Depression rates are increasing, and drug treatments can be accompanied by scary side effects. The good news is there are natural ways of addressing depression.
About 21 million adults—8.4 percent of the US population—have had at least one depressive episode in the last year. Rates of depression are increasing, especially among young people: for teens, rates of depression increased from 8.7 percent in 2005 to 12.7 percent in 2015. Despite the fact that depression is among the more treatable mental disorders, it is often untreated; about 66 percent of adults and 41.6 percent of adolescents who had a depressive episode get treatment. There are many options for treating depression that do not include pharmaceutical drugs, which can come with many serious side effects.
Depression is characterized by chemical changes and imbalances in the brain, meaning that it is an illness. It can interfere with a person’s thoughts, feelings, behavior, and physical health. It can last for weeks, months, or years. If left untreated, depression can lead to suicide. Many factors can lead to depression. It can run in families; it can be triggered by another disease or medication; life changes and long-term stress, and how a person copes with this stress, can lead to depression. Sometimes there is no discernible reason.
This article will NOT focus on the many pharmaceutical options to treat depression. These may be appropriate for some people in some situations, but these drugs do come with very serious side effects. The good news is there are many evidence-based natural therapies to address depression. Before trying any of these, please consult with a (preferably integrative) doctor.
Exercise. There have been over 1,000 clinical trials looking at the relationship between exercise and depression. It has been found to be as effective as prescription medications without the side effects. Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise have shown benefit in depression. Because depression can itself prevent self-care, structured exercise programs that provide ongoing supervision, support, and motivation increase the chance of patients sticking with it.
Chronotherapy. Chronotherapy involves limiting exposures to things that disrupt the circadian rhythm—that is, the signaling between the brain’s “clock” and cells throughout the body. Disruptions to the circadian rhythm can lead to mood disorders. Examples of stimuli that disrupt the circadian rhythm include nighttime activity or light exposure, atypical eating patterns, alcohol overconsumption, shift work, and travel through time zones. The goal of chronotherapy is to restore normal circadian control. There is clinical research supporting the use of chronotherapy—which includes bright light therapy and sleep deprivation—for the treatment of depression.
Meditation. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to be helpful in reducing the severity of major depression. Mindfulness training, which emphasizes focused attention on the present moment, may have lasting positive effects on resilience to stress that may reduce the risk and symptoms of depression. Meditation and mindfulness may alter the signaling and connectivity in regions of the brain involved in depression and anxiety.
Diet. Food choices can influence mood and behavior. High sugar intake has been found to be associated with a higher incidence of depression. When people are stressed, they are more likely to crave carbohydrates, leading to weight gain. Caffeine has also been associated with higher incidence of depression; too much can artificially over-stimulate the autonomic nervous system leading to fatigue and an irregular sleep/wake cycle. Diets that limit inflammatory foods (high in trans fats, processed sugars, etc.) and emphasize anti-inflammatory foods (fruits, vegetables, unprocessed foods high in phytonutrients) have been associated with a reduced risk of depression.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Omega-3’s enhance fluidity and help cell walls remain liquid at cold temperatures (this is why cold water fish are a good source of this nutrient). This fluidity allows more efficient binding of neurotransmitters and enhances the benefits of medications in the treatment of depression. Products with a higher ratio of EPA to DHA have a mood elevating effect.
B Vitamins. These vitamins are integral to the body’s ability to produce serotonin. Certain medications can lead to B-vitamins deficiencies, like proton pump inhibitors for acid reflux and birth control pills; depression is the most common symptom of folate deficiency. B vitamins can lower levels of perceived stress and improve mood in healthy individuals.
S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe). SAMe is important to many biochemical reactions in the body. It is essential to the activation of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. SAMe synthesis relies on B vitamins, so deficiencies in these vitamins decrease SAMe concentrations which can negatively affect mood.
St. John’s Wort. Multiple clinical trials have shown St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) can reduce symptoms of major depression with a similar efficacy to antidepressant drugs, but with fewer adverse side effects. St. John’s wort extracts that are high in hyperforin can impact the metabolism of certain drugs, so those on other medications can look for preparations that are low in hyperforin.
Saffron. Saffron’s effect on depression is likely due to its anti-inflammatory effects and its ability to raise dopamine levels. Clinical trials and meta-analyses have shown that saffron extract is more effective than placebo for improving mild-to-moderate depression.
Zinc. One meta-analysis found low zinc intake was associated with higher risk of depression. Patients with depression seem to have lower zinc levels compared to non-depressed individuals. Supplementing with zinc has been found to improve depression both alone and alongside antidepressant therapy
Probiotics. Research into the gut microbiome has revealed incredible connections between the gut and the brain. Metabolites produced by the gut microbiota include neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine; changes in the gut microbiota contribute to anxiety and depression. People with depression have been found to have reduced gut microbial abundance and diversity. Eating probiotic-rich fermented foods was correlated with lower risk of major depression. A number of clinical trials and other research indicate probiotic supplements can be effective in treating depression.
Vitamin D. Low vitamin D has been associated with depression risk in observational studies, and several studies have noted a link between vitamin D deficiency and suicide. These connections may be related to vitamin D’s immune regulating and anti-inflammatory effects, as well as its influence on neurotransmitter levels.
Depression is a serious illness that is affecting more and more people, especially at a younger age. But this doesn’t mean affected individuals have to take dangerous drugs for the rest of their lives. There are many natural options to manage and treat depression that do not come with the serious side effects and high cost of prescription medications.