Using Nutritional Supplements to Treat Bipolar Disorder and Depression

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In the past two decades, researchers from all corners of the globe have come up with amazing medications to help relieve the symptoms of depression and bipolar disorder.

Healthcare professionals stay current on the research and prescribe those medications that have the best results. Often, however, they bypass nutritional supplements and herbal remedies. And who could blame them?

As yet, the efficacy and safety of nutritional supplements has not been proven by thorough studies and adequate clinical trials. Anecdotal evidence and limited studies don’t cut it when it comes to convincing doctors charged with ensuring their patients health and saftety.

But doctors are not the only ones who get to decide on what you’ll put in your body. Your value system and diet may lead you toward the use of supplements rather than or in addition to an FDA approved medication. If you choose this path, school yourself on the most important aspects of nutritional supplements.

“Drugs” v. “Nutritional Supplements”: Are Nutritional Supplements Actually Natural?

Nutritional supplements have benefitted from a rumor that isn’t quite true. While supplements can be less potent than FDA-approved drugs, they can still pose risks. First, both supplements and Merck-engineered, FDA-approved drugs are often derived from plants. Both substances are generally put through chemical processes that change their structures. If nutritional supplements are “natural,” technically we can say the same for many “drugs”, too. If drugs are “man-made,” so too are nutritional supplements.

Potential Risks

Supplements can and do interact with prescription medication and create serious problems. It’s important to research what medications your supplement of choice may either render ineffective or make toxic.

But even when used all on their own, supplements can and do have their very own side effects. For instance, St. John’s Wort has been known to cause high blood pressure, headaches, stiff neck, nausea, and vomiting. For fair-skinned people, it can aggravate sunburn and cause blistering after sun exposure.

Simply going to will show you just how many side effects there are for each herbal remedy. Many of these side effects sound just like those one experiences when taking prescription medications. They include: dizziness, nausea, headaches, dry mouth and many, many more.

Is There Anything Else I Should Know About Supplements?

Less Rigorous Standards for Nutritional Supplements

Because the Food and Drug Administration evaluates nutritional supplements as a food rather than a drug, these supplements do not have to meet the rigorous standards prescription medications do. Through repeated clinical trials, medications must prove their efficacy and safety. They also have to go through strict tests to determine proper dosage. Doctors then keep to the dosage guidelines or risk having their licenses revoked. While dosage may be recommended on the supplement packaging, people seem to be less cautious about adding another pill or two of Echinacea or Colt’s Foot; they’re natural after all. This over-dosing can become a dangerous practice.

Active Ingredients Not Always Listed Accurately

Studies have shown that some supplements contain more active ingredients that stated on their labels. Further, some supplements have been found to contain harmful additives and even contaminants. In a few cases, unethical manufacturers have replaced what should be an herb or acid with a completely different—either impotent or dangerous—substance that costs less. The practice creates big profits for the manufacturer and a placebo effect at best for the patient.

Beware the terms: “standardized,” “certified” or “verified.”

These terms imply that some oversight committee measures quality and content. Too often, those applying the standards are simply the company producing the product rather than an objective third party. Consider these words bogus until the company can prove otherwise.

What Medical Conditions or Circumstances Preclude the Use of Supplements?

Take the above precautions seriously. Doctors and medical organizations are very concerned about many nutritional supplements, and not just because they’re short sited or greedy. Currently, doctors warn the following populations against taking supplements:

  • pregnant or nursing women

  • women currently taking birth control pills

  • people with HIV infection

  • those taking prescription or over-the-counter medication

  • children

  • those who’ve had organ transplants

Tools for Exploring the Safety and Efficacy of Nutritional Supplements.

If you feel convinced a supplement could help your case, look online for reputable services that, for a fee, provide reports on the efficacy and safety of thousands of supplements and herbal remedies.

One with their priorities in the right place is, a privately owned testing company. Consumer Lab has found that, on average, about 25 percent of the nutritional supplements fail to meet their own claims of safety and ingredient integrity. Some don’t meet labeling requirements, some don’t contain what they claim to, some products are contaminated, while still others don’t dissolve properly. Consumer Lab also provides “one of the best science-based encyclopedias” of vitamins, minerals, supplements and herbs accompanied by drug interaction and side effect precautions. You can research Consumer Lab reports and the encyclopedia for the reasonable fee of $30 per year.

Nutritional Supplements are worth a look. If you find yourself intrigued by one, research the facts put out there by several sources. Do not depend on manufacturer’s explanations and studies. Go to the reliable websites like, and others before you shell out the big bucks for something the FDA has only evaluated as a food.

The Supplements Getting All the Attention Today

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

This “fatty acid”, actually an oil, occurs throughout the body. Due to some promising research, Omega-3s are being studied across the world today. Research subjects battling depression improved when their intake of Omega-3 fatty acid increased in some studies. In other studies, no improvement was made.

You may have heard of “docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), more prevalent in shelfish, sardines, tuna, salmon, canola oil, soy, flax, walnuts and wheat germ. Studies have concluded that ingestion of these foods in significant quantities improves heart health, immune function and other physical conditions. They can, however, cause mild nausea and indigestion.

St. John’s Wort

With such an awful name, it can be a surprise to find this herbal remedy is actually a flower (hypericum perforatum) filled with, some say, mood altering chemicals. Like studies on Omega-3s, the results are varied. Some studies have shown it to be effective in relieving mild to moderate depression. Others have shown no difference between St. John’s Wort and placebo. Where St. John’s Wort has been used on patients with severe depression, researchers find no improvement in symptoms.

Despite these disappointing findings, doctors in some European countries still prescribe St. John’s Wort for depression. For those studies which report positive results, researchers theorize that St. John’s wort may block nerve cells in the brain from reabsorbing the neurotransmitter serotonin, making it more available. Serotonin and other neurotransmitters affect and regulate mood.

With the jury out, go to the National Institute of Mental Health’s most recent analysis of St. John’s Wort so that you can decide for yourself. Visit:


Like Omega-3 fatty acids, SAM-e (sort for S-Adenosyl-L-Methionine) occurs naturally in the body, appearing most abundantly in the liver and brain. Like St. John’s Wort, SAM-e impacts mood-regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. European doctors prescribe it for arthritis as well as depression.

Of the three supplements, SAM-e had returned the most encouraging results. Several studies concluded that SAM-e more effectively relieves symptoms of depression than placebo (impotent sugar pill). More impressive, however, severely depressed patients who took SAM-e in addition to their prescribed antidepressants had positive results. Half showed some improvement and the other half went into remission, showing no depression symptoms while taking the supplement and the medication together.

Side effects to look out for include nausea and constipation. These can lessen as the body adjusts to the supplement.

The Bottom Line on Supplements and Mood Disorder

Studies conflict, answers escape us and the jury is out when it comes to the great finds on nutritional supplements and mood disorders. The most important thing to remember is to talk to you doctor about studies you have read or supplements you’re considering using or adding to your treatment regimen. Your doctor should have the most up-to-date information on clinical studies and findings. Your doctor will also warn you about side- effects and potential interactions a supplement causes.

Like prescription medications, nutritional supplements can work wonders for one person and not even phase another. Our bodies are chemical storehouses, each one individual with differing levels of hormones, oils, proteins, acids and more! Taking one medication could do the trick for you. Taking two medications and one supplement may be just the cocktail your body needs to function optimally. With nutritional supplements—as with the right medication, the right therapist, and the right support group—success comes after persistent effort, trial and error.

That effort is the lot of the individual with the mood disorder, but if you consider Robin Nixon’s article “Why We Are All Insane,” you can recast it another way. In (, Nixon explores ideas that “natural selection wants us to be crazy—at least a little bit” because with our increasing skills with tools, we achieved “a diversity of mental abilities, and disabilities.” She goes on explain the evolutionary genius in creating those with depression, ADD or bipolar disorder. If we are all a little crazy, those of us who treat it stand to gain the most.

For More Information:

National Institutes of Health, Offices of Dietary Supplements

(301) 435-2920
National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine

National Institute of Mental Health

National Library of Medicine

Alternative Medicine Foundation

HerbMed Database 

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