May 2024

Supplements for Mental Health

May is Mental Health Awareness month. Many natural medicines have been studied for mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and stress. Here’s a quick review of several therapies with the best evidence of benefit, and safety concerns to keep an eye on.

Kava is an increasingly popular ingredient for anxiety, and there’s some good evidence showing that it helps. Most clinical research shows that taking kava extract 150-400 mg, standardized to 70% kavalactones, by mouth daily relieves symptoms of anxiety and might be as effective as buspirone 10 mg or low-dose benzodiazepines. Additionally, clinical practice guidelines from a joint taskforce support the use of kava for short-term anxiety symptoms. As for safety, patients taking hepatotoxic drugs, including alcohol, and those with a history of liver disease, shouldn’t use kava. If other patients would like to try it, recommend products standardized to 70% kavalactones – most studies have used a specific standardized extract (WS 1490, Dr. Willmar Schwabe Pharmaceuticals) 150-300 mg daily. And recommend liver function tests for routine users.

You might also hear about using saffron for depression – meta-analyses and clinical trials in adults with major depressive disorder show that taking saffron extract 30 mg daily for 6-12 weeks improves symptoms. It seems to be comparable to several medications, including imipramine 100 mg daily or sertraline 100 mg daily. If patients want to give it a try, it’s usually well-tolerated when taken in doses up to 100 mg daily for up to 26 weeks. But don’t recommend taking it in higher doses or longer term.

As for stress, some of the best evidence is for ashwagandha. It’s been one of the top-selling natural medicines for a while now. Clinical research shows that taking ashwagandha 240-1000 mg by mouth daily for 8-12 weeks improves stress in people with chronic stress. There’s also evidence that it might improve stress management in college students, as well as stress-related weight gain. It’s generally well-tolerated, but explain that the high demand for ashwagandha products may incentivize manufacturers to cut corners on product quality. Refer to our Quality Certifications resource for guidance on evaluating product quality.

Check out our Comparative Effectiveness charts for details on other therapies studied for mental health.

The information in this brief report is intended for informational purposes only, and is meant to help users better understand health concerns. This information should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. Users should consult with a qualified healthcare provider for specific questions regarding therapies, diagnosis and/or health conditions, prior to making therapeutic decisions. Copyright © 2024 NatMed. Commercial distribution or reproduction prohibited. NatMed is the leading provider of high-quality, evidence-based, clinically-relevant information on natural medicine, dietary supplements, herbs, vitamins, minerals, functional foods, diets, complementary practices, CAM modalities, exercises and medical conditions. Monograph sections include interactions with herbs, drugs, foods and labs, contraindications, depletions, dosing, toxicology, adverse effects, pregnancy and lactation data, synonyms, safety and effectiveness.