Today we’re going to compare the effectiveness of 10 popular supplements that are often used for mood support: Fish oil, zinc, kava, lavender, saffron, gingko biloba, panax ginseng, theanine, lemon balm and inositol.
The basic gisty was to aggregate all the available well conducted studies on each supplement (via the excellent Examine Supplement Reference), and rate each one according to their impact (ie, “How much will these manic depressive thoughts go away if I take this?”) and their validity (ie, “How sure can I be these results will apply to me when I take them to make my manic depressive thoughts go away? What if it’s just placebo?”).
The results are encapsulated in the graph below.
Here’s the 22 word express guide on how to read this:
- The farther to the right something is, the better.
- The higher up you are, the better.
- The bigger the bubble, the better.
Everything you need to know from this article is built into the graph. You can scroll over each of the bubbles for more info.
So if you really want, you can just stop here.
You know me, once I start writing about these things it’s hard for me to stop until the word count hits 4,000. So you might just want to save yourself the time.
So don’t say I didn’t warn you!
However, there IS a lot of context to be added by taking a closer look at what’s underneath the data.
For example, consider these questions:
How did the dose used compare to what you could realistically take? (At times it’s not even close).
Were there particular forms of the compound used? They’re not all absorbed the same way. Some are worthless, and as we’ll see, some lesser forms can even counteract the good forms, making them less than worthless.
Were the effective studies disproportionately carried out with a specific brand?
Did most of the positive results only work on people with severe conditions? This might not make the results valid for people with normal health.
Etc, etc, etc.
So with that said kids, let’s put on our lab goggles, strap on our whitecoats, light our bunson burners and get to work!
How The Data Was Constructed (Nerdy, You Can Skip This).
Before we take the graph apart it’d be a good idea to talk a little about how it was constructed in the first place.
All the data was pulled from the Examine Supplement Reference, which does a nice job of summarizing the sum of existing research on a lot of different supplements for a lot of different health goals.
I collected information on the above 10 supplements in five areas: anxiety, calmness, feelings of well being, stress and depression.
The graph has the following components:
Impact Score: This comes from assigning a number value to the basic effect (increase = 1, no effect = 0, decrease = -1) and then multiplying that by the magnitude of the effect observed. (If it went up just a little a multiplier of 1 was used, a moderate amount had a multiplier of 3, etc). This was done across all categories for each supplement, and then averaged to get the final impact score.
Citation Count: The number of studies performed on the supplement, which is used as a proxy for validity of the results. This is the X-axis.
Major area of application: This is what determines the bubble color. Most of these supplements have a particular area where they’ve either been studied a great deal or display a remarkable amount of impact. So each supplement was assigned a particular health goal where it has the biggest impact and color coded according to that.
Citation count in major area of application. This determines the size of the bubble. The more citations a supplement has in its area of application the bigger it is.
The Big Takeaway Points
Okay, so with that being said, what are the major takeaway points here?
Looking at the graph, it looks like Fish Oil and Kava are the big winners. Kava has the most consistently large impact on your state of mind. Fish oil is more modest but it’s been much more extensively researched, especially in the area of depression.
Here are takeaway points for each supplement.
Fish Oil: Form Matters. A lot.
Fish oil consistently displays good results for practically all mood issues, but it’s been extensively studied for treatment of depression, where it seems to have the largest impact.
However, this doesn’t mean that any fish oil pill is worth taking, for the following two reasons:
- The doses used were unusually large. Typically between 1,500 and 4,000 mg.
- Almost all of the benefits came from the presence of DHA and EPA. This makes sense, since these are the two that really move the needle for your biochemistry. These are omega 3’s, and ones that AREN’T typically found in chia, flax, walnuts, etc. They only come from aquatic organisms. And keep in mind that omega-6’s reduce the effect of the omega-3’s, so those omega 3-6-9’s aren’t gearing your body up as much as you might like.
Many of the studies found that the improvement in well being exclusively tracked the movement of the AA/EPA ratio, which again makes sense since this is what actually affects inflammation.
This means you should either supplement with EPA/DHA or don’t even bother.
Kava: The True Anti-Anxiety Pill. Just Watch Your Brand.
Kava’s ability to alleviate anxiety seems to be genuine and pretty robust. It really is a good chill pill. Even better, it typically happened with doses of 50-300 mg, which is in line with what supplements typically carry.
Take home points:
- Forms used were usually standardized to contain about 30% kavalacones, which is the active ingredient in Kava.
- A disproportionate number of effective studies used a proprietary strain called WS 1490, which is made by a specific manufacturer. It’d be a good idea to make sure your Kava does the same.
Inositol: It Works…..But At Insane Doses
Inositol consistently shows good effects on your mood…..if you take at least 12 grams. That’s an insane amount. Most supplements contain about 500 mg. You’d have to take 1/2 a bottle a day to get the desired effect.
My own personal anecdote is that regularly taking 500mg of Inositol does absolutely nothing. I say move on.
Zinc: It Also Works…….But Not Alone
Zinc demonstrates a remarkable impact on depressed people at reasonable doses (7-30 mg). There’s a good rationale for this since it’s an active regulator of your nervous system.
However, it only seems to really make its mark when its taken in conjunction with other substances, like an SSRI or maybe a basket of other mood-enhancing supplements. On its own it doesn’t seem to do a lot for your peace of mind.
Saffron: A Good Choice for Depression
There are nine clinical trials on the effectiveness of saffron for treating depression and they have very encouraging results:
- They consistently show at least a moderate effect.
- The dose used is usually around 30 mg, which can easily be done through supplementation.
- Both the stiemen and petal contribute to its effect, making it easier to shop for products since you don’t have to have a specific form.
Lavender: The Smell Does Most of the Work
Like Kava, lavender does most of its work at relieving anxiety. Unlike Kava, a lot of this effect comes from its scent. Most of the effective studies were done with Lavender oil and the use of aromatherapy.
Saffron has been used in similar ways with the same effect.
Gingko Biloba and Ginseng: Move Along.
These are very popular supplements, but you shouldn’t expect them to do anything for your mood. They show little effect, and what effect they do have only works on people with severe conditions. Anyone remotely normal wouldn’t benefit, and there are better options.