Nootropics and Depression

Millions of people worldwide are currently suffering from depression. Prescription anti-depressants don’t work for everyone and often come with a long list of side effects. Luckily there are many nootropics which have a positive effect on mood. Read on to learn what depression is and how nootropics can help improve your mood.

What Is Depression?

Depression affects approximately 121 million people worldwide. [1] I am not talking about just feeling sad or “blue” every once in a while. We have all felt “down” at some point in our lives. I am talking about clinical depression. A serious condition that affects a person’s thoughts, behaviors, and well-being.

Those suffering from clinical depression may feel worthless, hopeless, anxious, helpless, and sad. Many times they no longer find activities they once took pleasure in, enjoyable. These people often suffer from loss of appetite or over appetite, insomnia or excessive sleeping, trouble concentrating, and often times contemplate suicide.

Clinical depression, also referred to as a major depressive disorder, is when someone suffers from these symptoms for a minimum of two weeks. Clinical depression can be caused by a number of things. The biopsychosocial model states that biological, psychological, and social factors all play a role in causing depression. [2]

Even though we can readily understand exactly what it means to be happy or sad, these concepts are very difficult to quantify in a scientific way. For example, someone suffering from schizophrenia is seriously ill. There is no doubt that their condition exists. For disorders such as clinical depression or ADHD, the symptoms are harder to quantify. There is no bright, distinct “line” separating someone who is not depressed from someone who is depressed. Instead, this “line” has been set by medical convention. [2] In fact, 60% of people who commit suicide were categorized as being depressed (meaning they had crossed the “line” set by the medical community) or they suffered from another mood disorder. [3]

Why Nootropics Can Help

Some people are naturally happier than others. They fall much further away from this “line” than other people. Other people are naturally less happy. This is the biological aspect of depression. They may lack confidence and have low-self esteem. Because they are already closer to this “line”, when psychological and social factors change negatively, they are more likely to cross the “line” and become clinically depressed. For those who are naturally happier, the social and psychological changes usually must be much more severe.

The gray area separating those who are depressed from who those who are not is also why certain nootropics prove beneficial in boosting mood and treating depression. These nootropics can help anyone, even people who haven’t crossed the arbitrary “line” which assigns the label of depression. For this reason, many nootropics are not approved by the FDA to treat depression. Even though they may move you in the right direction, many are not specifically designed to treat major depression. They may not move you quite as far as prescription medications might.

Depression and the Brain

So we now know that some people are biologically predisposed to depression. When social and psychological factors take a turn for the worst they begin to suffer symptoms of clinical depression. When these symptoms are severe enough as judged from a medical standpoint, and they have been experiencing them for a minimum of two weeks, they will be diagnosed with clinical depression.

But what exactly is happening in their brain? The brain is far from static, it is always changing. So what changes are occurring in these people to make them depressed?

The basis for almost all ant-depressant medications is the “monomine hypothesis” [4] If you have ever seen an anti-depressant commercial they may have simplified this hypothesis to you. Many times, this oversimplification is described as a “chemical imbalance” to the public. The “chemical imbalance” that these commercial are referring to involves the levels of three neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

Norepinephrine plays an important role in sustaining attention, energy, regulating anxiety, and giving one’s self-interest in life. Serotonin is linked to anxiety, compulsions, obsessions. Dopamine is the most important neurotransmitter involved in our reward/pleasure systems. It also is linked to attention, motivation, and interest in life. [5]

Serotonin is also partially responsible for regulating other neurotransmitter systems. [3] Lower than normal levels of serotonin are responsible for lower levels of other neurotransmitters including norepinephrine and dopamine. [4] Some anti-depressants raise levels of serotonin, while others directly target levels of norepinephrine and/or dopamine.

Nootropics that boost mood and may help treat depression include by acting on monoamines include:

  • Deprenyl – Prevents the breakdown of monoamine neurotransmitters, approved by FDA to treat  clinical depression
  • Adrafinil – Prevents the breakdown of dopamine
  • Modafinil – More potent version of Adrafinil
  • Rhodiola Rosea – Prevents the breakdown of dopamine and serotonin
  • 5-HTP – Essential for your body’s production of serotonin and melatonin
  • Theanine – Increases production of dopamine and serotonin
  • Tyrosine – Essential for your body’s production of dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine

Which Nootropics Work Best?

Of all the nootropics listed on this site, Deprenyl is the only one actually approved by the FDA to treat depression. Evidence also suggests that while nootropics such as TheanineTyrosine, and 5-HTP may boost mood by increasing production of monoamine neurotransmitters, nootropics that prevent the breakdown of monoamine neurotransmitters are more effective.

For example, studies show that Tyrosine only improves mood and lessens depression under extenuating circumstances. If you have recently lost a loved one, have been overworked, or sleep deprived Tyrosine improves your mood and can help you cope. This is because during these situations the levels of monoamine neurotransmitters in your brain drop greatly and Tyrosine helps return them to normal levels.

Nootropics that prevent the breakdown of the monoamine neurotransmitters work regardless of your brain’s current levels. People who don’t think they are suffering from depression and are just trying to boost their mood should select a nootropic that prevents the neurotransmitters from breaking down. People going through a rough patch, and who think they may be suffering from depression would benefit more from nootropics such as 5-HTPTheanine, and Tyrosine.

Mixing nootropics that increase production and prevent breakdown may provide synergetic effects. Keep in mind that you should consult your physician before beginning a nootropic regimen. Also, these nootropics don’t affect everyone exactly the same. Read all the information available on this site and determine which nootropic(s) may suit you best.

Cited Studies


2. Department of Health and Human Services. The fundamentals of mental health and mental illness [PDF]; 1999 [cited 2008-11-11].

3. Barlow 2005, pp. 248–49

4. An Overview of SSRIs for the Treatment of Depression

5. Relationship of neurotransmitters to the symptoms of major depressive disorder.