For every news report touting the mental or physical health benefits of a supplement, there is another discrediting it, or, worse, warning that it is dangerous. With so many conflicting reports and persuasive marketing promotions, how do you know if what you read is true-or just hype?

The reality is that it's difficult to evaluate mental health claims on supplements, which may include vitamins, minerals, herbs, and certain food products. The scientific and medical community relies on highly regulated and methodical studies for evaluating drugs and other medical interventions. There are few such studies on supplements.

When they do study supplements, scientists typically try to evaluate whether a specific supplement prevents or improves a specific mental health condition. The results generally offer a piece of the larger puzzle; however, most studies have limitations that restrict researchers' ability to project the effectiveness or safety of the supplement beyond the immediate study.

A few supplements do have serious research behind them.

Omega-3 fatty acids show benefit for preserving mental health. For example, in a recent study, individuals at high risk for psychotic disorders significantly improved symptoms and functioning following treatment with omega-3 fatty acids.

Vitamin D supplementation may improve depression. Vitamin D deficiency is linked to increased risk for several diseases, including mood disorders.

In a recent study in New Zealand, daily doses of a 36-ingredient nutritional supplement for eight weeks improved symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and severe mood problems in participants who were moderately to severely depressed at the start of the study and had not responded to conventional treatment.

Given the controversy and confusion, here are a few things to keep in mind when considering supplements.

  • Don't exceed the daily recommended allowance of any vitamin or mineral. Excess vitamins pose health threats.
  • Tell your physician which supplements you're using if you also take prescription medicines. Supplements can interfere with, or reduce the effectiveness of, some medications.
  • Consult with a qualified herbal professional before taking herbs. He or she can recommend appropriate doses of herbs that meet safety and quality standards.
  • Check with the National Association of Complementary and Alternative Medicine for the most current supplement safety and effectiveness information.
  • Eat a diet that includes many different foods. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) says that consuming a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods is the best way to ensure adequate doses of important vitamins and minerals.

More does not equal better. The ADA says supplements can fill dietary gaps, but if you are getting enough of a nutrient in your diet, supplements provide no added benefit.


National Institutes of Health. National Association of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "St. John's Wort and Depression." Web. December 2007.

National Institutes of Health. National Association of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "Valerian." Web. June 2008.

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. "Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Cognitive Function with Aging, Dementia, and Neurological Disease. Web. February 2005.


Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. "Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Mental Health." Web.

Rucklidge, Julia, Taylor, Mairin, and Whitehead, Kathryn. "Effect of Micronutrients on Behavior and Mood in Adults With ADHD: Evidence From an 8-Week Open Label Trial With Natural Extension." Journal of Attention Disorders 2009. Web.

Amminger, Paul G., MD, Schäfer, Miriam R., Papageorgiou, Konstantinos, MD, Klier, Claudia M., MD, Cotton, Sue M., Ph.D., Harrigan, Susan M., MSc, Mackinnon, Andrew, Ph.D., McGorry, Patrick D., MD, Ph.D., and Berger, Gregor E., MD . "Long-Chain {omega}-3 Fatty Acids for Indicated Prevention of Psychotic Disorders: A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial ."Archives General Psychiatry 67(2) (2010): 146-154.

Murphy, Pamela K., CNM, MS, IBCLC and Wagner, Carol L. MD. "Vitamin D and Mood Disorders Among Women: An Integrative Review.  Journal of Midwifery & Women's Health 53(5) (2008):440-446. Web. 1 October 2008.

American Dietetic Association."Nutrient Supplementation." Position and Practice Papers 109(12) 2009: 2073-2085. Web.