5 alternative treatments for depression
Here are five of the best natural approaches that can effectively help manage depression
Mental health is very important and a particularly relevant topic these days. Talk therapy, exercise, dietary changes, Vitamin D and botanical medicine are all successful alternative treatments for depression.
Let me start by stating that seeking help, whether for physical or mental health concerns, is a smart choice and a very brave one. America’s spirit of rugged individualism makes us world-leading innovators, but it is also harmful in that it can also make us reluctant to ask for help. As a culture, we are getting much better at talking about mental health issues like depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc. Together, we can continue that progress. If you are hurting, talk to someone and keep talking until you get the help you need.
The squeaky wheel, indeed, gets the grease. I have told countless patients that the so-called “problem patient” is the one who gets the best result. These patients keep asking questions until they understand what is going on; they bring in scientific articles, and they trust their gut when something is wrong. These patients usually find a holistic provider who will spend the time to find answers and will work in partnership with them. These patients include you.
While this article should not replace the advice of your doctor or counselor, I applaud anyone seeking answers and resources. This is not meant to demonize medication because often it is an important part of a treatment approach; however, research suggests that the best results are achieved using a combination of approaches (with or without medication). That said, here are five well-researched and effective natural treatments for depression.
Counseling or therapy is my number one suggestion for working through depression because it is generally regarded as the most effective single approach. Research suggests that a combination of several approaches almost always yields the best outcomes for patients. Find someone you trust and schedule a regular time each week or each month to discuss your feelings. Mental health professionals are trained to help you work through emotional challenges. One of my favorite counseling approaches is CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy. It helps you work through ingrained thought patterns and gives you concrete steps to heal. Therapy is not just a place to show up and vent during each session. Therapy should be a place where you get the tools to understand your emotions and manage them more effectively. We hire realtors to help us buy houses, contractors to help us renovate, and accountants for our taxes. Why, then, do we think we can (and sometimes must) handle emotional challenges without help? It is because there is still a stigma surrounding mental health that we need to confront and eliminate. Admitting you are struggling is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of strength.
I don’t really like the word “exercise.” I typically call it “physical activity” instead because that makes us think of things we enjoy instead of the chore that is exercise. This is one of the most underrated ways to improve mental health for a variety of reasons. Exercise increases our endorphins or the feel-good hormones in the brain. There is a well-documented phenomenon called, “runner’s high.” Exercise improves our cardiovascular and respiratory fitness, boosts the immune system, relieves stress, and can help give us better sleep. When we exercise outside, we also get the benefit of vitamin D and time in nature.
There is a famous Japanese study regarding “forest bathing” – basically walking in a forest. Participants who walked in a natural setting showed a greater reduction in stress markers (blood pressure, cortisol levels, etc.) than those walking in an urban setting. Physical activity is anything that moves the body – dancing, gardening, walking, jogging, playing on the playground with your kids, hiking, biking, doing laps around your office building during lunch, etc. Find movement you enjoy and do it on a regular basis; this can do great things to boost mood. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week.
This is a rather large category, so that I will focus on a few key things. Neurotransmitters (the signals in our brains) are built from protein. If you are not eating enough high-quality protein (or not digesting it well), your body may become deficient, thereby causing depression. High carb (high glycemic) meals can cause blood sugar fluctuations. We get a sugar high and a sugar crash, and our mood goes on that rollercoaster. Eating complex carbs (brown rice, quinoa, squash, sweet potato, oatmeal, etc.) instead of simple carbs (white flour, white sugar, processed food) helps keep our blood sugar stable. Starting your day with protein has this same effect. Finally, healthy fats (good cholesterol) are also a crucial part of a balanced diet. Free-range eggs, grass-fed butter, and avocado are great sources of healthy fats. Cholesterol is the precursor for all sex hormones (estrogen, testosterone, etc.), and hormonal imbalances can cause mood disruptions
Check your Vitamin D status
Vitamin D is strongly correlated with mood. Living in the Midwest, most people become deficient in Vitamin D during the winter because the sun is too low in the sky to allow us to produce it in our skin. Many patients benefit from supplementation during the winter months but make sure you get your vitamin D levels checked before taking them. Remember that getting sun exposure in the warmer months allows your body to produce Vitamin D for free. While getting labs, you might as well check your cholesterol (lipid panel), blood sugar (HbA1c), and complete blood count (CBC). Anemia can cause depression or worsen it, blood sugar fluctuations can wreak havoc on mood, and low or high cholesterol can be problematic for the body.
Many herbs help boost mood. St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is the most well-known, but other herbs can be helpful as well. I often use adaptogens (herbs that support the adrenal glands and stress response) in patients experiencing anxiety and depression. It is important to work with a knowledgeable practitioner rather than figure out herbal medicine independently. I frequently remind patients that herbs can be dangerous – just because it is natural, does not mean it is innocuous. Certain herbs interact with medications and can be especially hazardous. Anyone taking an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), commonly prescribed for anxiety and depression, needs to be particularly aware of known herb-drug interactions. Find a reputable herbalist, naturopathic doctor, functional medicine practitioner, or holistic primary care provider to help you navigate the world of herbal medicine. Your natural practitioner can also help make sure you are taking high-quality herbal supplements and dosing them frequently enough to be effective.
Ask for help, speak up when you are hurting, and keep going until you get answers that adequately address your concerns. Many alternative approaches can help with depression, and your mental health is worth the effort to find the ones that work for you.