Natural Depression Treatment
Symptoms of Depression
The most common symptoms of depression include:
- Little interest or pleasure in doing things
- Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless
- Trouble falling or staying asleep, or sleeping too much
- Feeling tired or having little energy
- Poor appetite or overeating
- Feeling bad about yourself, or that you are a failure, or have let yourself or your family down
- Trouble concentrating on things, such as reading the newspaper or watching television
- Moving or speaking so slowly that other people could have noticed. Or the opposite – being so fidgety or restless that you have been moving around a lot more than usual.
- Thoughts that you would be better off dead or of hurting yourself in some way
To determine whether you may have depression, there is a very useful screening tool called the PHQ-9 (Patient Health Questionnaire-9), from which the above symptoms of depression are taken. To access this questionnaire online, click here.
Causes of Depression
In most cases, depression is caused by a combination of modifiable and non-modifiable factors. The most common modifiable factors that contribute to depression include the following:
- Food allergies
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Methylation defects
- Physical inactivity
- Neurotransmitter imbalances
- Omega 3 fatty acid deficiency
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
There are other causes that you may not be able to do anything about, including:
Depression, like most conditions, is multi-factorial. In any given person, a variety of factors will add up to cause the depression. When enough of those factors are present (when a certain threshold is exceeded), the person experiences depression. To prevent the depression, all of the factors don’t generally need to be addressed, just enough of the factors to take the person below this threshold. This means that even people with causes from the second non-modifiable list can still benefit from addressing causes from the first modifiable list.
Food Allergies in Depression Treatment
Natural depression treatment, first and foremost, should begin with identifying food allergies. Food allergies are a common condition in which the immune system reacts to certain foods in the same way that it reacts to bacteria and viruses, namely by producing antibodies. Food allergies can be immediate and life threatening, as in the case of someone who eats a strawberry and can't breathe, or they can be delayed and much less severe but nevertheless cause significant problems. The vast majority of people who have food allergies, many of whom don't know it, have the delayed type of reaction.
The reason that many people aren't aware that they have food allergies is because the allergic reaction can take up to two days to occur after eating the allergic food. This makes it very difficult to associate the symptoms of an allergic reaction to a particular food. The other difficulty is that food allergies can cause a wide variety of symptoms such as asthma, eczema, psoriasis, arthritis, ear infections, sinusitis, headaches, irritable bowel, inflammatory bowel disease, anxiety, depression, fatigue, hyperactivity, obesity, and post nasal drip.
There are many different options when it comes to diagnosing food allergies. The best is a blood antibody test, which is more accurate for this type of allergy than a skin prick test.
Blood Sugar Imbalances in Depression Treatment
Blood sugar imbalances, caused by eating too much sugar and flour, are very important to address in natural depression treatment. Sugar and flour are high glycemic foods, which mean they cause your blood sugar to spike after you eat them. This is often followed by a blood sugar drop, known as reactive hypoglycemia. In addition to depression, sugar and flour can also cause inflammation, fatigue, weight gain, and anxiety. Those who have high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, high triglycerides, low HDL (good) cholesterol, or are overweight may have metabolic syndrome and are especially likely to benefit from avoiding high glycemic foods. Added sugars such as dessert, soda and other sugar sweetened beverages, honey, and maple syrup should be eliminated, and all grains should be whole grains and limited to once daily.
Methylation Defects in Depression Treatment
Methylation is a process the body uses to make and metabolize neurotransmitters. Problems with methylation can therefore trigger neurotransmitter imbalances which lead to depression and/or anxiety. The vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid/folate are crucial to proper methylation, and hence any problems with these nutrients can contribute to depression. Unfortunately it is not always as simple as taking a vitamin pill with the above nutrients, because some people don’t absorb or metabolize these vitamins properly.
- Folic acid – a fairly common genetic defect in the enzyme methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) can result in a reduced ability to convert dietary and supplemental folic acid to its activated form (L-5-methylfolate) which the body requires. Blood testing is available to determine if you have this genetic defect and supplemental L-5-methyfolate is available to bypass this issue
- Vitamin B12 – B12 is absorbed differently than any other vitamin or mineral, and some people are unable to absorb this nutrient properly. Even if you aren’t deficient, giving high levels of this vitamin by injection may help to compensate for other methylation defects and improve depression rapidly.
- Vitamin B6 – The levels of this nutrient in most vitamins and even B-complex formulas is too low for most people with depression. In addition, some people respond better to the activated form of vitamin B6, which is known as pyridoxal-5-phosphate (P5P).
Physical Activity in Depression Treatment
Being physically active is one of the single best things you can do for your current and future health. In the short term it can reduce stress and improve mood, energy, sleep, blood pressure, cholesterol, joint pain, and blood sugar, among other things. In the long term it will reduce your risk for heart attack, stroke, diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, most cancers, osteoporosis, and many other chronic diseases.
Omega 3 Fatty Acid Deficiency in Depression Treatment
Found primarily in fish, omega 3 oils such as EPA and DHA are crucial to proper brain function. They are therefore an important element of natural depression treatment. Recent studies have found omega 3 oils to be as effective as prescription drugs in the treatment of anxiety and depression. They also reduce inflammation and lower the risk of heart attack and stroke by about one third.
Neurotransmitter Imbalances in Depression Treatment
Neurotransmitters are substances produced in the brain and elsewhere that substantially affect mood. Examples include serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and GABA. Most medications used to treat anxiety and depression alter neurotransmitter levels in one way or another. Most anti-depressants, for example, increase the levels of serotonin. Most medications for anxiety increase GABA levels or activity. While most doctors treat most people with depression the same, not all people with depression have the same neurotransmitter imbalances. Some people have low levels of the calming neurotransmitter serotonin, others may low levels of the excitatory neurotransmitter norepinephrine.
Fortunately testing is now available to test neurotransmitter levels in the urine, allowing treatment to be tailored to the individual. Once a person’s specific imbalances are known, there are a variety of natural substances such as amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and herbal medicines that can be used to increase or decrease specific neurotransmitters to return the person to balance.
Natural Medicines for Depression
For those in whom identifying and treating the underlying causes of depression aren’t enough, there are a variety of natural medicines that can be very effective. Here are some of my favorites:
- L-tryptophan or 5-hydroxytryptophan – tryptophan is the amino acid precursor to serotonin. Taking either form helps to boost serotonin levels and can improve depression over the course of 4-6 weeks
- St. Johnswort – an herbal medicine that has been used for generations to treat depression. Effects are generally seen within 4-6 weeks.
Natural Medicines vs. Prescription Drugs
While prescription drugs can offer effective relief from depression, they can also cause significant side effects, including low libido, headache, insomnia, diarrhea, tremor, and other negative effects. Prescription drugs also usually just treat one complaint. If you have four different complaints, you will need to take 4 (or more) different drugs to address those complaints. Prescription drugs are also periodically recalled as new evidence comes to light on significant side effects (look at the example of hormone replacement therapy, to name only one). In contrast, the natural medicines I describe here typically have few to no side effects. The dietary changes and natural medicines I describe often help with many complaints at the same time. A person with food allergies, for example, may suffer from depression, arthritis, and irritable bowel – addressing the food allergies typically resolves or helps with all of these complaints at the same time, and helps to prevent future disease. Here is what I like to say to illustrate this point:
"Give a man a drug, he's healthy for a day.
Teach a woman a healthy lifestyle, she'll be healthy for a lifetime."
Bottom Line for the Natural Treatment of Depression
Natural depression treatment should begin with identifying and treating the underlying causes that can contribute to depression. Specifically, I recommend:
- Get a blood test for food allergies – Easy and accurate, this can be extraordinarily helpful
- Eat less sugar and flour – the effects of this simple dietary intervention can be dramatic for many people
- Take fish oil, or another source of omega 3 oils
- Test your neurotransmitters if the above items aren’t enough
- Take natural medicines such as L-tryptophan and St. Johnswort when you need something more
How We Can Help
Naturopathic doctors are physician experts in treating the underlying cause of disease and using natural medicines to help people get and stay well. To find out which natural treatments are appropriate for you or to be tested for food allergies, schedule an office visit or food allergy test.