, levels of this enzyme will inevitably decline.
CoQ10 works by improving cellular respiration, electron transport, and other metabolic functions within your body’s cells. As a result, the enzyme improves neuronal function and energy levels throughout your body.
A number of studies have found that CoQ10 counteracts depression, including a 2016 study published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, which found that the enzyme is effective in treating bipolar disorder.
Aniracetam is a synthetic compound that produces effects similar to those found in naturally occurring stimulants like caffeine. According to one clinical study, aniracetam works by decreasing the rate at which neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine are degraded and recycled.
Additional research suggests that aniracetam may hold promise to treat ADHD, anxiety, and cognitive impairment. However, this nootropic supplement has yet to be approved by the FDA and to date, most studies supporting its efficacy have involved lab animals.
Users report that aniracetam enhances mental function, improves recall, boosts alertness, and increases motivation and creativity. But adverse side effects have been reported, too, including insomnia, diarrhea, and mild nausea.
With that in mind, experts recommend discussing nootropic supplements with your physician and educating yourself on how to use them safely.
L-Theanine is a compound that occurs naturally in tea, some plants, and fungi. Folk remedies containing the amino acid have been used for thousands of years to treat a variety of ailments, including mood disorders.
L-Theanine works by boosting feel-good neurotransmitters (particularly serotonin and dopamine) while helping to regulate stress hormones like cortisol. Studies have found that L-theanine is safe and provides many beneficial effects for patients with depressive symptoms.
Oxiracetam is a popular nootropic supplement that is known for brain-boosting and mood-elevating effects. It is considered a mild stimulant, but unlike caffeine, it does not appear to produce the jitters.
Oxiracetam works by improving vascular flow in the brain and boosting levels of acetylcholine, which enhances both alertness and energy levels. In addition to boosting levels of the feel-good neurotransmitters, oxiracetam appears to have neuroprotective properties and researchers are interested in the possibility that the compound may be useful in treating cognitive deficits.
More studies are urgently needed, however, to confirm anecdotal reports that oxiracetam can help clear up “brain fog” associated with depression.
Uridine is a naturally occurring component in your RNA, which is the nucleic acid that is central to all living cells.
Uridine plays a central role in regulating the growth of your neuronal synapses, which are the connections between your nerve cells. Without adequate levels of uridine, your brain cannot make the connections it needs to support concentration, memory formation, and other cognitive processes.
Dopamine (the “motivational molecule”) is another place where uridine comes in. Indeed, a study sponsored by the National Institutes for Health found that uridine supplementation helped reduce depressive symptoms in adolescents with bipolar disorder.
Depression is an agonizing condition that has long been misunderstood. In the past, mental health experts conceptualized the disorder in terms of psychological repression, faulty-thinking, and unresolved mental conflicts.
Psychoanalytic and cognitive theories can still play a role in explaining some cases of depression. But there’s a growing awareness that biological factors--brain chemistry, intestinal health, and stress management--play a critical role in triggering depressive symptoms.
Nutritional interventions, nootropics, and other brain hacks (like exercise) can play a decisive role in counteracting the biologically-based impairments that underlie depressive symptoms.
These abnormalities typically include chronic inflammation in the gut (where neurotransmitters like serotonin are made), diminished vascular flow in the cortex, and decreased metabolic function on the cellular level generally.
Exercise, better nutrition, and nootropics can target existing deficiencies and imbalances more effectively than conventional antidepressants because they typically do a better job of addressing the root causes of depression.
For example, probiotics promote the health of the digestive system (where serotonin is manufactured), whereas tricyclic antidepressants merely try to extend the action of serotonin. In other words, nootropics address the root causes of psychological distress, while antidepressants merely mask the symptoms.
To watch a highly informative video, which explains why depression is a lot more than a neurochemical imbalance, and how nootropics can help alleviate depressive symptoms, please click here.
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Scott O’Reilly is a freelance writer with degrees in psychology and philosophy. He frequently covers plant-based medicine, nutrition, and other wellness topics for a variety of sites.