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Can Supplements Make Antidepressants More Effective?

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For years, researchers have been struggling to find the best treatment for the 15 million Americans struggling with depression. Therapy? Medication? Therapy and medication? Roughly 12 percent of American women take antidepressants, and the majority of them haven't even been clinically diagnosed with depression. With antidepressant use skyrocketing by 400 percent since the 1990s, researchers are becoming more concerned about the proper use of the drugs, as well as how those drugs may interact with other prescriptions, food, and supplements. (Do you need a fiber supplement? Here's the answer.)

Arguably the most commonly used category of antidepressants is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. These meds are usually the first level of defense against mental health issues like depression and anxiety. They may also be prescribed for issues like insomnia and PMS. SSRIs operate much like the name implies: They prevent your body from reabsorbing serotonin, the body's natural mood elevator, once it's been released. This leads to increased levels of serotonin in the body. More serotonin = better mood.

Doctors ask people taking SSRIs to be cautious about mixing these meds with alcohol and herbal supplements such as St. John's wort, as the combo could have some negative side effects. But, conversely, other research suggests that some over-the-counter supplements might enhance the role of SSRIs. One study from the University of Melbourne reported that folic acid, omega-3, vitamin D, and S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe) supplements actually supercharge the effectiveness of antidepressants. They also noted the same potential effects from creatine, zinc, vitamin C, and tryptophan, but added that more research is needed to confirm a connection.

So why are certain supplement-med combinations so effective, while others can actually be dangerous? One theory is all about how the supplements interact with serotonin levels. For example, SAMe, a synthetic form of a naturally occurring compound in the body, appears to increase serotonin turnover, causing more to be released. And much like SSRIs, omega-3s appear to control serotonin absorption, meaning they help you maintain higher levels of serotonin in the body. A second idea suggests that people who suffer from depression have increased inflammation in their bodies, and because SAMe and omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties, they could help alleviate symptoms of depression by reducing this inflammation. (Your fluctuating mood has a lot more to do with what you eat than you might think. Is Your Diet Making You Mad?)

Additionally, supplementing with amino acids like creatine and tryptophan may help your body produce more serotonin because amino acids are precursors of all the proteins that create neurochemicals, including serotonin. Similar reasoning argues that vitamins B, C, and D may also benefit those who suffer from depression, as vitamins are important in helping your body produce serotonin.

While it's a bit premature to run out to buy a bottle of folic acid, omega-3s, vitamin D, or SAMe supplements in the hope that they alone will perk up your mood, the emerging research surrounding these supplements combined with SSRIs is encouraging. Before starting any supplement regimen, consult your doctor, as drug interactions, efficacy, and dosage should be considered.