5-HTP. This is a precursor to a neurotransmitter called serotonin. Although some health care providers recommend it for mood problems, others are more cautious. “It is not clear whether 5-HTP is immune from the same problems L-tryptophan had,” Fugh-Berman tells WebMD, referring to an amino acid that was taken off the market in 1989 due to a dangerous contaminant. This concern has been largely disputed, and 5-HTP is generally considered safe, and effective for depression when taken at 150-300 milligrams daily.
Mood problems, including depression and bipolar disorder, are no laughing matter. More than 20 million American adults have a mood disorder and 40 million an anxiety disorder. And these numbers don’t include the average worrywart or person who suffers an occasional bout of the blues.
For depression alone, the annual cost for treatment and lost wages may be as high as $52 billion.
With these statistics, it’s no wonder that many people are searching for mood supplements or other mood-enhancing alternatives to drugs.
The Need for Mood Enhancers
“For so many people, antidepressant medication either stops working or has too many side effects,” says Henry Emmons, MD, a psychiatrist with the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota. Emmons, author of The Chemistry of Joy: A Three-Step Program for Overcoming Depression through Western Science and Eastern Wisdom, prescribes medications for his patients, but he also highly recommends exercise and good nutrition as physical treatments for depression, combined with a few targeted mood supplements.
Which leads to the question: what vitamins, herbs, supplements, and lifestyle changes are the best mood enhancers?
Mood Enhancers That May Be Unsafe
Kava kava. A ceremonial beverage used commonly in the Pacific Islands, kava kava earned its claim to fame as an herb that’s very helpful for anxiety. Unfortunately, kava kava has largely fallen out of favor because concentrated forms for sale in the U.S. have been associated with a rare risk of significant liver problems.
According to the FDA, you should consult a doctor before using kava if you have liver disease or are taking drugs that affect the liver. Likewise, you should see your doctor if you experience any signs of liver illness after taking a kava supplement.
As you evaluate other mood supplements, keep in mind that the FDA does not strictly regulate herbs and supplements; it treats them like foods rather than drugs. The makers of supplements don’t have to show their products are safe or effective before selling them on the market.
This makes it harder for you to assess their strength, purity, and safety. Fugh-Berman advises doing your own research on effectiveness and adverse effects, using reliable, unbiased sources, and by consulting groups that independently evaluate dietary supplements.
Lifestyle Changes for Enhancing Your Mood
“If you look at the research on exercise for depression, it’s equal to or better than medication for depression -- probably the best outright alternative treatment for depression,” says Emmons, who often recommends mild activities such as walking, biking, or jogging. “It may not be enough for a lot of people, but it’s a good place to start.”