How Supplements Affect Mental Health

Noted naturopathic expert, Dr. Andrew Brandeis looks at the growing body of science-backed evidence for the effective use of nutritional supplements in the management and potential treatment of some mental health disorders.

In September 2019 the largest review of the best available evidence on the effects of nutrient supplements on mental health was published by World Psychiatry, a peer reviewed journal and the official publication of the World Psychiatric Association. The paper, which was authored by researchers at the University of Manchester and NICM Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University, looked at the results of 33 randomized control trials (RCTs) and data from 10,000+ individuals with mental health disorders including schizophrenia, depression, stress and anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While, the authors noted that for the majority of supplements evaluated they found little direct effect on mental health, they did find strong correlations between certain supplements and specific mental health disorders. These correlations indicate that some supplements (when properly used, i.e., taken in recommend dosages and following prescriptive instructions) can be an effective, supportive treatment for certain mental disorders. One of the papers lead authors, Professor Jerome Sarris noted,

“Future research should aim to determine which individuals might benefit most from evidence-based supplements and to better understand the underlying mechanisms so we can adopt a targeted approach to supplement use in mental health treatment.”

These findings came as no surprise to me. As a Naturopathic Doctor, with over a decade’s worth of experience in the effective use of nutraceuticals, I saw, firsthand, the effects a properly managed, personalized supplement program had on my patient’s mental health. But rather than focusing on my anecdotal, albeit convincing, experiences, I’d like to spotlight a few supplements that have a robust and growing evidence-based literature behind them:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids: The above cited paper found the strongest evidence for these essential (meaning they can only be obtained through diet or supplementation) polyunsaturated fats as an effective, supplemental treatment for depression. Additionally, there are a growing number of studies indicating people who include omega-3 in their supplement programs are less likely to suffer depression. (1,2,3). Of the three types of omega-3s, ALA, EPA and DHA, EPA appears to be most effective in combating symptoms associated with depression.
  • NAC (N-acetyl cysteine): Along with its key role in the production of the “Mater” antioxidant, glutathione, which works to neutralize free radicals that can damage cells and tissues, there is growing evidence that this amino can be an effective adjunctive in the treatment of some psychiatric disorders as well as schizophrenia.
  • Folate: Certain types of this essential B-Vitamin (B9) have been shown to be effective add-on treatment for depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's disease (Though more study is, of course, needed, the current evidence for Alzheimer's is persuasive).
  • Probiotics: According to Professor Jerome Sarris, “The role of the gut microbiome in mental health is a rapidly emerging field of research...”. Probiotics, are considered “friendly” live bacteria that can colonize the gut and provide it with additional, beneficial microorganisms. There is a growing field of research looking at what has been called, “The gut-brain axis,” the connections and correlations between the brain and the gut. Because our gut produces many of same neurotransmitters as the brain does, such as serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric, researchers sometimes to refer to it as a “second brain”. Probiotics used to support mental health are termed psychobiotics and there is a growing amount of evidence showing direct linkage between gut health, the gut microbiome, and mental health symptoms.

As research continues, and science develops a deeper understanding of interactions and effects nutraceuticals can have on our mental health, I’m confident this list will grow. I’m convinced adopting a properly managed, high-quality supplement program not only has a positive affect on your mental wellbeing but is foundational to achieving your optimal health.