Depression is a serious mental disorder that can affect people of all ages.
We all know that depression makes people sad and unmotivated. But did you know it also impairs cognitive performance?
That’s correct; depression negatively affects your memory, focus, motivation, and mood. And it usually lasts for months or even years.
However, certain nootropics can help counter these cognitive impairments by bolstering your resistance to stress and depression.
Before we learn about the best nootropics for depression, though, let’s find out more about this mental disorder first.
Are Depression and ‘Sadness’ The Same?
If you’re wondering if there’s a difference between depression and just feeling sad, let me tell you straight away:
There’s a huge difference between the two.
First off, clinical depression is characterized by loss of hope and zest for life, lack of drive to get out of bed, and feeling a particularly insidious kind of sadness.
For example, people with depression often don’t have the motivation do things they once loved. E.g. playing your favorite sport or just hanging out with your friends.
Almost all of us have experienced something similar in our lives.
Bouts of sadness that come and go.
But the issue with depression is that these episodes are way more severe and last for months or years.
And in depressed people, this can seem like it’s never going to end.
- To be diagnosed with clinical depression, a person has to experience depressive symptoms every day for 2 weeks or more. (2)
Also, depression doesn’t affect everyone the same way.
There are different types of depression, as we’ll explain below.
Types of Depression
- Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – As the name implies, this is the type of depression that only occurs during particular seasons. Most frequently during winter months. SAD isn’t an imaginary thing; it’s a real disorder and can wreak havoc on people’s quality of life.
- Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) – This is one of the most severe types of depression. It negatively affects almost every area of a person’s life. A person will get diagnosed with MDD after experiencing depressive symptoms for at least 14 days.
- Psychotic Depression – Depression by itself is frightening. But psychotic depression is even worse; it’s accompanied by another mental disorder such as schizophrenia.
- Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD) – A person with PDD (also called Dysthymia) experiences mild to moderate depressive symptoms for 2 or more years. PDD symptoms are less severe than those of MDD but last much longer.
- Postpartum Depression – Postpartum depression occurs when a mother experiences depressive symptoms, which can range from mild to severe, after giving birth. This can be problematic not only for the mother but also for the child.
- Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) – This is a severe type of PMS where a woman experiences depressive symptoms as well as anxiety prior to and during her period.
How to Tell if You Have Depression
Depression is more insidious than you may think.
For some people, it can sneak up on them and they won’t even notice it developed. That is, until it progresses and becomes more severe.
These are the most common symptoms of depression:
- Thoughts of suicide (in severe cases)
- Feeling down and sad
- Low self-confidence
- Constantly feeling tired and drained by life
- Sleeping too much
- Poor memory
- Feeling guilty
- Inability to feel pleasure from things that once excited you
- Inability to focus
As you can see, it’s easy to mistake depression with something else. Such as general low mood, lack of motivation, anxiety, etc. That’s why it’s sometimes difficult to diagnose.
Not only that, it’s clear depression doesn’t just affect your mood. It also has a negative impact on your cognitive abilities and sleep.
In other words, it negatively impacts all areas of your life.
What’s worse, studies show that addressing depression won’t necessarily fix memory and cognitive issues that are linked to depression. (1)
How Depression Affects Your Brain
Depression can severely impact the growth and repair of your brain cells.
BDNF, or Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, is a protein that stimulates the birth of new neurons in the regions of the brain that link to memory and learning. (3)
And according to studies, stress and depression impair BDNF release in the brain. (3)
Needless to say, this can lead to poor memory and cognitive function.
Therefore, boosting BDNF with nootropics is an effective way to counter these depressive symptoms.
Now, in addition to BDNF, we also have Nerve Growth Factors (NGF). This is another type of protein that boosts the growth of new nerves.
Much like with BDNF, low Nerve Growth factors link to symptoms of depression. As this study shows. (4)
Thus, helping boost your NGF levels with nootropics will also lead to improved cognitive functioning and reduced depression.
Depression doesn’t just impair your memory; it also reduces your brain’s ability to concentrate and focus on tasks.
In fact, the severity of this lack of focus directly correlates with the severity of depression. (5)
Luckily, this is where nootropics prove useful. Certain nootropics, such as L-Theanine, boost alpha brainwave activity.
Alpha brain waves link to peaceful focus and states of productive relaxation. A win-win combo.
Additionally, some nootropics also reduce glutamate activity in the brain.
Glutamate is an excitatory chemical, which can overstimulate people’s neurons to death.
Depression has a huge impact on motivation. Some studies even suggest that depression is “a deficit in motivation”. (6)
What this means, is that a depressed person will expect less pleasure, fewer rewards, and more bad outcomes than a non-depressed person.
This is why depressed people lack the motivation to do things.
Now, you might be asking: what’s causes these imbalances in pleasure and expectations in the first place?
The answer: dopamine.
Dopamine is your brain’s chemical for reward and pleasure.
And when it’s out of whack, your motivation to do things goes out of whack, too.
There are a number of brain regions that regulate dopamine (7):
- Basolateral amygdala
- Ventral subiculum
An imbalance in any of these areas can cause problems with dopamine.
But by keeping these brain regions working optimally, you can alleviate low-dopamine-induced depression and maintain peak cognitive function.
A study has found that improving dopamine – and thus motivation – helps us stay focused on our tasks when feeling down and depressed.
Fortunately, there are numerous nootropics that address this. They help regulate dopamine, and by doing so, reduce symptoms of depression.
A chronically low and depressed mood is the main sign of depression. Research suggests that severe stress, paired with certain genetic factors, often leads to depressive symptoms. (8)
Furthermore, chronic can seriously alter your brain’s chemistry.
This is due to many factors, one of which is cortisol.
See, your body releases cortisol under stress.
While cortisol isn’t inherently bad for us, it becomes dangerous when constantly elevated. Which is exactly what happens in most people’s lives nowadays.
In addition to cortisol, stress also drains your catecholamine neurotransmitters. Including dopamine, adrenaline, and noradrenaline.
However, here’s some good news:
By reducing stress hormones with nootropics, you help maintain a positive mood. And along the way, you reduce the chances of getting depressed.
Believe it or not, but depression significantly impairs your memory and learning.
A 2014 study shows there’s a strong link between being depressed and having memory issues. (9)
Also, it seems that depression impairs short-term memory more than long-term.
Studies show that depression reduces your speed of processing information. This negatively affects our ability to encode and retain that information.
This also means that depression messes with your ability to gain new knowledge.
However, nootropics can help counter this by boosting neuron signaling in regions that link to information and memory processing.
In other words, nootropics help maintain your memory and cognition that depression would otherwise negatively affect.
Yes, depression affects overall cognition too. The term cognition includes (10):
- Decision making
- Critical thinking
- Dealing with challenges
Depression gets in the way of these critical functions. Leading to poor cognitive performance.
A study showed that people with depression perform poorly on various executive tasks.
On the other hand, healthy people had much better scores on these tests.
With nootropics, it’s possible to counter some of these symptoms. That’s because nootropics improve executive functions, helping depressed people maintain cognitive performance during the blues.
The truth is, anxiety and depression are interlinked. (11)
In fact, half of the people who have anxiety also have depression.
What’s worse, they can give rise to each other. Meaning, anxiety can make a person develop depression and vice versa.
Therefore, by using nootropics to deal with the symptoms of one disorder also helps prevent the other from arising.
How You Can Fight Depression
There are a number of ways to fight symptoms of depression.
Some experts use psychotherapy, others suggest doing yoga and meditation, and some even recommend pharmaceutical antidepressants. (12)
However, none of these methods don’t necessarily treat cognitive symptoms of depression. Such as the inability to focus, lack of motivation, poor memory, etc.
Meditation & Yoga
Meditation is one of the most effective natural ways of alleviating depression.
Research shows meditation can drastically lower stress by blunting cortisol during otherwise stressful situations.
Not only that, meditation is shown to protect your hippocampus. An area of the brain critical for learning and memory. (13)
Yoga is another form of meditation which combines body movements and breathing techniques to create harmony between your body and mind.
Much like with meditation, research supports the benefits of yoga. Studies show it boosts mood in depressed people.
However, it appears that yoga is most effective when combined with a health treatment specific for your diagnosis.
Psychotherapy helps you understand your emotions and behaviors on a deeper level.
During psychotherapy, you learn what may be causing negative behaviors and emotions to arise, which can help reverse them.
Psychotherapy is a broad term; it can also involve other techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). (14)
CBT works by reversing negative behavior and reinforcing positive thinking patterns. (15)
Sunlight (Vitamin D)
Vitamin D deficiency is one of the major causes of depression. Especially in elderly who don’t go out in the sun often. (16)
Balancing vitamin D levels through sun exposure or supplementation can help depressed people feel better.
What’s more, people with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) are at most risk here. They’re particularly vulnerable to experiencing depression from a lack of sunlight.
Light exposure therapy is one way you can treat vitamin D deficiency.
Another method is to simply take a high-quality wholefood multivitamin. Taking it daily will provide you with enough of this nutrient for your mood to improve.
Medications such as SSRI’s work by inhibiting serotonin from breaking down in the brain. This leads to elevated levels of this neurotransmitter, and consequently, improved mood.
Other depression medications work in different ways; some regulate serotonin, and others dopamine, depending the specific symptoms of depression.
Unfortunately, many antidepressants only address your mood. But they don’t improve poor memory and cognition that often accompany depression. (17)
Most Effective Nootropics For Depression
While nootropics can’t treat depression, they can boost your mood and cognition during times when you’re feeling down.
Nootropics for depression help:
- Enhance cognitive performance
- Promote sustained focus
- Elevate mood
- Retain memory
- Improve learning
Without any further ado, here’s the list of the best nootropics for depression and cognitive issues that accompany it:
CDP-Choline, aka, citicoline is one of the best nootropics for depression. And we have research to prove it.
A double-blind, randomized study recruited over 50 volunteers diagnosed with MDD (Major Depressive Disorder).
These people were split into two groups.
- The group that took 100mg of CDP-Choline, twice a day, had significant improvements in their depression compared to the placebo group.
The study results showed that CDP-Choline can be beneficial for fighting mood symptoms of depression.
Rhodiola enhances your serotonin and dopamine in the brain.
It also reduces cortisol, the stress hormone that can have a negative impact on your neurons.
Rhodiola soothes mood imbalances and helps maintain cognitive function during the blues.
According to research, Rhodiola is particularly effective in those suffering from mild to moderate depression. The effects were comparable to the anti-depressant drug Zoloft.(19)
Rhodiola also links to reduced stress, anxiety, and other mood disorders that are closely related to depression. (20)
Lion’s Mane Mushroom
Its mechanism of action for relieving depression isn’t known; however, we do know that Lion’s Mane promotes Nerve Growth Factors. It helps grow and repair nerves, which may be linked to improved mood and overall brain function.
Monks have used L-Theanine from green tea to help them enter states of deep meditation.
And as it turns out, L-Theanine is one of the only nootropics that increase alpha waves in your brain.
Increased alpha waves link to:
- Enhanced mood
- Improved creativity
- States of relaxed focus
By providing these benefits, L-Theanine can help alleviate some symptoms of depression.
In fact, one study shows that L-Theanine reduces anxiety, mood swings, and cognitive impairments. All of which are closely linked to depression. (22)
On top of everything, L-Theanine helps reduce stress by lowering cortisol. It also reduces glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter which can cause neuron death by overstimulating the brain. (23)
Bacopa helps boost serotonin in the brain, leading to mood elevation. The ayurvedic herb is also famous for its memory-enhancing properties, which can help people who experience cognitive and memory issues due to depression.
B vitamins, especially B6, B9, and B12 are critical for healthy mood and brain function.
They play a role in countless processes in the body, along with serving as building blocks for neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
So it’s no surprise that low levels of these B vitamins link to depression. (24)
Depressed people who’re deficient in B6, B9, and B12 might experience mood improvement from supplementing these vitamins.
The impact of depression extends beyond just your mood.
Yes, depressed people feel down and sad. But more often than not, they also suffer from cognitive impairments, such as poor memory, lack of focus, and low motivation.
That’s why nootropics for depression don’t just target the mood aspect of depression.
They also work to improve focus, memory, learning, and overall cognition.
It’s important to note, though, that nootropics for depression are in no way replacement for therapy or antidepressants. But they can be of big help when wanting to reduce mood swings and cognitive problems that usually come with depression.
Effect of antidepressant treatment on cognitive impairments associated with depression: a randomized longitudinal study. (source)
The Roles of BDNF in the Pathophysiology of Major Depression and in Antidepressant Treatment. (source)
Serum levels of nerve growth factor (NGF) in patients with major depressive disorder and suicide risk. (source)
Description and measurement of concentration problems in depressed patients. (source)
Motivational deficit in depression: people's expectations x outcomes' impacts. (source)
Dopamine System Dysregulation in Major Depressive Disorders. (source)
Core symptoms of major depressive disorder: relevance to diagnosis and treatment (source)
Depression and memory impairment: a meta-analysis of the association, its pattern, and specificity. (source)
Critical Analysis of the Efficacy of Meditation Therapies for Acute and Subacute Phase Treatment of Depressive Disorders: A Systematic Review. (source)
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (source)
National Alliance on Mental Illness. (source)
How meditation helps with depression. (source)
Cognitive behavioral therapy. (source)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Mood Disorders: Efficacy, Moderators and Mediators. (source)
Vitamin D and Depression: Where is all the sunshine? (source)
More than sad: depression affects your ability to think. (source)
Citicoline Combination Therapy for Major Depressive Disorder: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial. (source)
Rhodiola rosea versus sertraline for major depressive disorder: A randomized placebo-controlled trial. (source)
The Effects of Rhodiola rosea L. Extract on Anxiety, Stress, Cognition and Other Mood Symptoms. (source)
Reduction of depression and anxiety by 4 weeks Hericium erinaceus intake. (source)
Effects of chronic l-theanine administration in patients with major depressive disorder: an open-label study. (source)
Anti-Stress, Behavioural and Magnetoencephalography Effects of an l-Theanine-Based Nutrient Drink: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Trial. (source)
Treatment of depression: time to consider folic acid and vitamin B12. (source)