Safe, Natural Depression Treatments

July 12, 2017
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

Depression is a wicked enemy. It empties people and their families of joy, pleasure, companionship, and often, hope. But there are many ways to push this enemy away—among them, natural depression treatments that work alone or as partners with conventional therapies.

Keep in mind that my go-to recommendations are only for cases of mild to moderate depression—not severe depression. If signals of severe depression are present—trouble with daily tasks, thoughts of harming oneself or others, you must report them to the doctor immediately.

First, get the name right

What is depression? The National Institutes of Mental Health (NIH) describe depression (also called major depressive disorder or clinical depression) as “a common but serious mood disorder [with] severe symptoms that affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working. To be diagnosed with depression, the symptoms must be present for at least two weeks.”

Note the use of disorder, not disease, which is commonly used. I much prefer it that way—a disorder sounds far more manageable. That’s as it should be—depression can be managed right out of someone’s life.

How much do you know about depression?

A recent survey of adults 65 and older found that:

  • Approximately 68 percent know little or almost nothing about depression.
  • Only 38 percent believe that depression is a “health” problem.
  • When suffering from depression, they’re more likely than any other group to “handle it themselves.”
  • Only 42 percent would seek help from a health professional.
  • About 58 percent believe that it’s “normal” for people to get depressed as they age.

These are pretty, well, depressing findings. We cannot ignore the emotional, institutional, and financial costs depression brings on—affecting more than 19 million Americans each year.

So let’s look in our toolbox of supplements for depression to see how we can fight back—never forgetting that powerful lifestyle changes, like cleaning up your diet and getting more exercise, can help multiply the health benefits of a good quality supplement.

Natural remedies a’plenty

Thankfully, nature has given us plenty of safe, effective ways to loosen depressions grip, either on their own or to make many ongoing, conventional therapies more effective, and in some cases, less painful and disruptive.

All of them are worth your and your doctor’s consideration.

5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is a formulation produced from the seeds of Griffonia simplicifolia, an African plant long used to treat depression and many other disorders and diseases.

It works in the brain and central nervous system by increasing the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates our mood. Upping the serotonin level has been shown to reduce anxiety, generally, and to ease the dark, debilitating emotional symptoms of depression.

5-HTP comes with a nice bonus—it’s been shown to reduce appetite. So if being overweight is contributing to your depression (or vice versa), here’s a double hit of feeling better.

For daytime relief, take one or two 50 mg doses. To help you sleep, take 100-200 mg.

The B-Vitamins play an A-team role in maintaining nervous system functions. It’s a group of eight specific vitamins, known by a number, e.g., B-12, or by name: thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and so on.

Together, in a B-complex formula, they help turn food into energy, help create new red blood cells, and help build your brain’s chemical messengers. Individually, each B vitamin also serves its own purpose in the nervous system.

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B-12, for example, is essential for protecting your nerve coverings and cleansing your body of homocysteine, a dangerous compound associated with depression and linked to stroke and cardiovascular disease.

My older patients are at increased risk for B-12 deficiency—their reduced amount of stomach acid means reduced absorption of the vitamin. B-12 deficiency at any age may lead to nervous system disorders. I recommend a high-quality B-complex multivitamin to cover all the bases. Consult with your doctor about upping amounts of individual B vitamins.

Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) benefit every cell of every body, including, of course, nerve cells. They aid in the transmission of the nerve impulses that guide our daily actions. Omega-3 EFAs like DHA and EPA are especially useful when the supplement contains the proper formulation of 2.5 parts DHA to 1 part EPA. I recommend 2,000 mg, total, daily.

Saffron is one of the most trusted and effective mood boosters and depression lifters we know. What we don’t know is exactly how it works, though it’s very likely that increased serotonin production plays a role. Research is ongoing to track down the reasons, but saffron’s long empirical history assures us that it’s perfectly safe and effective (though not for people with bipolar disorder). 30 mg daily in 2 divided doses is effective in improving symptoms of mild to moderate depression.

Rhodiola is one of those wonderful adaptogens—substances that roam around the body, improving the function of just about anything they bump into. It’s been used as a multi-tasking healer throughout Europe and Asia since forever.

As an adaptogen, it helps the body adapt to and resist physical, chemical, and environmental stress. It’s used to do everything from improving cognitive function to preventing liver damage to improving hearing and more. Several studies have found that self-assessment of general well-being improves among subjects taking a rhodiola supplement—evidence of a depression-easing effect.

Phenylalanine is an amino acid essential for building protein. The body changes phenylalanine into tyrosine, another amino acid that is needed to make proteins and brain chemicals. Among these chemicals are L-dopa, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and thyroid hormones—all found to affect mood, and therefore to treat depression, though the exact mechanism isn’t yet known. Anecdotal and empirical evidence, however, including study subjects’ self-reported feelings of “mood improvement,” offer positive support for phenylalanine’s efficacy.

I have my patients take DLphenylalanine—750 mg twice daily, preferably at breakfast and lunch. People with a rare disorder known as phenylketonuria (PKU) should not use phenylalanine.

There’s excellent evidence that St. John’s wort is good news—reducing symptoms of mild-to-moderate (not severe) depression as effectively as heavy Big Pharma hitters like Prozac and Zoloft—but without the nasty side effects.

It seems to work the same way as other natural remedies, increasing production of serotonins and other mood-lifting brain chemicals.

There are still those who want more evidence before recommending St. John’s wort, but I’m not among them. I recommend a daily dose of 600 to 1,200 mg. Look for a standardized product containing 0.3 percent hypericin, the active ingredient.

It’s a great menu of choices—take advantage

My closing advice:

  • Don’t use a supplement to treat severe depression, where you have trouble functioning day to day, or have thoughts of harming yourself or others. Always see your doctor if you are or might be depressed, or if you want to try one of these recommended supplements. Some supplements make conventional meds more effective, but they must not be your only treatment.
  • If you’re among the 68 percent of over-65s who “know little or almost nothing” about depression, or the 72 percent who don’t believe that depression is a “health” problem…please read up and learn more about this potentially debilitating disorder.
  • And by all means, don’t be among the “handle it yourself” 58 percent, or the 58 percent who hold the dismal—and totally wrong—view that it’s “normal” for people to get depressed as age.

And remember that lifestyle changes—healthier meals, more exercise, an active social life—play a larger role in treating depression and anything else that ails you—than almost anything. Those alone can do the turnaround trick.

Take good care.

References

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