Supplements Make Big Claims About Mental Health, but Diet Much More Effective
by TIM CRAIG
The U.S. market for dietary supplements was $50 billion in 2020, and according to a report by Grand View Research, Inc., it is expected to bloom to $71.3 billion by 2028. Part of this increase may be attributed to a post-pandemic focus on personal and mental wellbeing.
Increasingly, people seem to be turning to dietary supplements to care for their mental as well as their physical wellbeing, but, according to a registered dietician in Lakeland, there is little scientific evidence to say that the benefits outweigh the possible dangers.
“There is a lot of evidence that dietary supplements help in nutrient deficiency,” says Watson Clinic’s Nancy Ulm, RD, CDE. “There is less evidence about their usefulness in preventing or treating other diseases or the benefits of supplements in mental health.”
Part of the lack of evidence about dietary supplements as related to mental health is related to oversight — the Food and Drug Administration FDA does not approve dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed, which means there may not be any evidence of the supplements’ usefulness in doing what it says it does.
“There is no regulatory agency that makes sure that labels match what’s in the bottle,” says Ulm. “There is a risk of getting less, or more, or even ingredients that are not listed on the label, and this can be unsafe.”
Getting too much of certain vitamins and minerals can have unforeseen consequences. In addition, some supplements may interact with medications or pose risks for people with certain medical conditions, she says.
Ulm notes that the National Institutes of Health has fact sheets and an online dietary supplement label database that allows people to look up ingredients and information on dosage, health claims, and cautions. You can view the database at ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/list-all/
Dietary interventions — not supplements — are the best, scientifically-researched way to support your mental health, according to Ulm.
“The studies show that diets that include a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, and fish can improve mood and reduce depression and anxiety,” she says. “Avoiding processed foods, high-fat foods, and refined foods is also associated with a reduced risk of depression. Physical activity has also been shown to improve mood, quality of life, and reduce anxiety and depression.”
There has been an association of depression with decreased consumption of foods with Omega-3 Fatty Acids (tuna, salmon, sardines, anchovies, ground flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, and canola oil). Likewise, eating a diet of foods rich in vitamin B has been shown to improve mental health. These foods include fish, lean pork or beef, poultry, eggs, whole grains, and nuts.
According to Ulm, research has shown that insufficient intake of vitamin B-12 may be linked to depression. “B12 levels can be tested to see if you have a deficiency. B-12 supplements can interact with certain medications, however.”
There is little to no evidence that popular “mood booster” supplements like St. John’s Wort, N-acetylcysteine, and melatonin, are effective. In fact, they can be counterproductive.
“St. John’s Wort has not been shown to be consistently effective for depression and can decrease the effectiveness of many prescription medications; likewise, when mixed with certain antidepressants, it can have dangerous and life-threatening consequences,” says Ulm. “There is little evidence for N-acetylcysteine and not enough research on the effects of melatonin to recommend their use as a mental health supplement.”
For people interested in possibly taking supplements, Ulm has two pieces of advice: First, become an informed consumer and learn about the potential benefits and risks supplements may post. Second, speak to your healthcare provider about the products of interest and decide together what might be best.
“Remember, it is possible to get all the nutrients you need by eating a variety of healthy foods,” she says. “Consume a healthy diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, and fish. Avoid processed foods, high-fat foods, and refined foods, and include regular physical activity as part of your lifestyle.”