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Supplement Could Help Alleviate Depression

August 14, 2010

When other options have failed, an over-the-counter nutritional supplement may help some people with depression, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that the supplement called S-Adenosyl Methionine, or SAMe, when added to a patients’ antidepressant treatment helped more people with depression improve their symptoms than those that took an inactive placebo on top of their normal medication.

Researchers also found that the supplement had fewer side effects than medications that are approved by the FDA for depression.

The study’s lead author, Dr. George Papakostas, of the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, told Reuters Health that the preliminary finding is exciting.

About half of people who suffer from major depression do not get better, even after using several antidepressants, Papakostas said.

While there are a few medications approved by the FDA that these patients can take in addition to antidepressants, those drugs — known as atypical antipsychotics — can have serious and possibly life-threatening side effects, he said.

In the study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Papakostas and his team gave SAMe to 39 people who had major depression that hadn’t gotten better with antidepressant therapy. The participants took 1600 milligrams each day in addition to their standard antidepressants they were using before the study began.

The researchers gave 34 similar patients a placebo pill on top of their antidepressants. Neither group were told which treatment they were given.

The team then used two standard tests for depression to measure patients’ symptoms each week for the next six weeks.

About 25 percent of patients in the study dropped out because they were not getting better or didn’t feel well on the supplement or the placebo. But SAMe had no serious side effects, and a similar number of patients stopped the study because they didn’t like SAMe and they didn’t like the placebo.

Among those that completed the six-week study, both depression tests showed that more patients on SAMe than on the placebo responded to treatment and got better.

Other studies have shown that SAMe can influence chemicals in the brain and may work solely as an antidepressant, but the way it works is not fully understood.

SAMe is found naturally in the human body and is sold as a supplement in many vitamin stores. But it is more expensive than many antidepressants, Dr. Raymond Lam, the director of Mood & Anxiety Disorders at The University of British Columbia, told Reuters.

Long-term studies will be needed to see if SAMe is as effective in helping patients with major depressive disorder as their results suggest.

Papakostas said the finding “is exciting because (SAMe) works differently than what we have now — it doesn’t seem to be associated with the kind of side effects that FDA-approved treatments for this niche have.” But, he said, “it needs to be replicated.”

Lam agreed. “Depression is a complicated condition. We don’t know exactly what works for which people, and so it is important that people don’t rush out and stop taking whatever they’re taking in order to use a new treatment,” he told Reuters Health.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and both SAMe and placebo pills were provided by the dietary supplement company Pharmavite, which markets SAMe.

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