Holistic Help for Depression
By Mark J Kaylor
Humankind has a very long history with depression and Hippocrates has been attributed with first naming it, calling it “melancholia”. Today you can make a strong case for depression having reached epidemic proportions. Depression is also currently the most common psychiatric disorder and is thought to affect 1 in 20 of us at any given time. On top of this, about one third of adults will suffer from depression sometime in their lifetime; while in the U.S., approximately 1 in 6 will suffer a depressive episode in any given year (just a few years ago this stat was 1 in 10, so things are getting worse). Women are also much more likely to suffer from depression, erasing it at a rate 2 to 3 times higher than men. Clearly, we are in need of help… thankfully there is much we can do.
What is Depression & What is the Best Approach
So when we talk about depression what is it that we are actually discussing? It is important for us to distinguish the ups and downs we all have as we move through our lives versus clinical depression. We all have our down moments, but not everyone gets depressed. Depression is a mood or affective disorder, this means it must be pervasive and a sustained emotion that affects how a person views the world and negatively affects their ability to function in society. Technically referred to as unipolar depression, this imbalance can manifest as a result of many different factors, including physical, physiological, environmental, hormonal, genetic, brain plasticity, prolonged stress, and many more, making it a very complex disorder and not likely to be successfully treated with a single remedy. It is due to the fundamental nature of depression that I feel a holistic approach that covers as many bases as possible is the one that is most likely to yield positive responses.
In this article we will first very briefly introduce several impacting dietary choices we can make to help us find relief. Next up we will explore two extreme ends of the ‘remedial spectrum’, beginning with a look at a number of allies that can help correct and balance biochemical aspects of depression. We will then move to a broader application exploring several tonic remedies that act on the body as a whole as well as systemically but also have some mood specific benefiting activities.
Diet & Depression
There are a number of simple dietary guidelines that can help you on your path keeping in mind that a better nourished body can support a healthier functioning mind. Eat a high-fiber plant-based colorful diet full of nutrient dense, unprocessed foods. It really is as simple as that. There are however, some dietary notes – so you haven’t gotten off that easily. Avoid eating refined sugar and carbohydrates, and drinking alcohol and caffeine or other stimulants. It is also important to maintain a balanced omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. Studies have found a low ratio positively correlates with depression.
Special mention needs to be made of the impact that nutritional deficiencies can have on one’s mood. The deficiency of even one nutrient can hamper brain function while increasing the risk for depression and anxiety. Here are a few key examples. Niacin deficiency is linked to apathy, anxiety and depression. Deficiencies of other B vitamins, namely B2, biotin, B5, B6, folic acid, and B12 are all associated with depression; case in point, approximately one third of depressed patients were shown to be short on folic acid. And it’s not limited to the B vitamins, selenium, for instance, is associated with increased incidence of depression and anxiety as well as hostility and confusion. Other impacting deficiencies include magnesium and zinc. The moral of the story is to make sure you’re probably nourished. Eat well and take a good quality high-dose multivitamin and mineral.
A Biochemical Approach
Aside from the use of counseling, the biochemical approach has been the predominant treatment. There are several nutritional supplements that may also offer beneficial actions with regards to neurotransmitters and their function. Several amino acids have exhibited promise in early trials. Tryptophan increases both serotonin and melatonin.
5-HTP, bioavailable form of tryptophan also can increase serotonin levels as well as increasing endorphin and catecholamine levels. Two other aminos, phenylalanine and tyrosine, are important precursors to key neurotransmitters.
SAMe, a compound made from the amino acid methionine, has multiple double-blind studies supporting its benefits for the relief of depression. Several studies found it comparable to antidepressant drugs while working more quickly.
The best known herb for depression is, of course, St John’s wort, which is been shown to improve depression, anxiety, apathy, feelings of worthlessness, and insomnia. Research has found that it may raise serotonin levels while inhibiting its breakdown and may improve serotonin signaling. Comparative studies found it to be as or more effective than several leading drugs.
The Tonic Whole Body Approach
When taking a holistic approach to depression it is essential to consider the health of the body as a whole – a more resilient body can more effectively support a more resilient mind. The leading whole body tonic that also has specific depression fighting actions is one of the oldest and most highly prized traditional remedies, namely the Reishi mushroom. As a tonic Reishi supports virtually every major organ and system in our body. As an adaptogen, Reishi helps the body to successfully adapt to life’s stresses and strains. In traditional Chinese medicine Reishi is considered a powerful Shen tonic, supporting, nourishing, and balancing the emotional/spiritual center of the body. Reishi’s holistic actions in the battle against depression include detoxification and liver support, improve sleep quality, heart tonic, anti-inflammatory, adrenal support, improved energy supply to the brain, and nerve pain reduction to name a few. As evidence of the power of its mood supporting activities one trial found that breast cancer patients reported reduced levels of depression and anxiety, as well as improvement in overall quality of life.
Two other mood-supporting tonics, with somewhat similar activities, are Cordyceps and Rhodiola. Both long used traditional remedies are adaptogens that can decrease fatigue while strengthening the health of the whole organism. They both are also supported by animal studies suggesting they may help improve depression directly.
Depression may well be one of the most misunderstood conditions still to this day. One survey found almost 3/4 of respondents thought mental illness was due to emotional weakness (a fact that I have found to be quite the opposite – with individuals who are fighting depression often being extraordinarily strong). It is also one of the most underrecognized and undertreated diseases. Please don’t let this hold you back or stop you from taking action. Get involved in your own health and healing; and seek out and get the help you need and deserve. Explore some of the options discussed above and incorporate as many as you feel fit and are capable of; no single one remedy is likely the remedy of depression, however the more positive steps that you take and incorporate in your life, the greater the likelihood of finding your happiness.