Here's some uplifting news for depression sufferers: S-adenoslymethionine(SAM-e)—a naturally occurring compound in human cells that boosts mood-influencing brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine—is available in the U.S. as a dietary supplement.
"There's a correlation between low levels of SAM-e and depression," explains Richard Brown, M.D., clinical psychiatry professor at Columbia University and coauthor of Stop Depression Now (Putnam, 1999). Research since the 1970s suggests that SAM-e's antidepressant action is comparable to that of prescription drugs.
One such study, presented at a medical conference in Brussels, found SAM-e to be as effective in treating severe depression as the antidepressant imipramine. Furthermore, in a pilot study published in the Journal of Movement Disorders, researchers examining depression in Parkinson's disease patients found that 10 of the 13 patients reported a 50% improvement in their symptoms after taking SAM-e for 10 weeks.
Used in tandem with conventional antidepressants, SAM-e also enhances their effectiveness. A study published in Psychiatry Research comparing 40 depression sufferers taking imipramine, half of whom were also given 400 mg of SAM-e a day, found a significant difference between the two treatments. "The SAM-e group was much better in four days," says Brown. And compared with other pharmaceutical antidepressants, SAM-e also has fewer nasty side effects.
Despite it's benefits, SAM-e is not entirely foolproof. Bipolar disorder sufferers should avoid SAM-e as it can induce mania, and some people experience mild gastrointestinal problems, occasional headaches or heart palpitations. Still, SAM-e doesn't cause the weight gain or sexual dysfunction associated with prescription antidepressants—a huge plus, says Brown, since about 30% of patients stop taking standard antidepressants before improvements can occur. "More people will get better on SAM-e because they won't drop out because of the side effects," he explains.
And SAM-e has other unusual bonuses. For starters, research suggests it alleviates arthritis and may even regenerate lost cartilage, and animal studies have found that it restores memory—a promising discovery for Alzheimer's patients. SAM-e may even benefit the liver: Brown's own study of 20 HIV patients with depression found that both their mood and liver function improved tremendously—a connection he attributes to SAM-e's ability to boost levels of glutathione. An antioxidant, glutathione is generated in the liver, and is crucial for immune function and often lacking in HIV patients.
With so much going for it, Brown believes there's no reason not to use SAM-e. "Eighty percent of people with depression have to be on medication for a lot of their adult lives," says Brown. "I'd rather give them something that does good things in their bodies as they get older."