As you probably know, depression is a mental health disorder that makes us sad. But did you know it also greatly impacts cognitive performance?
It's true: Beyond sadness, Depression can mess with mood, motivation, memory, sleep and focus. Basically, it holds the brain back from reaching its full potential.
But nootropics for depression can give the brain a boost, which may help strengthen our resistance to depression-related cognitive deficits. Read on for research on how depression impacts the brain, and how nootropics may help.
What is Depression?
In general, depression (a.k.a. clinical depression) is a mood disorder characterized by feelings of sadness and hopelessness. The severity of depression can range from mild to severe (major depressive disorder).
For example, if you have no motivation to carry out everyday tasks or do things you once loved, you may be experiencing some form of depression. However, while we all tend to feel sad sometimes, depression is a bit different.
Normal Sadness vs. Depression
The symptoms of clinical depression are more severe and last longer than normal bouts of sadness. Specifically, you must experience a number of depressive symptoms every day for at least 2 weeks to be diagnosed with clinical depression.
Types of Depression
There are also different types of depression. They include:
Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) - MDD is a severe form of depression that consists of persistent depressive symptoms that interfere with daily activities each day for at least 2 weeks.
Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD) or Dysthymia - Different than MDD, PDD is the presence of depressive symptoms that impact your daily life every day for at least 2 years. Symptoms of PDD are less severe than MDD but end up lasting much longer.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) - Seasonal Affective Disorder is depression that occurs seasonally, most often when the days get darker and shorter. It may sound silly, but SAD is very real and can greatly impact cognition.
Perinatal and Postpartum Depression - Perinatal Depression and Postpartum Depression are major depressive states that can occur during and after pregnancy. Symptoms can interfere with the ability to nurture the child after birth.
Psychotic Depression - Basically, psychotic depression is the presence of severe depressive symptoms coupled with a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia.
Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder - PMDD is a severe form of PMS in women that interferes with daily activities and cognition. Symptoms include anxiety and depression before and during menstruation.
Symptoms of Depression
Furthermore, the symptoms of depression include:
- Lack of self-esteem and confidence
- Inability to focus
- Feelings of guilt
- Persistent fatigue
- Negative outlook on life and future
- Thoughts of self-harm and/or suicide
- Too much or not enough sleep
- Loss of appetite or excessive eating
- Trouble making decisions
- Memory issues
As you can see, depression can seriously impact mood balance, motivation, focus, sleep patterns and more. And as it turns out, addressing depression may not necessarily fix the cognitive deficits that are associated with it.
Data shows depression is more common in women than in men. As such, women should be extra mindful of possible symptoms.
However, this disparity may be present because men are less likely to express their symptoms than women. Hence why men, too, should pay close attention to their emotions and possible symptoms.
How Does Depression Affect Cognition?
In 2016, about 268 million people were depressed and experiencing downgrades in their cognitive output throughout the world. However, boosting certain aspects of cognition may help alleviate cognitive symptoms:
Mood Imbalance and Stress
A depressed mood is the main symptom of depression. Studies show intense stress on top of genetic predispositions can cause us to develop a depressed mood.<1>
Moreover, stressful situations can seriously change our cognitive state, especially when we are predisposed to be more affected by it. Specifically, stress causes the release of the stress hormone cortisol along with catecholamines in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and sympathetic nervous system.
This is considered a stress response, which can negatively impact neuron survival, the creation of neurons, emotions and the size of our hippocampus. But if we can reduce stress responses in the brain with nootropics, we may be able to mediate our mood and adverse brain effects during depressive states.
Here's what the science says about stress and depression in the brain.
"...based on existing data, we conclude that stress likely increases risk for depression in a substantial number of people by...altering social, cognitive, and affective processes that are known to promote this disorder."
So, seeing as stress increases our risk for depression, we can decrease our risk for depression by reducing stress.
Motivation is monumentally impacted by depression. Actually, research shows depression is "primarily a motivational deficit."<2>
Those experiencing depression tend to expect fewer rewards from completing a task and more punishments than healthy individuals. Hence why they lack motivation. But what causes this imbalance in expectations?
Dopamine is the main neurotransmitter that influences motivation in the brain. So, when we expect less reward and more punishment, it's partially due to a dopamine imbalance.
Several systems in the brain control the secretion of dopamine: the hippocampus, the ventral subiculum and the basolateral amygdala. If we can balance out the secretion of dopamine in these cognitive systems, we may be able to give our motivation a boost by leveling out our expectations during a depressive state.
One study even concludes that regulating anxiety and improving motivation may help us regain cognitive control to complete tasks when we're feeling depressed.<3> Luckily, nootropics for depression may help us do this.
Memory and Learning
This may be surprising but depression can also cause memory and learning problems. A study from 2014 shows there is "a significant, stable association between depression and memory impairment." Specifically, it impairs short-term memory, not long-term.
- Depression is suggested to interfere with short-term memory by decreasing our speed of processing information, which reduces our ability to encode and store it for later recall. Thus, it also decreases our ability to learn new information.
However, boosting our memory with nootropics may help improve information processing speed, storage and recall for learning. In other words, it may maintain memory function during mood problems.
Aging men and women are at a greater risk for memory problems caused by depression. Hence why nootropics may be extra helpful for them.
Not to mention, aging men and women often confuse their cognitive symptoms of depression with normal signs of aging. However, it's not normal for aging people to have such drastic shifts in cognitive abilities.
Thus, it's always worth it to get checked out by a doctor if you're suspicious of more serious mood concerns.
Sleep problems are a major symptom of depression. People experiencing depression tend to also experience either hypersomnia or insomnia. And apparently, this can have a huge impact on the severity of symptoms and possible relapse in depressed people.
For example, studies show sleep is a significant factor in the quality of life of depressed individuals as well as "depressive relapse and recurrence."<4> So it's pretty important for depressed individuals to get the right amount of quality sleep each night.
This may involve regulating melatonin levels to suit our unique daily schedules. But taking nootropics for depression alongside a natural sleep aid can optimize our cognitive functions while making sure we get a good night's sleep.
Bad sleep quality can also cause symptoms of depression. So if you're not slipping into a deep enough sleep and getting around 7 hours a night, you should look for a solution.
Luckily, certain supplements are made to specifically enhance sleep quality. We recommend, Performance Lab® Sleep, an advanced, natural sleep formula built around a core of 50:1 Montmorency Tart Cherry extract.
A natural sleep aid like Performance Lab® Sleep coupled with a powerful nootropic like Mind Lab Pro® form an effective stack for fighting mood imbalance on two fronts: Sleep and Brainpower.
In addition, depression can seriously affect our ability to focus on tasks. Actually, the severity of focusing issues in depressed individuals is often linked to the severity of their depression.<5>
Fortunately, nootropics can help us improve concentration. You see, high concentration is linked to alpha wave activity and the balance of excitatory chemicals in the brain.
Thus, initiating alpha wave activity and balancing the release of inhibitory brain chemicals may help increase focus even when depression interferes. And that's where nootropics come in: certain ingredients can initiate this process.
Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF)
BDNF is a neurotrophic protein that influences learning and memory. Studies show stress and depression are linked to reduced BDNF activity in the brain.
Not to mention, depression negatively affects learning and memory. Thus, increasing BDNF activity with nootropics may help reduce stress and improve learning and memory in depressed people. Specifically, it may have a greater impact on those with Major Depressive Disorder.
Nerve Growth Factor (NGF)
Similarly, NGF or Nerve Growth factor is another neurotrophic protein that may impact symptoms of depression. For example, one study showed low levels of NGF are linked to Major Depressive Disorder.<6>
In addition, changes in levels of NGF have been linked to cognitive functioning in depression and other mental disorders. As such, we think manipulating NGF may help with cognitive symptoms of depression. But we'd like to see more research on this.
Executive Functioning and Performance
Cognitive executive functions include our decision-making skills, our ability to deal with challenges and our critical and creative thinking abilities. Depression can get in the way of these functions, ultimately reducing our cognitive performance.
For instance, one study shows depressed people perform worse on executive function tasks. In it, depressed people were worse than healthy people at implementing performance strategies for tasks involving executive functions. So, we can speculate that promoting executive functions may help depressed people improve cognitive performance.
Links Between Anxiety and Depression
Be aware that depression and anxiety often go hand in hand. Actually, about half of individuals diagnosed with depression are diagnosed with anxiety as well.
And they can initiate one another. So anxiety can cause depression and depression can cause anxiety. Thus, reducing our risk for symptoms of one may help reduce our risk for symptoms of the other.
Risk Factors for Depression and Decreased Cognitive Performance
Knowing the risk factors for depression can help us identify possible symptoms and their origins. As such, here's a list of risk factors for depression and cognitive deficits caused by depression.
Risk Factors Include:
- Cynical or pessimistic personality traits
- Low self-esteem
- Experiencing a traumatic or stressful event: sexual assault, breakup, loss of a loved one
- Biological family members with a history of depressive symptoms
- Being gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual
- History of other mental illnesses
- Abusing drugs and alcohol
- Chronic and/or terminal illness
- Cognitive Impairments
- Some medications: always consult your doctor
These risk factors don't automatically or inevitably mean we'll experience depression. However, being mindful of them can help us identify symptoms sooner rather than later. This way, we can defeat depression and improve cognitive deficits before they become severe.
How do we Fight Symptoms of Depression?
Experts use a variety of methods to help individuals defeat depression depending on each unique diagnosis. However, these methods don't necessarily address cognitive symptoms directly.
Psychotherapy involves helping the individual understand their emotions, behaviors and what might be causing them in order to reverse them. It can also involve using techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy to reverse negative thinking patterns and harmful behaviors.
Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)
While it used to be controversial, electroconvulsive therapy is actually a widely used treatment for depression. Contrary to what you may know about ECT, it is much safer and effective today than it used to be.
During ECT, the patient undergoes general anesthesia while a doctor introduces mild electric currents in a controlled setting. These electric currents have shown to cause immediate chemical changes in the brain that can reverse symptoms of depression quickly. However, it doesn't work for everyone.
Meditation and Yoga
Meditation can be extremely effective in reversing symptoms of depression. Studies show it can actually reduce our reaction to stressors by reducing the release of cortisol during stressful situations. Not to mention, it can "protect the hippocampus," which is important for memory and learning.
Similarly, yoga is a form of meditation that incorporates mindful exercise to create harmony between the mind and body. Research shows "yoga-based interventions" can help depressed people improve their mood. However, yoga may be especially effective when used alongside a mental health program suited to your unique diagnosis.
Medications can help with depression by manipulating brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. However, many antidepressants address mood symptoms while leaving us to take care of other cognitive symptoms on our own.
Depression is also linked to vitamin D Deficiency, especially in elderly men and women. As such, balancing vitamin D levels may help soothe certain symptoms of depression.
Specifically, people with Seasonal Affective Disorder may benefit from balancing out their vitamin D levels. Light exposure therapy is a proven treatment for vitamin D deficiency and SAD.
But you can also use a nature-identical multivitamin with vitamin D like the Performance Lab® Whole Food Multi.
Mind Lab Pro® Nootropics for Depression
Nootropics for depression can help enhance cognitive processes, which may help with the specific cognitive deficits associated with depression.
**Keep in mind: nootropics for depression cannot treat the problem. They can, however, help you to maintain mental performance and mood balance at times when you are feeling blue.
Best Nootropic for Depression: Citicoline
Citicoline has proven to help with depressive disorders. Hence why it is the best nootropic for depression out there.
- Specifically, one double-blind, randomized study included over 50 patients with Major Depressive Disorder. It concluded that a group of patients who were administered 100 mg of citicoline twice daily for 6 weeks had "significantly greater improvement" in their disorder over the placebo group.<7>
L-Theanine is an all-natural brain booster that has suggested to help improve symptoms of depression.
- Specifically, one study shows L-Theanine may help with symptoms including "anxiety, sleep disturbance and cognitive impairments."<8>
Monks have used L-Theanine for thousands of years to induce a sense of calm relaxation for meditation. It does so by manipulating alpha wave activity in the brain and inhibiting excitatory brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin.
L-Theanine has even shown to inhibit the stress hormone cortisol, ultimately reducing the effects of stress to help balance the mood during the blues.
Rhodiola rosea is another natural nootropic that has been studied for its potential to soothe cognitive symptoms of depression.
Specifically, it shows promise for alleviating symptoms of depression in mild to moderately depressed individuals.<9> It has also shown to relieve self-reported symptoms of anxiety, stress and mood imbalance after 2 weeks.
As such, we suggest that rhodiola rosea may help improve some symptoms in individuals experiencing mood imbalance. It works by manipulating neurotransmitters and buffering the stress hormone cortisol in the brain.
This brain supplement can help improve memory by supporting brain chemicals like dopamine, Nerve Growth Factor and norepinephrine.
- When it comes to depression, a small study on 10 elderly women with depression concluded phosphatidylserine "induced consistent improvement" in memory and other depressive symptoms.<10>
Another study shows PS supports memory and cognitive function. As such, we suggest that men and women (especially aging men and women) having trouble with memory as a symptom of their depression may benefit from taking phosphatidylserine as a supplement or as part of a brain stack.
Vitamin B6, Vitamin B9 and Vitamin B12
Lion's Mane Mushroom
Last but not least, Lion's Mane Mushroom is a nootropic ingredient that has shown the potential to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in human clinical research.
While Lion's Mane Mushroom may be most known for its ability to promote Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), its mechanism of action for supporting healthy mood remains unknown.
Mind Lab Pro® supplies 11 research-backed ingredients, including some of the best nootropics for depression.
Essentially, Mind Lab Pro® Nootropics help support mood balance, motivation, concentration, memory, sleep and more for 100% Brainpower™.
Since depression can hinder each of these aspects of cognition, nootropics may help you to maintain peak cognitive performance when you're feeling down.
**Keep in mind, however, nootropics are not antidepressants and they are not substitutes for antidepressants. You should always consult your doctor before pairing or replacing other medications with nootropics.
And seeing as anxiety and depression often go hand-in-hand, you may want to check out our guide on nootropics for social anxiety.
- Yang L et al. The Effects of Psychological Stress on Depression. Curr Neuropharmacol. 2015 Jul; 13(4): 494–504.
- Layne C. Motivational deficit in depression: people's expectations x outcomes' impacts. J Clin Psychol. 1980 Jul;36(3):647-52.
- Neil P. Jones, PhD et al. Motivational and Emotional Influences on Cognitive Control in Depression: A Pupillometry Study. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2015 Jun; 15(2): 263–275.
- David Nutt, DM et al. Sleep disorders as core symptoms of depression. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2008 Sep; 10(3): 329–336.
- Watts FN, Sharrock R. Description and measurement of concentration problems in depressed patients. Psychol Med. 1985 May;15(2):317-26.
- Wiener CD, de Mello Ferreira S et al. Serum levels of nerve growth factor (NGF) in patients with major depression disorder and suicide risk. J Affect Disord. 2015 Sep 15;184:245-8.
- Roohi-Azizi M et al. Citicoline Combination Therapy for Major Depressive Disorder: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial. Clin Neuropharmacol. 2017 Jan/Feb;40(1):1-5.
- Hidese S et al. Effects of chronic l-theanine administration in patients with major depressive disorder: an open-label study. Acta Neuropsychiatr. 2017 Apr;29(2):72-79.
- Mao JJ et al. Rhodiola rosea versus sertraline for major depressive disorder: A randomized placebo-controlled trial. Phytomedicine. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2016 Mar 15.
- Maggioni M et al. Effects of phosphatidylserine therapy in geriatric patients with depressive disorders. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 1990 Mar;81(3):265-70.