Some “natural” therapies may be safe, effective for mental health

Ann MacDonald

Contributor, Harvard Health

On Saturday, while thousands of Boston Bruins fans gathered at Government Center to celebrate the team’s recent Stanley Cup victory, a hundred or so true die-hards met a few blocks away at a Massachusetts General Hospital conference to talk about complementary and alternative medicine for psychiatric disorders. While I hated to miss the Bruins parade, I’m glad I attended the MGH conference.

I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic about so-called natural therapies for one simple reason: they don’t have to go through the same rigorous testing in clinical trials that medications do. At the same time, I realize that FDA-approved drugs don’t work for everyone. One in three adults with major depression, for example, can’t completely improve their mood and other symptoms even after trying multiple antidepressants.

Clearly, we need better options for treating mental health disorders. The MGH conference convinced me that some types of complementary and alternative medicine—or CAM, for short—might be worth trying. The presenters, all psychiatrists who treat patients at MGH, backed up their recommendations with scientific evidence. Several of them also contributed to the American Psychiatric Association’s recent report on CAM therapies.

We’ll be doing a story on CAM therapies for psychiatric disorders in an upcoming issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. For now, here are some things I learned on Saturday:

Omega-3 fats, natural fats found in large quantities in cold-water fish such as salmon, can boost the effectiveness of an antidepressant in some people with depression. Omega-3 supplements are now being studied as an alternative to antidepressants during pregnancy.

St. John’s wort is an herbal remedy that can help people with mild-to-moderate symptoms of depression, but doesn’t seem to work as well for severe depression. St. John’s wort can cause problems when taken with some antidepressants and other medications, so talk with your doctor before trying it.

Maca root, a relative of the potato that is used in some cultures to enhance sexual response, may help counter erectile dysfunction, reduced libido, and other sexual side effects of antidepressants.

Valerian, derived from the root of a pink flower, can alleviate anxiety and help improve sleep just as well as some sedatives. It may be a good alternative to consider for children and the elderly—two groups especially sensitive to the side effects of medications. One downside: it takes a while to “kick in,” so if you need fast relief, look elsewhere.

Words to the wise. Just because these remedies come from plants and animals doesn’t automatically mean they are safe. Herbal remedies have unwanted side effects and can interact with medications just like antidepressants and other drugs do. Talk with your doctor before trying any alternative approach, especially if you take any medications.

One more caveat: the fact that these products aren’t under FDA oversight means the amount of active ingredients can vary from one product to the next—and even within the same brand. Choose products that bear the U.S. Pharmacopeia Dietary Supplement Verification Program (USP-DSVP) mark. Or check, which ranks herbs and supplements based on quality and content.

Related Information: Understanding Depression


  1. Grace

    Great Article. I am passionate about using herbs for certain ailments and have started documenting my years of knowledge.

  2. Dr_SubhashDabir

    I think only the plant derived remedies not enough to treat psychiatric disorders.other allopathic medication required along with plant remedies.

  3. Cassie Miller

    All medicines composed with herbals has a great results especially for medicines its extremely more safe. Therapies that are being done naturally is good. In addition to this, natural therapy for mental illness is good.

  4. Sumerian

    This is a great article I feel like more people need to be aware of how beneficial some plants can be for your health. Another great root that is especially good for anyone struggling with alcoholism is kudzu root.

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  6. Heather Smith

    I agree with you, natural therapy is really safe for mental health. I think natural is always best, the main difference between what we call alternative medicine and conventional medicine is that natural cures can be used to prevent illnesses and ailments occurring in the first place, whereas modern medicine is used once an illness has already occurred

  7. Gary Anderson

    I’m a 45 yr old Father of Two, and I started having health issues 10 7ears ago which later became compounded by Anxiety and Depression… It took 8 years to find out that I’m ADHD!

    I could comment a LOT on this, but I’ll try to “Stay Focused” 😉

    I am sick to death of our health system being that… it seems the doctors are no longer allowed to think for themselves about what is best for each individual patient because they are somewhat (so it seems) forced to “Go by the Book”, sometimes the rules “By The Book” do not apply!

    After a blood test my doctor told me if I didn’t go on “—” (a statin drug) that my life could be in serious danger within 5 years…

    I told him “NO!” (again, cutting details out to keep it short).. “I will fix it myself….I’ve been studying…I can fix it naturally…”

    He gave me a stern hard look and said, “There is Absolutely No Scientific Proof that anything like that works” … I said, “Yes there is, you’re just not listening! So watch me!” (he didn’t like that too well. YIKES!)

    18 months later, he checked my blood again… That Day was the first day I ever seen my doctor smile!

    He said, “Wow! You Did It!!!” I said, “I know, I told you…”

    For those reading this that may be asking, I Did NOT “Take” anything special! I just made SURE that my body got “PROPER NUTRITION!” (again, long story short).

    Why does it seem that the FDA etc. want to turn “Super Healthy Foods” into a pharmaceuticals? …

    So that they can control it, that’s why! … In my humble opinion of course 😉

    As you can see, I have a Passion For Health! (not drugs…unless I “Really Do” need one of course… as it should be).

    Stay Boosted! 😉

    -Gary Anderson

  8. Fereshteh

    A few months ago,I saw the signs of mild depression in my old mother (86).She told that” I,m tired of being alive,what is the use of this inactive life,nobody likes me,and so on”.I bought her a bootanic depresant,made in our country from the concentrate of a kind of geranium ,named pelargonium it was very effective on her with no side effects. I believe that the best treatments for depression are the natural medicine and changing the life style

  9. Marc Azada

    I absolutely agree with you. I think there are many herbal medicines that can really be beneficial to our health. I hope scientists can research more about these natural therapies in order for us to have more alternatives on how to fight illnesses.

    • Gary Anderson

      Scientists “ARE” researching this stuff! And they “ARE” finding natural “Remedies”.

      But the scientists that are discovering these things are NOT the scientists endorsed by the proper entities. Yes, this article has gotten a bit passionate. Sorry 🙂

      Another Example:
      For years doctors kept me on anti-anxiety and anti-depressants. A few years later when the meds no longer worked, they just gave me more meds… hmmmm.

      FFWD, I “Finally” found a psychologist who taught me the “Skills” that destroyed my Depression! YAY! Now that my depression is totally gone, we’re working on my anxiety. My anxiety is manageable, but still working to turn it down a little more 😉

      Thanks for letting me comment here! 🙂

      Stay Boosted!

      Gary Anderson
      (That’s my real name, I have nothing to hide)

  10. Paul Jones

    What most people seem to forget it that alternative therapies have been around for many thousands of years and be been proved to be affective. for me the main difference between what we call alternative medicine and conventional medicine is that natural cures can be used to prevent illnesses and ailments occurring in the first place, whereas modern medicine is used once an illness has already occurred. Both have their uses an can work fantastically together.
    [URL removed by moderator]

  11. Chinese Medicine Orlando

    This is a really interesting article. Glad to see some research is being done on alternative medicine. Like a few of these people who comment here, I believe alternative medicine and natural therapies are good for us. People have been using natural remedies for centuries. Chinese Herbal Medicine is a good example of this. There are shows on tv explaining the medicinal stores in China and how they sell natural medicine to help ease an ailment. [URL removed by moderator] The benefits are there. Its good to see that people are open to it now and can see the benefits of going natural.

  12. Kathy Silverstein

    I think this is a great and timely article. I have been taking Omega 3 supplements for a while and feel that they do give me a boost in my mood and mental stability. I have Asperger’s, and a lot of mothers I know of AS kids swear by Omegas to stabilize their kids’ moods. Just yesterday I heard a commercial on the radio for Omegas being added into milk! It’s being added into just about every food, it seems. I think you can buy orange juice with omegas,probably yogurt, I know you can get nutrition bars, and so on. But for good reason. Omegas have been shown to help those with Asperger’s a considerable amount. I have tried valerian before, but it didn’t do anything for me. [URL removed by moderator]

    I’ve heard maca can also help with emotional stability – I even found a maca chocolate bar at Whole Foods. Natural supplements may be the way of the future in dealing with mental health.

  13. Anonymous

    A good family friend of ours is a Naturopathic fanatic and swears just about everything can be cured with natural medicines. Great article and one Ill pass on to our family friend.

  14. John Scott

    Another method of natural therapy for mental health is lifestyle changes, which has no side effects, is safe, effective, and can actually pull some out of serious mental health difficulties such as ADHD or bipolar disorder. Green therapy, as an example, time outdoors with nature, is known to reduce stress, symptoms of ADHD and depression. Cutting back on TV can help depression for some. Positive art therapy can help depression and alleviate symptoms of ADHD. (Overcoming ADHD Without Medication has other examples and documentation). [URL removed by moderator]

  15. Thomas Smith

    What about combining zinc and selenium for mental health issues…anyone heard anything about that by chance ?

  16. Jason Cranston

    Whether we accept their qualifications or not, it is still useful, to utilize a certified herbalist for recommendations in which herbs are traditionally used for various maladies.

  17. natural remedies cancer

    People in Thailand had used herbal as natural treat for long time and we do believe its can heal many symptom that modern medicine can not do.

  18. Anonymous

    I think natural is always best. We are always looking for scientific solutions but it is good to start with traditional remedies before venturing to modern ways.`

  19. tunukwa

    As a vegetarian of over 40 years I agree with much of what
    Mary has written. May I also recommend the book, “Back to Eden” by Jethro Kloss, one of this countries leading herbalist as well as Dr. Richard Blaylock, retired neurosurgeon and author of “Excitotoxins the Tast That Kills”. In it he discusses the role of food additives and the onslaught of depression and mental illinesses.Also, I would not recommend Valerian for children and the use of St. John’s Worth must be monited closely.

  20. Dr. Samuel Dyer

    This is a great article and an ongoing source of discussion. I have worked with Medical Science Liaisons around the world in the pharmaceutical industry and over the last few years there has been some interest from physicians in researching natural products in addition to proprietary products. We started a website to bring resources from around the world together to better align resources and the latest developments in the pharma industry as it relates to the Medical Science Liaison role which is the primary contact for physicians who are doing active clinical research.
    [URL removed by moderator]

  21. cathy

    I don’t know why in certain hospitals they don’t recommend
    certain natural therapies,yet they are proved to be effective.
    in my own thinking,thats the best way to go.
    and i do thank you alot for such an informative article.
    [URL removed by moderator]

  22. peter henderson

    I am sick and tired of reading in health newsletters that xyz MAY be helpful in treating this or preventing that. From a logical point of view, anything MAY do anything. Rubbing mud in your hair MAY prevent Alzheimer’s. The idea in science is to do experiments and establish thereby that something PROBABLY or USUALLY works. Occasionally it is even possible to show that something ALWAYS works (well, almost always.) There is zero information value in being told that x MAY do y.

  23. Caroline Abruzese, MD

    As primary care physicians we are accustomed to interpreting data from clinical trials involving medications. This does not prepare us for navigating the supplement industry and is a cause for concern.
    Many supplement studies use the highest quality, GMP certified supplements, but most people take food grade products. Given the known variability in supplement quality, can the results be generalized beyond the supplement used in the clinical trial?

  24. Timon Weller

    I am a big believer in the powers of natural therapies, i know from my own experiences as well. In some cases I have found natural medicines more effective than modern drugs and medicines.

  25. urology hospital in delhi

    I agree with your point that natural therapy is really safe for mental health thanks for sharing such a nice blog.
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  26. Mary

    Nutrition and regular exercise play a big part in both the mental and physical state. As far as depression goes, many people are depressed because they are unemployed, heart broken from loss and/or abuse, and other life challenges. Pharmaceuticals are “masks” that may temporarily alleviate symptoms but do not cure root causes of mental and physical illness and diseases. In a similar way, Valerian Root and St. John’s Wort may help depression but not get to the underlying cause while also having side effects that are depressant. I would not recommend either herb for children suffering from depression. Many children today are suffering from a lack of love and attention, if not outright abuse and neglect. Like their parents, many children spend most of their waking hours in front of either a TV, computer, mobile and/or gaming screen and engage in little or no physical activity while they eat heavily processed foods with synthetic additives. This poor nutrition and lack of exercise is great for the pharmaceutical and medical industry, not good for the health of this country’s citizens. Regular meals of fresh fruit and vegetables with lean meats, and exercising as a family or with other loved ones that know how to hug, understand, support and love each other goes much further in getting to, and treating root causes of mental and physical illness and disease than any pill does, whether that pill is pharmaceutical prescription or herbal capsule. As a culture, we have underestimated the power of genuine love, we truly do not live by bread alone.

    • Indu Chhibber

      How right you are.I may add that children of working mothers are at a greater disadvantage when it comes to overcoming stress.
      [URL removed by moderator]

  27. Toothy

    Thanks for the post – some good info on herbal medicines and use. I’m a big advocate myself for natural therapies and herbal medicine and have found a number of references very helpful. One of my favorite herbals is Charles Kane’s Herbal Medicine-Trends and Traditions. Unlike many other herb books, I like that the book has a bibliography listing, so I know the author didn’t just make it all up! The preparations segment is also deserving of comment: it’s one of the only books I’ve seen that covers how to prepare the herbs as a fluid extracts, which is more concentrated than a simple tincture. And doesn’t get into new age philosophies you find in so many other books on herbal medicine…Anyway it’s a good book; it helped me.

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