Beat the Blues Naturally
Drug-Free Ways to Treat Depression
by Julie Peterson
Lack of interest, low energy, changes in weight, difficulty concentrating and feelings of worthlessness are some of the symptoms that can occur in varying degrees with depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 17.3 million adults in the U.S. experienced at least one major depressive episode in 2017. With the pandemic, the rate tripled, with 27.8 percent of adults reporting symptoms, according to a September 2020 study published in JAMA Network Open.
Mainstream medical doctors typically prescribe antidepressant drugs, but the plethora of adverse effects such as anxiety, digestive disturbances, headaches, weight gain and sexual dysfunction can cause additional woes. In addition, efficacy is in question. In The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth, Irving Kirsch, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the UK University of Hull, declares, “The belief that antidepressants can cure depression chemically is simply wrong.”
Antidepressants may merely mask symptoms. “Covering over symptoms is a missed opportunity to resolve the root cause of the problem,” says Manhattan-based holistic psychiatrist Kelly Brogan, author of A Mind of Your Own and co-editor of the textbook Integrative Therapies for Depression.
Further, because many depressed people do not receive treatment due to financial, cultural or personal reasons, effective alternative therapies are necessary for improving public health.
Before starting any treatment, it’s important to verify that depression exists and rule out potential conditions like nutritional deficiencies, low thyroid function, food allergies or other issues.
Many people find that herbs provide gentler action and fewer adverse effects than conventional antidepressants. Even some conventional health practitioners are beginning to get on board. Women’s health expert Nicole Galan, RN, wrote in a 2019 article in Medical News Today, “Medications and counseling are conventional ways to alleviate the symptoms of depression. However, some herbs and supplements may also help.”
Common herbs include St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), which has been shown to work about the same as antidepressants for mild and moderate depression; American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), which improve mental clarity and energy, and reduce the effects of stress; and saffron (Crocus sativus), which is safe and effective, although expensive. While herbal medicines are available over the counter, it’s important to consult with a doctor or herbalist, as some are not safe in conjunction with other medications or during pregnancy.
Homeopathic remedies are more complex, personalized and diluted, but have no contraindications. Lone Pedersen, a certified classical homeopath in Seattle, says that homeopathy treatments are “gentle, safe, non-toxic and side-effect free.”
Clean Food Improves Mood
Several studies have found that eating a poor-quality diet high in processed meat, sweets, fried food, refined cereals and high-fat dairy leads to a higher likelihood of depression. “The single greatest thing anyone can do for their health is to eat whole foods, including organic vegetables, fruits, high-quality proteins, whole grains and healthy fats,” says Dorothy Calimeris, an author and wellness coach in Oakland, whose cookbooks promote anti-inflammatory diets for optimal health.
Inflammation has been linked to numerous health issues, including depression. To start an anti-inflammatory diet, eliminate foods that commonly trigger inflammation, starting with gluten, soy, corn and the biggest culprit of all, sugar. A 2019 study by University of Kansas researchers and other studies indicate that sugar itself is a trigger for mental health issues.
Don’t forget about the “food” the skin absorbs. Switching to organic body care and home cleaning products minimizes exposure to biology-disrupting toxins that have been linked to depression.
Set the Endorphins Free
Many studies have shown that exercise reduces the symptoms of depression. Extra boosts come from getting outside to increase levels of vitamin D and exercising with a friend to enhance social support. Just 20 to 30 minutes of activity several times each week improves well-being. The best news is that any movement helps—walking, tai chi, gardening, dancing—anything that feels good.
“Taking a yoga class helps to relieve depression by increasing focus and attention, releasing endorphins and oxytocin, stretching the body, relaxing tension, creating community and adjusting breathing patterns,” says Rose Kress, owner and director of LifeForce Yoga Institute, in Lebanon, Oregon, and author of Awakening Your Inner Radiance with LifeForce Yoga. She recommends determining one enjoyable pose and practicing it every day: “Five minutes a day is enough to make a change.”
Julie Peterson writes about wellness and environmental issues and has contributed to Natural Awakenings for more than a decade.
“Mental health requires the ‘whole enchilada’, as the saying goes. Bring it all in! I use crystals, music, meditation, chanting, massage, painting, images, vitamins, essential oils, prayer, food, exercise, nature, friends and psychotherapy to remind me that I am already whole. Yoga is just one ingredient in the enchilada of mental health,” says Rose Kress, owner and director of the LifeForce Yoga Institute, in Lebanon, Oregon, and author of Awakening Your Inner Radiance with LifeForce Yoga. “If it brings you a sense of ease around your feelings of depression, use it. If you are not sure, ask your support network for help.”
Psychologists, support groups and counselors can be found through the Anxiety and Depression Association of America or by calling 1-800-662-HELP (4357), the national helpline of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Both are free, confidential referral and information services.
Depression can become severe and warrant intervention. If someone is suicidal, stay with them and contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, a 24/7 national network of local crisis centers, providing free and confidential emotional support to people in emotional distress.
Alternative modalities for depression could fill volumes, and they have. Check these out for more information:
- Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety: Nourish Your Way to Better Mental Health in Six Weeks, by Drew Ramsey, M.D.
- Ayurveda for Depression: An Integrative Approach to Restoring Balance and Reclaiming Your Health, by L. Eduardo Cardona-Sanclemente
- How Come They’re Happy and I’m Not?: The Complete Natural Program for Healing Depression for Good, by Peter Bongiorno, ND
- How to Heal Yourself from Depression When No One Else Can: A Self-Guided Program to Stop Feeling Like Sh*t, by Amy B. Scher
- Yoga for Depression: A Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering Through Yoga, by Amy Weintraub
“While it may take dedication to embody the peace you seek, the glimpse of that peace can be enough to fuel you through the times you want to give up,” adds Kress.