Almost 19 million American adults suffer from some form of depression. Marked by feelings of worthlessness or deep sadness, apathy, irritability, sleep disturbances, and changes in appetite, depression can be transient, seasonal, or long-term. Yet, while prescriptions for pharmaceutical antidepressants are at an all-time high, it has been shown that these drugs often do not work any better than placebo in all but the most severe cases. The good news is there are many natural strategies to help lift you out of the doldrums.
While there isn’t one specific diet to ease the symptoms of depression, what you eat can make a difference. Sugar, caffeine, and alcohol can contribute to depression, as can an undiagnosed food allergy. However, a recent study shows that eating a diet rich in whole foods instead of the “Standard American Diet” can slash your risk of depression by up to 30 percent. The Mediterranean diet is also shown to help prevent and treat both anxiety and depression. Build your diet around fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and plenty of omega-3 rich fish. Foods boasting high levels of the B vitamins, particularly folate, have also been shown to relieve symptoms of depression. Good sources include tuna, salmon, avocados, bananas, mangoes, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, poultry, and meat.
While not a magic bullet, increasing the amount of physical activity you get is a positive and active strategy to help manage depression and anxiety. Studies show that 30 minutes of exercise three to five days a week can significantly improve the symptoms of depression, but even 10 minutes of activity several times a day can improve your mood. A regular workout increases endorphins, one of the body’s “feel good” chemicals, and helps relieve the stagnant feeling that often accompanies depression. Mental exercise, in the form of meditation or deep breathing, can also raise your spirits by reducing anxiety and stress. Healthy sleep patterns are also a major factor affecting mood. Finally, help banish depression by consciously looking for life’s positive aspects instead of focusing on the negative; Building a support system can help.
5-HTP: is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Research suggests that a daily dose of 5-HTP can reduce anxiety and sleeplessness while boosting your sense of well-being. One Swiss study found it to be more effective than the antidepressant Luvox for mild to moderate depression. But a word of caution: it is best to work with a knowledgeable practitioner if you are to use 5-HTP with other mood supports like St. John’s Wort or SAMe. Typical dosage: 300 mg per day. An alternative to 5-HTP is L-tryptophan, an amino acid that is able to convert to 5-HTP, and then to serotonin. Serotonin is involved in mood, appetite, sleep, and impulse control. Typical dosage: 500 to 1,000 mg taken in the evening.
Gingko biloba: works by increasing the number of serotonin receptor sites in the brain. A study of 16 patients taking a standard antidepressant drug by the Psychiatric University Hospital in Basle, Switzerland, found that gingko significantly improved quality of sleep and cognitive ability after only eight weeks. Typical dosage: 40 to 80 mg taken two to three times per day.
SAMe: (technically known as S-Adenosyl-Methionine) is a naturally-occurring compound that is necessary for the manufacture of brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine. An open, multi-center study of 195 patients at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston found that depressive symptoms improved within two weeks when 400 mg of SAMe was taken. Another recent study found that SAMe even helps ease depression in people who don’t respond to pharmaceutical antidepressant drugs. One study suggests SAMe may even work faster than the standard 6 to 12 weeks a depression sufferer needs to wait for the effect of an antidepressant. Typical dosage: 800 to 1,600 mg daily for up to six weeks.
St. John’s Wort: targets depression by inhibiting the breakdown of serotonin. One recent double-blind study in Germany tested 126 patients taking St. John’s wort along with 114 taking Prozac, and found both groups achieved similar improvement. Yet the side effects for those taking the herb were only 8 percent compared to 23 percent for those patients taking Prozac. Another clinical trial of 324 patients found that St. John’s wort was just as effective as the antidepressant drug imipramine; better tolerated, and better for relieving anxiety. Typical dosage: 300 to 400 mg two to three times per day.
Vitamin D: is principally made in your body when the skin is exposed to ultraviolet light from the sun. Vitamin D is both a vitamin and a hormone, and has multiple effects in the body. In some circles, vitamin D is called ‘the happy vitamin’ plays important roles in your mood. Selected populations may be especially prone to low vitamin D. These include the elderly who have an increased incidence of low vitamin D, and patients with seasonal affective disorder who do not respond to light therapy. In the largest vitamin D study of 1282 older adults, mean levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D were 14% lower in those with minor and major depression compared with controls. In another small study, 44 healthy participants were randomly assigned to 5 days of treatment with 400 or 800 IU of vitamin D3 or placebo during winter months. Compared with placebo, both doses of the vitamin increased positive affect and decreased negative affect.