We’ve all been told by some well-meaning person about an amazing new supplement/drink/product that will change your life and help with your mental health. Or if you have a particular mental illness, you really should avoid a particular thing according to this new research or one-off article that’s been posted around on Facebook. But what truth is there behind the supplements and things you should avoid?
Over the next few weeks, I will be looking into 3 particular areas: supplements, products, and food and drink and seeing if there’s any truth to these claims.
First up in the series is supplements, we’ve all heard of an amazing new herbal supplement on the market that will change your life. But what scientific backing is there, and do they work?
I tried fish oil for a year for my anxiety (I took 4 double strength tablets a day) and didn't notice a huge difference in my overall mental health. Then over the past 9 months I have been trying different ways to help me sleep better including Melatonin. This does help when I am struggling to fall asleep and helps me stay asleep compared to waking up multiple times a night but I don't notice a huge difference in my mental health when I take it.
A quick Google search for supplements specifically for stress/anxiety showed a variety of supplements you can buy from supermarkets and pharmacies. I looked at three easy to find supplements and looking at the active ingredients to how similar they were. The main active ingredient in all three was Ashwagandha and in two of them they contained passionflower as an active ingredient.
Ashwagandha – this is an herb that has been used for over 3000 years to relive stress, increase energy levels and improve concentration. Studies show that it may decrease cortisol levels in chronically stressed individuals. In a 60 day study of 64 people with chronic stress 69% reported a reduction in anxiety and insomnia compared to 11% in the placebo group. However, none of these people had a clinically diagnosed mental illness, which is something to consider. There’s also not a huge amount of research into the long-term impacts taking Ashwagandha can have on people.
Passionflower – this is a flower that is used mainly as a sleep aid and has calming properties. Not enough studies have been done to show how well it works, though in initial studies it has helped people fall asleep and people with anxiety before surgery.
If you’re experiencing mild anxiety, supplements labelled stress decreasing or calming may help you. But be sure to check the active ingredients and make sure they don’t interact with any medications you may be taking.
Moving on to general supplements that while aren’t specifically marketed towards mental health, can be used to treat mental health and whether there is any evidence to support taking them regularly.
Fish Oil – this can help with memory and mental health due to the Omega 3s specifically docosahexanoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) which are essential fatty acids (which means our bodies can’t produce them and we need to include them in our diets). The richest source of these acids is seafood, however we don’t all eat enough seafood. Research suggests that Omega 3s are an important part of helping the brain function including helping with memory and depression. DHA is especially important for brain performance, battling neurological disorders and building long term neuronal resilience. The thing is that there is no recommendation on how much fish oil you should be taking in order to get these benefits, as the amounts of fish oil taken varied from study to study and some studies just focused on eating fish and not taking a supplement. Studies are also looking at which is more important DHA or EPA and what role they each play. There’s no real harm in taking fish oil for your mental health just know that there’s still a lot of unknowns surrounding it especially as we don’t know what levels are most helpful.
Melatonin Supplements – Melatonin is the hormone your body makes that tells you when to fall asleep and when to wake up, levels begin to rise once the sun sets and drop in the morning as the sun rises. If you’re having trouble falling asleep you can take melatonin supplements to help trick your body into falling asleep and sleeping better. When your mental health is bad you often don’t sleep which in turn impacts your mental health which means you can’t cope, so you can’t sleep, and the cycle continues. So, it makes sense to take a melatonin supplement to help you sleep, but can it also help you with your mental health? It has been shown to improve symptoms of anxiety as it can improve sleep quality, regulate circadian rhythm, and ease negative feelings associated with anxiousness. On the other hand, studies have shown that those with depression can at times produce more melatonin than necessary so taking a supplement won’t help and could potentially make it worse.
Melatonin can help but only in particular circumstances and it’s worth talking to your GP about it before you decide to take it.
St Johns Wart supplement – this is an herb with a yellow flower that has been used to treat nervous conditions since ancient Greek times, you are able to buy it over the counter at pharmacies. It can have a similar effect to antidepressants on people who have mild to moderate non melancholic depression (depression that isn’t biological but environmental). While it can help some people with anxiety it can have an opposite affect on others and even trigger panic attacks in certain people. You need at least 900mg for it to make an impact and like with antidepressants it can take up to four weeks to work. Studies of St Johns Wart are constantly under review due it being a controversial treatment for depression and no one knowing how well it works long term. St Johns Wart can also interact with many medications (including antidepressants) so it’s worth talking to a pharmacist or GP before you start taking it. If your depression is mild, it might be worth trying but know that it may not 100% effective.
Something that has popped up recently are pill subscription services many including the supplements mentioned above. With these you are paying for convenience over quality and quantity, they also don't take into account your full medical history. That isn't to say you should avoid using a vitamin subscription service, but just be aware of what you're taking and if there's a chance that anything could interact with your current medications.
As with all these supplements there’s new studies being consistently done on them, and they seem to work best on people who are experiencing mild mental health symptoms more on the environmental side of things. For example, you’re in a high stress job or a friend or family member died and that’s causing you to feel down. There’s no harm in trying them but if they’re not making a difference or you’re finding your mental health is getting worse it’s probably best to talk to your GP. As always if you have any concerns, it’s best to talk to your GP or a health provider before you start taking any supplements.
Feel free to drop by, just say, ‘Hey Erin’ in strict confidence and you can be anonymous if you wish. Or, do not hesitate to leave a question in the comments below any time.