More than just a bout with the blues, depression affects about one in 10 adults, or about 30 million individuals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s been estimated that 20-45% of antidepressant users fail to respond to treatment, and between 5% and 20% of patients (depending on the type of drug) stop using these medications due to severe adverse effects. Doctors and patients are increasingly likely to explore the realm of natural supplements. In the last decade, supplements like St. John’s wort, SAMe, folic acid and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) have all been mentioned and to some degree studied for their effect on depression. Most recently, two supplements—curcumin and omega 3 fatty acids—have emerged with promising results, according to two new studies.
In a study published in the journal Acta Poloniae Pharmaceutica, a highly absorbable form of curcumin (the chief curcuminoid of the Indian spice turmeric) was compared to fluoxetine (Prozac) and imipramine (Tofranil) in an animal scientific model of depression and was found to be as effective at alleviating depression as either prescription drug. Researchers theorized its antidepressant-like activity “could be due to an increase in serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine levels in the brain,” and added, “curcumin can be a useful antidepressant especially in cases which respond to drugs having mixed effects on serotonin and catecholamines levels in the brain.”
The form of curcumin studied, BCM-95 curcumin, has been shown in published human studies to have up to 10 times the absorption of standard curcumin, with no significant adverse safety issues. “It does not matter how much you take—it matters how much you absorb. BCM-95 curcumin is not only significantly better absorbed than standard curcumin; the curcuminoids are absorbed in the ratio in which they occur in nature,” commented Dr. Benny Antony, lead author of the absorption trial. “I personally feel this plays a role in BCM-95’s effectiveness, and I am glad to see more studies illuminating the health benefits of this extraordinary herb.”
Omega 3 for Anxiety
Anxiety is often present in patients suffering with depression. In fact, last year researchers in Canada published their discovery confirming the biological link between stress, anxiety and depression.
Last summer a team of researchers at Ohio State University published a promising placebo-controlled, double-blind study in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity regarding omega 3’s effect on anxiety. Over the course of 12 weeks, researchers gave 68 medical students 2085 mg eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and 348 mg docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) or a placebo to determine if fish oil had the ability to decrease proinflammatory cytokine production and depressive and anxiety symptoms. The supplements the students received were the equivalent of four to five times the amount of fish oil one would get from an average daily serving of salmon.
According to an article published by the University of Ohio, this study (which was supported in part by a grant from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health) hinged on earlier research which suggested that the compounds might play a role in reducing the level of cytokines in the body, compounds that promote inflammation, and perhaps even reduce depression. Psychological stress was repeatedly shown to increase cytokine production, prompting researchers to wonder if increasing omega 3s might mitigate that process, reducing inflammation.
“We hypothesized that giving some students omega 3 supplements would decrease their production of proinflammatory cytokines, compared to other students who only received a placebo,” explained Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychology and psychiatry. “We thought the omega 3 would reduce the stress-induced increase in cytokines that normally arose from nervousness over the tests.”
Due to a change in the medical curriculum, the students didn’t get as stressed as the researchers had anticipated, however, the psychological surveys clearly showed an important change in anxiety among the students: those receiving the omega 3 showed a 20% reduction in anxiety compared to the placebo group. The researchers reported that a blood sample analysis also showed similarly important results.
“We took measurements of the cytokines in the blood serum, as well as measured the productivity of cells that produced two important cytokines, interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFa),” recalled Ron Glaser, PhD, professor of molecular virology, immunology & medical genetics and director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.
“We saw a 14% reduction in the amounts of IL-6 among the students receiving the omega 3,” he continued. Since the cytokines foster inflammation, “anything we can do to reduce cytokines is a big plus in dealing with the overall health of people at risk for many diseases,” he said.
Although the study demonstrated the positive role omega 3 supplements can play in reducing both anxiety and inflammation, the researchers stopped short of recommending them as part of the daily diet. “It may be too early to recommend a broad use of omega 3 supplements throughout the public, especially considering the cost and the limited supplies of fish needed to supply the oil,” said Martha Belury, PhD, RD, professor of human nutrition and co-author of the study. “People should just consider increasing their omega 3 through their diet.”
Some of the researchers, however, acknowledged that they take omega 3 supplements.
The takeaway, according to the researchers, was that if the young study participants could obtain improvements from specific dietary supplements, then the elderly and people at high risk for certain diseases might also benefit even more.