Depression affects approximately 19 million Americans in any given year. That is a large number, and doctors will prescribe antidepressants to most of the people who actually seek treatment. Unfortunately, most antidepressants have at least one side effect, and many will not completely alleviate the symptoms.
Luckily, there are researchers and physicians looking for other, more natural ways to treat depression. When experiencing a depressive episode of my own, I sought out the research to find alternatives to antidepressants. This led me to the following solutions. With the help of my physician, I implemented these strategies. While not as easy as popping a pill every morning, the lack of side effects made it a livable solution. I hope that my experiences can help you also.
Exercising just makes you feel better. Ask any runner or devotee of spin class, the endorphin high you get is addicting. Research has shown that this feel-good effect helps with the long-term effects of depression in adult and children.
Introducing exercise into your daily life when you are already depressed can be challenging, but the results are worth the effort. Trying walking on your lunch break, maybe even recruit some office buddies to walk with you. They can help provide that little push you need to get going every day. If you are further down the rabbit hole and just have trouble getting out of bed, use the motivation of playing with your pet, or ask a family member to remind you how much better you feel after just a short 20-minute walk. Once you get a routine established, you will be surprised how easy it will be to maintain. You will probably even want to increase your activity level.
A healthy diet contributes to a healthy body and a healthy body usually translates to a healthy mind. Unfortunately, sometimes our diet needs a little help. For various reasons, our healthy diet still might not provide all the needed nutrients. This deficiency can contribute to depression.
The other consideration is the definition of a healthy diet. There is no disagreement that lots of vegetables and clean proteins make a healthy diet. However, medical professionals will disagree about how much is necessary of the different nutrients. Most conventional practitioners will say stick to the RDA amounts, but others will say that the RDA calculation was based on the bare minimums need to not be ill. To be truly healthy, most of us probably need higher levels of nutrients.
I found three different supplements that make a big difference in mood. One caveat: where vitamins and minerals are concerned, more is not always better. Overdosing on certain vitamins and minerals can be dangerous, while others are water-soluble and the excess is washed away. Make sure you do your research on dosages and consult with your physician before starting any supplements.
- B vitamins
B vitamins, often called the “anti-stress vitamins,” are essential for combating stress and help create the neurotransmitters necessary for maintaining a positive mood. A brief listing of each of the eight vitamins and their purpose can be found here. B vitamins are one of the water-soluble types, so to keep a steady supply, you need to ingest them daily.
For mental health, the most important of the eight are B6, B9 (also known as folic acid), and B12. B6 and B12 are essential for the formation of neurotransmitters in the brain. B9 it also protects the brain from the buildup of brain plaques that are a factor in Alzheimer’s disease.
Magnesium is important all over the body. More than 300 biochemical reactions in the body need it. It affects bone metabolism and a deficiency might contribute to osteoporosis. It also helps control inflammation, blood sugar, and enables energy production. For our purposes, its most important function is regulation of brain cell membrane receptors. In addition, it acts as a barrier to the brain, keeping out stress hormones and it keeps the body from pumping too much cortisol into your system when under stress.
A case can be made for linking the historical increase of depression to the decrease in magnesium in our diet. Our ancestors would have had a ready supply of magnesium through whole wheat, water, organ meats and even swimming in the ocean. Today, soils have been depleted of minerals, water is treated to remove minerals and the over-processing of grains eliminates magnesium. When you add in the facts that too much calcium can decrease the absorption of magnesium and stress causes you to use magnesium faster, you find that many people are deficient in magnesium.
Statistics indicate that anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of Americans do not get the recommended amount of magnesium. Even if you do not have depression, you could probably benefit from a magnesium supplement. As long as your kidneys are healthy, you should not have any problem taking magnesium.
- Vitamin D
Studies have linked the deficiency of vitamin D to depression. It also affects cardiovascular disease, severe asthma in children, and cancer. Even with its obvious importance, research suggests that up to 75 percent of Americans are deficient in vitamin D.
It is called the “sunshine vitamin” because the UVB rays in sunshine on bare skin causes the production of the vitamin in our body. Causes for deficiency include not enough UVB rays or use of sunscreen. If you live above the 37th parallel, you do not get enough UVB rays for most of the year to produce vitamin D. During the summer months when there are enough UVB rays getting through the atmosphere, if you are wearing sunscreen or long sleeves, they will also prohibit production of vitamin D.
It is hard to get enough vitamin D from food, so you need to take a supplement to meet your daily requirements. Your doctor can easily test for vitamin D levels. The safe upper limit for vitamin D is 4,000 IU, but your doctor may prescribe more to correct your deficiency.
The final piece of the puzzle was a probiotic. The study of human gut bacteria is booming. The research is still in early stages, but so far, it indicates a strong connection between a healthy gut and a healthy mind. Researchers are looking at the role of the the vagus nerve in mood regulation. It runs from the brainstem to the abdomen, is extremely active, and the abdomen seems to be sending more information to the brain, rather than the other way around. Also, the nerve cells in our gut produce 80 to 90 percent of our body’s serotonin, which helps regulate mood.
If you are just interested in results without a lot of research, read this article about a psychiatrist helping her patients with food and probiotics. A former proponent of antidepressants, she has completely given up on prescribing them. She says she cannot remember the last time she wasn’t able to help someone with her plan of diet (a modified form of the paleo diet) and probiotics.
An option to probiotics is fermented food, The many varieties will provide the same benefits, without the cost. Unless you are like me and dislike most fermented foods. In that case, a well-formulated probiotic is the answer. The effect will not be immediate, but after about four weeks, there should be in improvement in mood and quality of sleep.
Following this regimen is more work than taking an antidepressant every day. It takes work to be mindful of your moods, and your body’s health on a daily basis. However, this path to wellness will lead to not only better mental health but also better physical health.